Women Leading with Confidence is one of the DfE funded programmes to develop more women leading in education. This week I was invited along to facilitate one of their twilight training sessions with a group of 16 women who are in leadership, in West Sussex, but who want to hone their skills to progress to their next step in their career.
I love arriving early and observing the space. There was a positive buzz in the room as everyone entered and re-connected, sharing updates on the impact of the programme – one had an interview for Assistant Headteacher the next day, two had been shortlisted for the same Deputy Headship role that week and another had an application in for Headship. I received a warm welcome from the team at the Millais Teaching School Alliance who had invited me along.
I tapped into this energy as I opened the session and asked everyone to introduce themselves by their name and the role they aspired to. I read the room as a few of the group wriggled in their seat, squirmed in their skin and looked increasingly uncomfortable with this invitation. I went around the room one by one, some looked me in the eye and said with a smile what role they wished for, with one even saying to ultimately be a CEO of their own trust! Whilst others fumbled their words and verbally went around in circles, I pressed them for an answer which most could eventually articulate. I then addressed the elephant in the room by asking a series of questions: How did that instruction make you feel? Why were you embarrassed to articulate your career goals? Why were you uncomfortable to show that you are ambitious? Why is it often hard for women to articulate our career goals? We reflected openly on the fear of judgement from others that we feel in expressing our professional desires. I think they all realised 10 minutes into the session that I was not going to let them sit in the shadows during the session, I was going to keep them on their toes and push them out of other comfort zones.
We next considered how we prepare to apply for a promotion, but I framed it around the relationship that we have with our self. We unpacked our ‘self-talk’ and I shared a trick I learned to address our ‘inner-critic’ (you name it and directly address it to diminish it). We reflected on the gender ‘confidence gap’ and discussed the ‘imposter syndrome’ and how it inhibits us. I referenced the ‘glass ceiling’ women experience due to systemic, structural and societal barriers but asked them to think about their own ‘inner glass ceilings’ too. I reflected on the research that shows that women often don’t get promoted because they have self-sabotaged and self-deselected so they are not even in the running. Yes, there are blocks out there for us to learn how to navigate, but we need to not put our own blocks in our path to progression too!
When considering where to apply and which role/context to select, I encouraged them to consider their ‘non-negotiables’ and their ‘core values’. These two checklists should be the success criteria that we use when assessing if an opportunity if the right fit. For example, my core values are Diversity, Equality and Wellbeing – so I would not apply for a role if I knew the team did not reflect the community it served, if male peers promoted over women and if staff were not healthy/ happy. Or I would apply for a role, knowing they were an issue but laying these needs out on the table and offering solutions I could bring to the school to fix such issues. My non-negotiables are how far I am prepared to travel to work, what salary I am prepared to take home, that I am outward-facing and tweet/ blog/ speak at events, that I need my own office and that I want some opportunities for flexible working – if an organisation cannot offer these things, I would not apply for/ accept a role. There is nothing wrong in knowing who you are, what you need, what brings you joy and what enables you to thrive. The more aware we are of these parameters, the more able we are to communicate our needs and have them met. Furthermore, we discussed how to do the due diligence on the prospective employer -yes reviewing the website, social media and latest inspection reports are useful, but the soft data is as important, the word of mouth from friends of friends. I taught them a trick for using LinkedIn to see how long people stay at the school/ in their position.
Moving on to the application itself, we discussed how to use the job advert, application pack, job description and personal specification as resources. As an English teacher, I love a highlighter, and I will not only annotate these documents to structure my application, but I will equally mirror specific language back to the recruiter. They need to hear in my narrative how and where I am aligned to the vision, values, culture, ethos and journey the school has been on. When drafting the application letter I advised the following tips: be concise, be personal, be specific, be confident, use assertive language, use more ‘I’ versus ‘We’ and show your impact throughout supporting evidence and data. Women often undersell themselves in an application letter by diminishing their accomplishments, moreover, a woolly statement will bury great work under waffle. Personal touches like knowing the name of the Headteacher, speaking to the mission statement, engaging with the values and demonstrating alignment make an application stand out. Alongside the application, I encouraged everyone to get into the habit of regularly updating their CVs to capture their skills development and leadership experience. I have done this every year throughout my career to keep it fresh, it also means I do not forget the responsibilities I have had, the CPD I have attended and the impact I have had. This is especially important if you have stayed in a role/ school for a long time.
Furthermore, your CV can be reflected interactively in your social media profiles. I shared anecdotes about how I use LinkedIn to find roles for, to find roles for others and to recruit my own team. Other professions use LinkedIn really well for curating career narratives – you can add in a blurb to capture your current role, but also indicate the role you aspire to, you can add professional skills and be endorsed for them, you can ask for testimonials from former colleagues – these aspects bring your CV to life and make you stand out. Moreover, they enable you to network with like-minded people. When I was looking for Headship out of region, I connected with Headteachers, Directors of Education, Chairs of Governors, CFOs and Directors of HR in the region I wanted to move to. I built my network, so when I secured a role, I already had professional contacts in the area I was relocating to. There is also a handy option to allow recruiters to discretely know you are looking for your next role. If you are leaving a school-based role there are some applications which will draw down your profile and populate an application for you. I have applied for jobs in 5-10 mins before!
My next piece of advice was centred around how you prepare for interview. The pre-visit is an essential component for leadership roles, and vital for Headship. There is research that suggests that more male than female candidates invest in the pre-interview opportunity to visit a school, thus giving them a heads’ up in the recruitment process as they are more visible and are already ahead of the group before the interview proper begins. Schools cannot always accommodate a host of dates/ times, so if they have limited availability negotiate this with your current employer as part of their support in your application. What you wear to the pre-visit is important too, remember to dress for the role you want, not for the role you are in! This opportunity to meet some of the team, see the school ahead of the process enables you to gather more soft intelligence, also to meet some of the wider school staff, you need to make yourself stand out so that you are remembered and the informal feedback is positive about you. A warm smile, acknowledging everyone you meet, a strong handshake, are all important first impressions, no matter how nervous you are feeling. Take a book and make notes of what you notice, jot down questions you want to ask when you return or things you want to go away and think about or research into.
So, by this point in the process you are ready for your interview. I want to emphasise that interviews are a 2-way process. A job offer needs to be a 2-way fit. I know a lot of people get really nervous at interview as they feel scrutinised and like they are under a spotlight. Reverse this thinking, re-imagine that it is you interviewing your future employer, it is you asking them questions and putting them through their paces instead! Your notebook is key – by this stage in the process, there will be several pages of notes and research, you will have a list of questions, a list of things to find out, a reminder of your core values and non-negotiables. Do not be afraid to have your book with you, in your hand and to make notes as the process pans out. If I write it down I know that I am more likely to remember it, and it helps me reflect, focus and slow down. The other thing to remember is that the interview is only one component of the process, the other components are of equal importance. You are being assessed on your leadership technical skills and your leadership behaviours. We are in control of what we know, the experiences we have had and the narrative that we share. We need to be in control of how we present, how we interact and how we perform.
So, what you wear is important. Selecting your interview outfit is part of the process and if you are going for a big role you might need multiple outfits! (I once had a 3 day interview for Headship, so I had to pack 3 sets of everything!) It might sound silly but wear what makes you feel good, what is comfortable and what will give you that confidence boost. I like matching underwear but I know some people have a pair of lucky pants. I have a charm bracelet that I wear on important occasions, to bring me luck. My work uniform is always a smart dress, opaque tights, a pair of flat pumps and a blazer, which I will take but not always wear. I wouldn’t start wearing heels nor a suit to an interview as it does not reflect who I am. I also often wear bold colours, which at interview helps you stand out from the crowd. Remember to pack essentials like a spare pair of tights, sanitary products, some stationery, some water and some headache tables – all the little things which might derail you should you need them on the day and do not have them on you.
Wearing an outfit that makes you both look and feel the part, will impact your presence. When it is a multi-day process, and there is a large group to start the Apprentice-style knock out process, you need to be aware of the power dynamics in the group/ room and make sure your status holds your space in the process. Be aware of: what you say, how you say it, what you don’t say, what you are thinking and feeling, what your face is saying, ask questions and try not to be intimidated by the louder, more confident candidates. It does not mean they are stronger than you! Take a moment to leave the room, collect your thoughts, do some mindfulness to hold yourself together if you need to. A task that can be difficult is the ‘Fish Bowl’ exercise. As a woman try to hold back from being the scribe, ensure that you are not ‘mansplained’ and that you get your voice heard. A tip is to listen and summarise what is being said, also to invite those who are being quiet in the process to contribute their ideas. Be aware of who is standing/ sitting and how loud voices are as it is easy to get lost in this task. Sometimes the loudest, most confidence voices take the whole group in the wrong direction, be prepared to stand your ground and propose different angles.
If everything in the process has gone well, you then get to the stage of offer but more importantly to the stage of negotiation. Please don’t give your power away when they offer you the job and say ‘yes!’ impulsively because you are so flattered and relieved! Pause and leverage your power to negotiate for what you need to enable you to flourish in the role. How you compose yourself at this point sets the tone for your leadership style as you transition into a new role and a new organisation. Do you want them to think you are a pushover or that you do not value the skillset that you are bringing? It is tempting to take the call in the car, as you are rushing through the door, but make sure you are composed and in a calm environment to leverage your wish list. Remember to have your book in your hand when they call you and recap what has been discussed so you know the full offer. I know so many women who accept the promotion but do not even know the salary! You need to ask for what you need and I have negotiated throughout my career the following: salary; remit; timetable/ release time; flexibility; office; devices e.g. phone/ laptop; admin support; CPD e.g. NPQs, coaching or supervision; relocation. Each thing I asked for has made my life easier and added value to my role, negotiation is not just about financial value.
At this stage, you may be disappointed to discover that you have not been successful. My advice is to celebrate the the process and to ask for feedback to enable you to grow. So, we need to celebrate the small wins: being longlisted; being shortlisted; being at day 1; being at day 2; being offered the right role; being offered the right package. When you have prepared so hard and emotionally invested it is gutting to be disappointed but we need to be resilient and we need to bounce back. Again, there is research to show the quicker recovery rate of male applicants versus female applicants when applications are unsuccessful. To stereotype, men brush themselves off and get back on the horse, they move on to the next opportunity and put it down to experience. Women tend to take it more personally and feel wounded, then take longer to reapply for another role. I personally see applications/ interviews as great CPD and as an opportunity to shine, it is like playing a game, with myself and I get a kick from the sense of competition. The irony is that there have been jobs that I am less emotionally invested in, and these are the processes where I perform better and have been offered a role that I have later declined, sometimes caring less about the outcome enables us to be our best.
My biggest learning from all of my applications and interviews throughout my career, has been to be my authentic self. The stars will align and at various points in my career I have been the right person, at the right time, in the right place, for the right role in the right school, in the right MAT, but there are a lot of variables at play in that process! Some people resources I have found helpful are: Amy Cuddy, Arianna Huffington, Brene Brown, Diana Osagie, Dr Jill Berry, Lolly Daskal and Sheryl Sandberg. I recommend googling their books/ TED talks. Some events that have been helpful include: ASCL/ Ambition School Leadership women only NPQs, the Leading Women’s Alliance, #WomenEd and the DfE Women Leading in Education programmes (this being one of them!) and the aspiring women CEO programme. Some books I highly recommend include: The Leadership Gap, The Confidence Code, On Becoming Fearless, Making the Leap and Courageous Leadership. Other resources that are helpful include: the DfE Coaching Pledge and the Dove Self-esteem Project (aimed at girls but helpful learning for adults too).
If my session and my blog have been helpful I would suggest the following next steps: work on yourself, reflect on your triggers, develop self-care and draft your lists. To get out of your comfort zone: create a vision board, dress for the job you want, RAG rate the JD/ PS above you and practise your Power Pose in the shower and your daily affirmations in the mirror! As the Women Leading with Confidence course draws to a close consider: How confident were you at the start of the course? How confident are you now in the middle of the course? How confident would you like to be in the future?