Merger: a new emotional landscape

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 Mergers are happening all over the sector at the moment. In the first of a series of guest blogs Tom Jupp – former Principal of City and Islington College – reflects on his experience of creating the college out of four separate institutions and on his subsequent experience of other mergers. City and Islington College is now merging into a group structure with Westminster-Kingsway.

 

Make no mistake, when you step into a newly merging institution, you step into a new landscape. It’s a place where emotions run high and the weight of rationality and logic become diminished; a land where many people feel boundaries have dissolved; the future is foggy and the ground is moving under their feet. A place where people feel anxious, disorientated and experience a sense of loss and even grief. One indicator of all this is when people start saying, ’This isn’t a merger, it’s a takeover.’ Another is that anger wells to the surface quickly and inappropriately.

Two important points. Firstly, all this is normal and should be planned for as an important aspect of leadership through a merger. I certainly wasn’t ready for it and took too long to accept and work with it. It’s natural to see your role instead as one offering a firm and unwavering direction in this emotional and uncertain atmosphere; it’s tempting to tell people to be sensible or even shut up. Or, even worse, to disengage from the all this and work on organisational matters. The emotional temperature is high and this puts extra pressure on the leaders as well, but it cannot be ignored. Everyone is also looking for effective and strong leadership which they can trust.

Secondly, the leadership agenda in a merger is, for many, the problem and not the solution. The senior management agenda is about things like  setting up group-wide business support services; establish a group management structure; saving money; examining curriculum areas; reducing buildings: and all this in the context of a very uncertain future for FE. The problem is that this urgent organisational agenda for management is perceived by many as only having arisen because of the merger. You can argue much would have had to happen anyway, but lots of people don’t ‘feel’ this is really true.

There are a lot of things which need to be done urgently as a new college. But the trust required to do them has to be earned in a sceptical atmosphere. Leadership in this context calls for a lot of emotional intelligence, which I didn’t always show. I needed to think deeply and articulate the educational purposes for which I wanted to do this job. But you mustn’t do this on your own; you need to articulate these educational purposes in collaboration with other people who are positive about the new opportunities and, in the process, build a leadership team. The purposes of the new Group mergers are likely to be simple: to give students across the colleges a uniformly high quality experience; to develop and expand specialisms and to preserve the pluralism of the component parts. Educational purposes have to be clear and they have to be repeated consistently by all leaders face to face with everyone. But above all these educational purposes have to be shown to clearly relate to the operational decisions and changes that are introduced.  In the end, it all comes down to building trust and demonstrating consistency and there is no short cut to this.

It’s difficult. I needed strategies to engage in conversations, which would be on staff terms and not about organisational changes; I decided on classroom visits and lunches to talk to teachers and students about them and their teaching and learning. These conversations were very different from the endless discussions of change and college organisation. People react so differently in discussion of their own work. This was my personal answer. It is only an illustration of how you can find a context where you can be relaxed and professionally authentic: this was a natural choice for me because I had many years experience of visiting classrooms and always enjoyed it. The purpose is to find a context in which people genuinely feel they are being ‘heard’.

So building trust and respect is one big dimension of effective leadership, building it up around shared purposes with all staff. Another important dimension is the recognition that effective leadership depends on context: the context of culture and continuity. For example, Westminster-Kingsway and City and Islington have different cultures and different senses of what is essential to continuity. And the intention of a College Group is to keep things this way. Each college will have a strong conviction that the college’s ‘way of doing things’ (ie culture) is ‘right’. In any Group merger it would be very interesting and useful for the two management teams to share their views on their respective cultures. There will often be a residue of not altogether positive assumptions about each other which need to be questioned. Talking about these things can be useful for everyone in key leadership roles and is also essential for the business support services staff who will need to work across the Group.

College cultures do not change quickly whatever you do. And within whole college cultures, there are a whole series of smaller and more local cultures related to curriculum and courses. All leaders at whatever level, particularly if they are working across the Group, have to be sensitive to all this and must find ways to work with it. One approach is to recognise and celebrate the distinctive things of the past and present    – cultivate continuity – and always make clear what you are committed to keeping and developing. The principle that you ‘don’t fix it unless it is broken’ needs to be remembered in a merger. Sometimes the logic of change should be resisted and the strong decision is not to change. All change costs, not only in time and energy, but also in possible lost opportunity. In other words, emotional intelligence is not just interpersonal; it has also to be applied to strategic change both in terms of pace and direction.

Is there a straight forward answer to leadership in this emotional and uncertain landscape?  I don’t think so! But you can consciously share feelings and experience within teams and not fear that doing so shows weakness.

And here are some starting suggestions for issues to discuss in different components of a newly merging group of colleges as events unroll:

  • Put emotional intelligence on the agenda. Talk about how things are going from this point of view.
  • Bear in mind that real change is an evolutionary process in education not a revolutionary one
  • Make sure that everyone is clear what the educational purposes of the new organisation are.
  • Don’t tire of meeting, talking and arguing; believe in communication.
  • Practise devolved leadership and management
  • Ask yourselves:
    • how do we avoid becoming too inward focussed; how do we retain an outward focus?
    • how do we keep teaching and learning still top of the agenda?

Tom Jupp, 13th June 2016

 

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