Creating a High-Performance culture: Powerful systems or empowered people?

One of my new partners, Dragonfly Training, has the same idea as me. Call it the belief that there is some form of logical progression between being a child and being an adult and that the world of schooling and world of work have something to offer each other. Turns out they do.

This theme will be familiar to readers who have taken an interest in my ongoing ruminations with conversational leadership specialist David Gurteen and the use of cutting-edge Knowledge Management to co-create organisational culture, ethos and values.

With this connection between business and education in mind, Dragonfly recently staged two unique events, one in London and one Cardiff, lead by two exceptional men with vastly different backgrounds, approaches, experiences and personalities, both of them passionate firebrands in their respective fields.

Matt & Jamie

Matt Messias, formerly (in)famous Premiership and FIFA Referee, is now a mental health coach and international leadership trainer, who has been coaching children since he was 18 and has headteacher experience here and in New Zealand. Jamie Hayes is a pharmacist, Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, an executive coach and speaker with a twenty-five-year career in healthcare and medical education.

Apparently, the first meeting between these two was akin to mixing nitrogen and glycerin in a glass bottle and shaking it hard. Yesterday, I attended the second course that harnessed that explosive energy into a firing-on-all-pistons inspiring and thought-provoking experience for a range of delegates from education, private and public organisations and businesses.  No summary would do this event justice. But I do want to share a couple of key items I took away.

Human relationships and systems

I’m waddling into dangerous ground here because the following could be misinterpreted as proposing that, as a leader, you should have no systems or routines in place in your organisation, whether it’s a hospital or a school. That’s not what is being said. But, what I did take away from Jamie and Matt is almost as radical. That those systems should be at the absolute bottom of your priority pile. Your systems run in the background, churning over day-to-day menial tasks so you can keep your mind free, serving you relevant information that you pull out only when you need it as just one (small) piece of the bigger decision-making puzzle. My latest engagement with the brilliant people at Educating Excellence has really stirred some thoughts about how data should be used to empower, but all to often takes away power.

So, if we are not ‘data driven,’ what should the driver be? That’s actually framing the question wrong, which was a whole other tangent in the session.  Hint: It’s not what, but who. The answer is of course: The human beings who turn your institution from being a building full of people who are not allowed to leave when they want into a thriving learning community they want to be a part of. Yes, shocking in the world of accountability-manic education; but nevertheless the same was outlined by Sir David Carter six months ago, and he is no small fish in the sea of education. Jamie shared an anecdote about the importance of the human element from the NHS that stuck with me: Research studies have thoroughly demonstrated that negative behaviour among staff is detrimental to the healing process of the patients. As he dryly noted, “Who would have thought?”

As you read this, please keep in mind that Matt and Jamie were presenting examples from the highest performing organisations in the world of sports, aviation and health care – all high stake sectors, just in case you, as a school leader, think nobody appreciates the pressure you get from Ofsted. Their case studies involved plane crashes and patients dying on operating tables. Failure did not mean being banned from your profession, but a potential prison sentence. Given the free-fall of the education system, we should be paying attention to lessons learned in organisations which have managed to prevent repeated death and disaster.

The current buzzword in the coaching/business sector these days is apparently ’psychological safety’, but we all know what it means in a professional context. “Safety.” Or “Trust.” Or “Feeling respected.” Or “Being appreciated.” Take your pick. And what’s the single biggest key to success? “Relationship building.” What is the best leadership structure? “Flat.” And, how many times did Jamie say “These are not wishy-washy propositions, and any organisation that ignores them does so at its own peril”?  Well, now we know why we are haemorrhaging teachers, why our results are so poor in spite of the continuous manipulation of tests and test results and why we have a slew of the goose-stepping variety of former superstar Multi Academy Trusts accused of corruption and malpractice.

Answering back

With malpractice in mind, here’s one of the reasons why it is good to flatten leadership structures. The Kegworth plane crash, in which more than a hundred people were killed or seriously injured, happened because the pilot mixed up which engine was malfunctioning and switched the healthy one off. Yet, the staff and the passengers all knew which of the two engine was making trouble from hearing the noise and seeing the smoke coming out of it through the windows. They just didn’t want to break the chain of command, automatically assuming the pilots were aware which engine was malfunctioning. So, the pilots switched of the only engine that work and crashed into the M4. That horrific failure lead to some hard thinking in the aviation sector, which means that now, even if an airport baggage handler without a grade 4 pass in Maths and English sees something he thinks is amiss with a plane, he can flag it up and be taken seriously, immediately. If that baggage-handlers dog sees something, it can flag it up. 

Similar flattened structures have been put in place in the health sector, where the all-powerful, ego-tripping surgeon of old has suffered the same indignity of having to draw nurses and anaesthetics specialists into the way he conducts himself in the operating theatre. Who will be next? Your CEO, God forbid?! If you still don’t like the thought of flat leadership, then do ask yourself, as Jamie did us: As a passenger or patient, would you like the baggage handler or nurse to flag up a problem? These days, when education is turned into a business like any other, perhaps drawing on the frontline specialists (e.g. teachers) is a better approach to improved customer service than online parent satisfaction surveys? Not only do you get an improved and more responsive system, but you get staff who feel valued and treasured. What’s not to like?

And it’s not just listening to the teachers, or just the support staff, or just the parents. Not the students, even. As a matter of fact, I related to fellow delegates my memory of Glenn Russell of Stalham Academy passing a janitor hard at work and actually stopping to have a conversation about kids and life on our way to a big parents meeting. I knew then and there that this was the man who truly understood Cooperative Learning and could take the school forward. Relationship building, remember? From being in Special Measures in 2015, Stalham achieved 90% combined in 2017 and remains to this day a virtual Mecca for schools East Anglia. (Read some of Glenn’s first impressions of the school).

Stop lying and give something back

From the world of sports Matt Messias presented us with the All Blacks. For those who, like me, have no clue, the New Zealand All Blacks “are the most successful international men’s rugby side of all-time” undefeated in over 75% of their international matches over the last 100 years. So there.

Looking at the above picture in this day and age, I think many would kind of be expecting a competition-based warrior culture of hyper-masculine super-egos. Couldn’t be more wrong. So, are they a selection of the world’s best Rugby players? No – they have a stated policy called Whanau which excludes highly talented prima-donnas. Are they obsessed with error margin improvement? No. The concept of marginal gains is just a baseline that runs through everything they do. SO, do they worship at the feet of performance management algorithms? No, data is just a tool. But they must live in fear in a remorseless accountability culture, surely? Nope. Not that either. (That’s for UK’s underperforming schools to further decrease their chances of success).

No, the best Rugby team in the world, operate on principles such as Whakapapa – being a good ancestor, “planting trees you will never see” – phrased as “Leave the jersey a better place” You are obliged know and honour the people who had that number before you and to understand you are just a link in a long chain. Players take part in rituals, where you celebrate the people who have made a difference in your life and helped you get to where you are now (teachers apparently figuring large here, I imagine I heard!) You are not an isolated incident, you are a part of something.

And, here’s another one useful for those 300K per anno trust leaders who no longer make the TES headlines for their brilliant results but for their corruption: Sweep the shed. No-one cleans up the changing room after the bigshot players. They do that themselves.  Matt explained how, upon winning, players are not allowed the all-night celebratory binge, but travel up and down NZ serving – yup, we are down under – barbecue to children’s rugby teams, with their own hands. Get humble and share your success.

The bottom line is Jamie’s unequivocal statement that “Culture precedes success.” Their culture is a culture of character building, commitment and collaboration. A perception of continuum in time and connection of the space they inhabit. I am going to pick up Kerr’s Legend from Jamie’s copious list of recommended reading.

* * *

Jamie Hayes tweets at @coachingchemist. Visit

Matt Messias tweets at @MessiasMatt. Visit is the business end of

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