The following captures the thoughts of Catherine O’Kane, Principal of All Hallows’ School, Brisbane. She covers a range of career and professional development topics, as recorded during a question and answer session with Trak Search. This conversation is part of a series targeted for leaders and aspiring leaders with the information best used in conjunction with discussions with a person’s manager/supervisor. Catherine’s biography is shown at the end of this interview.
The first question Catherine is about your career. Has your career been planned or have things happened in an unplanned, ad hoc manner?
I would say that it has happened more in an unplanned, ad hoc manner. That said, I think I was quite strategic about making my own opportunities within the ad hoc way that it developed. I didn’t have this overriding goal that I was going to be a Principal, but one position led to another and I developed skills and abilities. I was the Head of IT; then I was Deputy Principal – Studies; and then once I’d been in the Deputy Studies for about seven years I thought I had developed the skills and experience to start applying for Principal positions. So while at the beginning I didn’t aspire necessarily to be a Principal, the way that my career evolved I just kept taking the next step in my career as opportunities became available. The latter part probably has been a lot more planned than the beginning part.
People often hear that they should have long term career goals and can feel inadequate if they don’t have it planned out. What advice would you give to people like you – you had a direction, but you didn’t have it planned as such?
I would say make sure you make your own opportunities. I moved around to a lot of different schools because my husband is a primary school Principal. We moved a lot – moving from bigger school to bigger school. But no matter what school I was in I looked for projects I could do and be responsible for as leader. So, without being in leadership positions, I was always looking for what was the next thing that I could do for the students in that school or for the staff in that school and I was leading projects. So that when I did have the opportunity to apply for a middle leader position I had run a lot of projects myself, without being in a designated leadership position.
What has been the biggest adversity in your career that you can share with us?
When my children were young I had worked in probably four different schools and then had the opportunity to go and lecture in China. My husband and I went and lectured in China for a year and we came back and lived on Thursday Island where my husband was Principal.
So there I was sitting on Thursday Island and thinking about my career. I’d been a business teacher, so had started off teaching shorthand and typing on manual typewriters. Shorthand was already gone and manual typewriters were on the way out and computers were coming in – this was in the mid-90s. I’d also had this unusual experience in China and was a qualified Chinese teacher, having taught Chinese for a year.
So I’m sitting on Thursday Island with my two small children, not working, and I thought, “I just can’t see Chinese taking off that quickly”. And I knew that business teaching was changing so much and so I asked myself “What am I going to do with this career of mine?”
It was then I decided to do my Masters in IT. In order to address the adversity of not being able to see a career path for myself, I did my Masters in IT. We then moved from Thursday Island to Mount Isa and I went there as the person running a network for one of the two state high schools – this was not a designated leadership position but I was given some time release to manage the school network. When we came back to Brisbane I was appointed as the Head of IT at St Rita’s College, Clayfield and from being the Head of IT I moved to Deputy Principal and then to Principal here at All Hallows’. This all happened because I had made that decision on Thursday Island.
So what’s the learning from that you could pass on to others?
It would be look at what’s coming, what’s in the future for education. Don’t look only at what’s happening today in education. It would not have been enough for me to say “Oh well, I trained in business and I’ve done a bit of retraining now in Chinese”. My belief was that this was not going to see me through for the rest of my career, I had to do something different.
It was very challenging, in 1996 we didn’t have internet in the house on Thursday Island and so to do the study I actually had to go to the school and use the school internet, because that was one of the few places on the island that had the internet. It was a great experience, I loved the course and I got my Masters of Education in Information Technology. That was the stepping stone. If I hadn’t done that on Thursday Island I don’t believe I would be here as Principal.
In terms of the future for education: what are the types of things then that aspiring leaders should be considering as they try to look ahead in such a fast-changing world?
I would say one of the key ways is reading; so have a look at the literature that is coming out about the future. At the moment, I think one of the emerging issues that will influence education is what the world of work is going to be looking like for young people.
I was talking to someone last week about my Open Day address which will be pitched to children who are probably from age one to five. Girls who are five now will be in Year 12 with us in 2029, so I need to be talking about 2030 in my Open Day address. What is the literature saying about what’s 2030 going to look like?
What does that future look like and what impact has it for aspiring leaders: when they’re looking at the projects they need to be suggesting to the senior and middle leaders within their school, is it pitched around the future? If they’re aspiring leaders they’ve got to be ready for 2020 or 2025 in the work they’re doing, not something that somebody else implemented back in 2010.
I’d like to talk about communication. I’m interested in the practices, the types of things you do to connect with all the various stakeholders or interest groups within your school community.
My whole approach has been about relationships. I believe that for a new Principal coming in to any school it is about relationship, relationship, relationship. I looked, right from the beginning, for ways that I could develop relationships with all of these important groups.
For the students, I run a series of morning teas. In term one I have every Year 12 girl in for morning tea; term two is Grades 5 and 6; term three is Year 7; and term four I have the Year 12s back for what I call ‘memory morning tea’, where they talk about their five or eight years at All Hallows’. I have eight morning teas in a term, because the girls are divided into eight houses. In this way, for 20 minutes, every girl in these year levels gets to come into my office reception area and to have a conversation about what is happening in their House and year level.
I also have a particular focus question for each group – for example, for the Year 5 and 6 morning tea this year I am asking them for their ideas about how schooling could be improved for the better by 2030 – their ideas have been very interesting and I am planning to use some of their responses in my Open Day address. We provide packets of Tiny Teddies and disposable cups in house colours and the girls love it. I also do student leader lunches and am very disciplined about attending sport, music and co-curricular activities. If there’s something on, I’ll attend. With a school of this size (1550 students) it does mean that I attend a lot of functions but this also gives me the opportunity to meet parents which is a bonus.
I’ve then set up a system with the parent groups. We’ve got a P&F, a Mother’s Network, a Past Pupils’ Association and nine Parent Support Groups, so a total of 12 parent groups. I go to the meetings of the P&F, Mothers’ Network and the Past Pupils’. I’ll be at the parent/teacher meetings that are coming up next week and the week after; and then again in June. We also have a number of events throughout the year that are run by the Mother’s Networks, P&F functions and Past Pupils’ functions and reunions – attending them is one of the best parts of my job as it a great opportunity to make connections with parents.
There would not be many spare slots in your calendar?
No there’s not! But I felt that for the first few years that I was here it was essential that I take every opportunity to meet as many members of the community as possible and to learn about the many events that occur throughout the year. For the staff, I try to get to the staffroom for lunch as often as I can. I would say I make it maybe two or three days a week. I’m not there for a terribly long time. It’s as simple as I go there, toast my sandwich and have a chat to whoever is in the lunch room at the time.
Do the staff take the opportunity to ask questions and have a chat?
Yes definitely, but a lot of the time it is just social. They’re just, “How’s your weekend?” or if it’s near holidays, “What are you doing for holidays?” I do try to make getting there a priority – I wouldn’t say I’m very good at it, but I try, so it’s always on my radar. And at lunchtime, I try to do a circuit where I go and cook my toast, eat my sandwich for ten minutes in the staffroom, and then I do a loop outside and try and see as many girls as possible.
The last time I was here I was surprised at the number of girls who came up and engaged with you – and you’d not been Principal here for very long.
They already knew by that stage that if I was outside and somebody walked towards me I would say, “Hello, how are you? How’s your day?” It is a special bonus if I know the girl’s name! I also say hello to every staff member by name – I believe that it’s an important way of showing that I value each and every person within the school. My goal when I started was that I would know every staff member’s name by the end of the second week. With 210 staff on the ground every day that’s a lot of people; and 150 more who are casual or coaching staff. But I think I did it (know all of the permanent staff by name) except for some staff who you just don’t see around very often.
So how did you go about doing that?
I had pages of staff names and I added their photos. I started here in the holidays, so I had two weeks of the holidays where every day I’d study the names and the photos. The holidays gave me time to learn the names of the small number of staff who work on the holidays and when the holidays ended I had memorised most of the other names. It took a fair bit of time but I think that it was time well spent – it meant a lot to people that I knew them by name fairly quickly.
What about building team capacity? How do you go about building the capacity of people on your team?
I would say one of the things that I’ve learnt is that the most important thing that I have to do is to be the leader of the leaders. I need to be very focused on developing the leadership team’s capabilities. They will then develop all the middle leaders that they work with so that our middle leaders develop the teachers and support staff.
I probably didn’t have a great understanding of that before I arrived. As a Deputy, I would have said that I was responsible for developing myself. I’m still a big believer that everybody is responsible for their own development, but I have to have this idea of being a ‘leader of leaders’ at the forefront of my leadership team’s understanding of their role as well. Much of what I do is coaching our leadership team.
Coming in new to the school, I didn’t know a lot about All Hallows’, only what is publicly known. I don’t think you can really know a school until you’re in it and I am still learning a lot about our school. In the first six months, I wasn’t doing any real development of the leadership team, because most of my time was spent listening to their explanation of their role and all of the information I needed about their area of the school. But when I look back I’m very pleased with the way this occurred because I spent a year listening to them and in that time we collaboratively developed our new strategic plan.
I have always been someone who is looking to the future and I see my role now is really about helping the leadership team to work in a strategic space which is about looking to what is needed to have our staff and students learning and teaching to the highest standards in five years and ten years’ time: “What have we got to be doing today to be where we want to be in five years’ time, given how quickly the pace of life is changing?”; and “How do we need to be developing as a leadership team?”
So what advice would you give to people about their own learning? You’ve talked about your responsibility, or a leader’s responsibility, being to develop other leaders, but what about self? What advice would you give aspiring leaders in terms of their own learning?
I think formal academic qualifications are very important. I think if you’re applying for positions, then having a university qualification is much more relevant than one- or two-day courses and conferences. And so often I’ll look at an application with a long list of courses attended and I’ll think “Well, you must always be out of your school”. Whereas you do a university qualification, it’s in your own time, but the learning that you get from that is, I believe, far far richer than a long list of courses and conferences and it actually leads to greater change in practice.
So I’d say formal qualifications, but it’s that importance too of self-reflection. If you reflect on what your skills and strengths are; and then look for opportunities to develop those areas that aren’t your strengths at the moment. It is about being self-reflective.
If we talk about PD: how would a person go about choosing their PD activities?
I think it is looking at both the areas of strength and areas where you need development. I think there are always emerging areas within education. So it’s looking at your strengths and whether there is something new that’s come along in that area that you need to continue learning about so that it continues to be your strength.
I think however that people are naturally attracted to learning more in areas they’re good at and it’s very easy for all of us to keep doing the things that we really like and are good at. I would caution however to make sure that you’re not just continually doing the things that you’re already very good at. Make sure that you’re also looking at the things that perhaps aren’t as strong for you and then access PD in those areas.
Often an Achilles Heel for a new Principal is the whole area of finance.
That’s the classic example, isn’t it? And governance is the other one, it’s that understanding of governance structure and what does it actually mean? The AICD five-day Company Director’s course is excellent for this.
It is expensive though
Yes it is expensive. One of things that can be done is to get onto a Board. I was on the Board at Iona College when I was a Deputy Principal at St Rita’s and while Iona didn’t put me through the course, I know now that they’re looking at this course for their Board members. If you can get onto a school board not only will you have the experience and learning as a Board member, you could also receive support for this course.
Now the Broken Bay Institute is running a course for AICD. I wish I’d waited six months so I could have done the Broken Bay course, but I did it at the beginning of last year before they had started. Broken Bay is now doing AICD specifically for Catholic ministries so it has a not-for-profit Board focus.
So that’s something you’d suggest people have a look at?
Absolutely. If you join AICD they offer finance modules that you can complete without doing the five day Director’s course.
What are you reading now?
I’m currently reading a book called Being 14 by Madonna King, who happens to be a parent here at All Hallows’. Madonna is a journalist, she’s written about seven books and this is her latest work. For the book Madonna interviewed 200 14 year olds and it’s about what it is like to be 14; the pressures and the things that have changed; what parents may not understand; and the influence of social media. It is a very relevant book for educators of girls and parents of girls.
I have just finished reading When Breath Becomes Air, which is about what really matters in your life. The author is a neurosurgeon who dies of lung cancer at the age of 38. Because he’s a neurosurgeon it’s all about the mind and the brain, but he also has a degree in literature from Cambridge, so he’s also a beautiful writer. It is quite a short book but it is very moving and powerful.
Wait, What? by James Ryan is also a book I would recommend. James is the Dean at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It is about the top five questions that you have to ask, and I think that questioning is a key skill in my job. This is a great book and takes no time at all to read. It is fabulous. I just think for aspiring leaders ‘questioning’ is such a big part of our job.
So what is the one book that you’d recommend to aspiring leaders?
I’d recommend Wait, What? definitely. When Breath Becomes Air is more about ‘what matters’ and it’s a really interesting perspective on what matters, which ironically is one of the five key questions in Wait, What?. And if they’re in a girls’ school and aspiring to be in a leadership role in a girls’ school, then Madonna King’s book is very relevant.
Which of your skills that you’ve developed have you found most useful?
Relationship-building and trust, and I’d have to say it wasn’t something that I was naturally good at. It was something that I developed over time after I realised that is what’s important to people.
I’m a very task-orientated person. When I started at St Rita’s as the Head of IT I wanted to get the IT working and working really well. I was task, task, task. Then after about two years I had my review and the feedback came back that, “It’s great, she knows all about IT, that’s fantastic. It’d just be nice if she just spoke to people about their holidays” or something like that and I went, “Oh wow”.
I thought people just wanted me to be very good at my job, but they actually wanted me to be good at my job and it didn’t really worry them if I’m not 100% on the job all of the time. They actually wanted to know something about me as well. And so I went, “Oh OK, I’ll work on this” and so I did really work on it. This changed the way that I thought about my role and what mattered the most.
Somebody had the courage to have the conversation with you?
Yes. I think they had to send in feedback anonymously and there were a couple of people who said it. It wasn’t anything nasty, it was just that, “She’s so task-orientated”. I can just remember going, “But I thought that’s what I was paid to be”.
It was a really important learning. When I became deputy I kept that in mind. When I came here to All Hallows’ I thought, yes, I could be 100% task focused and never get out of this office because I’m so busy getting through the tasks, but I knew that people actually want both.
How do you learn or develop that skill?
It’s not easy. I think I’m naturally quite an extrovert anyway; I don’t have a problem talking to people. My problem is more controlling my task-orientation. I see the biggest challenge, in a job as big as being Principal of All Hallows’, is that I know that every 15-minute conversation I have during the day will mean that I’m probably going to be making up that time that night. It is that balance of the time for relationships, which are really key to my success and the success of the school, against the time it takes to do the tasks of the job.
But particularly as a new principal, I knew in the beginning that I had to put so much time into relationships that the where and how I got all the tasks done, well that’s an issue I had to deal with. I had to be working on the relationships as my focus from the very start. And I really believe that people want both. I’m talking students, parents, past pupils, everybody who’s got a stake in the All Hallows’ community and our staff; they all want to have a relationship with the Principal.
I believe that the most important people at All Hallows’ is the staff. I can’t be everywhere, I can’t teach every girl. So every staff member, from support staff to teaching staff to sport staff, they are my representative to the girls and the parents. I have to put my time into having a relationship with them. Relationship and trust I would say are the biggest factors.
Is there a skill that you wish you were better at Catherine, something you would like to improve?
Questioning; I am working constantly to get better at questioning. I think I’m alright at it, but I really want to be better.
What do you mean by that?
Asking the right questions. We can all ask a whole lot of questions, but how do I know the right questions to ask and how do I ask the right questions, particularly of my leadership team, to find out what I need to know to help guide them to be even better at what they do.
I’ll give you an example – today [early in term 2] is the first day that the girls have sat on the newly remodelled grassed terrace. Since the end of last year the terrace has been a construction site. When we were having meetings in November 2016 to approve various aspects of the project, I approved that a particular grass called Super Sports Washed Turf would be laid as this is what was recommended by the landscape architect. During the construction phase I had been rather obsessed with when was the grass going to be laid because I assumed that it would only be a few weeks from being laid to being walked on. On the 29th of January when the grass was laid I went, “Great, grass is laid. Probably only two weeks now until we can be on the grass”.
No! Super Sports Washed Turf cannot be walked on for 12 weeks after laying. I gave approval to a grass product and I hadn’t asked the right questions. The question I should have asked was not, “When is it going to be laid?” but rather “When can we walk on it?” So, to me, this is a great example of asking the right question – a question where the answer had a significant impact on the project, the staff and the girls.
So the book ‘Wait, What?’ can help with developing this skill?
Yes. Only the other day I was trying to help someone make a decision. I said to them, “Tell me, what actually matters in this situation? What is at the heart of what we’re talking about?” This question allowed me to direct them back, so that the decision we ultimately made was about what really mattered.
Is there any other skill you’ve found important to work on?
In this role it is around delegation. I came from a school of 840 girls to a school of 1,550. A school of 840 runs very differently to a school of 1,550. I have worked on ensuring that I delegate so that my Leadership Team is responsible for all aspects of their folio; and I have worked to develop robust accountability measures to check-in on their responsibilities and achievement of strategic goals.
I’ve certainly learnt a lot in the two years and the learning is ongoing. It is also about helping my leadership team (and for them to help their teams) understand that notion of when you delegate.
When a person’s progressing in leadership, that’s a challenge they face at every step isn’t it as they need to rely more and more on people around them?
That’s right and that can be really tricky for emerging leaders – actually asking people to help.
So how do they start developing this skill?
I think it helps if you’re leading, you’ve got to be leading an innovation. Be that person who comes and says, “I’ve got this really great idea, what do you think? Can we run with it? Does it fit within the strategic direction of the school?” Put your ideas forward. When your idea is approved, once you’re leading the project: who are you delegating to? How are you making them understand their responsibilities? Then how are you checking on the accountabilities of your delegation?
You’ve talked about listening and learning when first appointed to leadership. What advice would you give to a newly appointed leader on their initial priorities?
I think it depends on the school and the school setting. When I came to All Hallows’ they had just completed a survey of parents. The feedback was clearly that All Hallows’ didn’t need a revolution, it didn’t want a revolution. But some people might have a very different experience where they’re appointed as Principal. Some new leaders have to enact radical changes right from the beginning.
So it’s context?
What I can speak about is this context of All Hallows’ and that my experience doesn’t apply to all contexts. My priorities were definitely relationship-building and in a school of this size that takes a lot of time. We have so many stakeholders: there are 3,000 parents to 1,500 girls; and we’ve got 22,000 past pupils because of our size and the age of the school (156 years old in 2017), it’s amazing.
As the incoming Principal, you also need to be open to all sorts of information and advice. One of the strangest pieces of advice that I got before I arrived here happened at our local café. My husband knows the owner well and mentioned to her that I’d just been appointed as the new Principal. The lady behind him in the queue for coffee overheard and tapped him on the shoulder and said, “I’m going to give her one piece of advice: she needs to learn the school song”.
When I heard this I initially dismissed it. But I kept thinking about it and eventually decided that there must be something in it for her to give such seemingly strange advice. What I then found out is that our school song is in Latin and it is very, very difficult.
And, of course, at the first assembly, there I was facing the whole school and we all sang the school song in Latin. I had learnt it so I’d actually been given an incredible piece of advice.
Any other advice or tips you can give to a newly appointed leader?
The best piece of advice I think I’ve ever been given is “panic slowly”. I do try and live by that, even when things are going not quite to plan. People get unsettled by a new Principal. I think that’s natural and certainly it was my experience. In the first six months we had some really unusual things happen that had to be responded to, both within the parent body and student body, and even staff. This advice is about not just jumping in. You’ve got to have a measured response to things. There’s very little that we deal with in schools that’s actually an emergency.
I’d also add ‘don’t crack under pressure’. So ‘panic slowly’ and ‘don’t crack under the pressure’. Newly appointed leaders have to remind themselves at times that they can do it; and that they have been appointed for a reason.
Any other practises you follow Catherine that you can share with a newly appointed or aspiring leader?
I think that self-reflection is a vital practice. The example I’ve mentioned about the school song and the coffee shop – I decided to learn the school song after reflection. Reflection is so important and at the end of every day I have a process of reflecting on the day, on what could I have done better; and I’ve found this to be very useful.
In my case I use the time in my car. Coming into school I do a series of steps in my mind; and going home I always do a self-reflection.
The other important aspect is to share your vision. Share your vision for where you see your school moving; where do you want to move people to. I was lucky in that Board held off the strategic planning process once the previous principal announced that she was leaving. I was able to lead the whole strategic planning process last year. This was the way to share a vision for where we’re going.
An introduction to Catherine O’Kane
Catherine is the second lay principal at All Hallows’ School and part of a long tradition of women leaders who have led the school since 1861. With almost 30 years’ experience as a teacher, Catherine is a respected educator and school leader. Prior to her commencement at All Hallows’ in June 2015, Catherine had been Head of ICT and Deputy Principal Studies at St Rita’s College, Clayfield, over a period of thirteen years.