Best Boss Series: Felicity Corcoran, Headmistress, UK ​

Felicity Corcoran studied Modern Foreign Languages and took up her first teaching post in September 2000 after successfully completing a postgraduate qualification in education at the University of Cambridge. She has 18 years’ experience in education, 11 of which have been in senior leadership roles in secondary schools in London. After serving as Assistant Principal and Vice Principal at St Michael’s Catholic College, an 11-18 secondary academy in Bermondsey Central London, Felicity was honoured to be appointed to the post of Principal in September 2017. She is passionate about providing young people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds with the highest quality education and enrichment possible, to help improve their life chances. Felicity is proud to lead a school with staff who share this passion and always go the extra mile to meet the diverse needs of the students. 

Felicity has completed the Nation Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH), plays an active role in the Catholic Teaching Alliance as a Strategic Partner and is a member of the Southwark Secondary Headteacher’s Association.

Tell me how you define a successful leader. 

For me, a successful leader enables others to be the very best they can be. This obviously doesn’t happen overnight but as a result of the effective relationships they build with their colleagues and in my case also with students, parents and school governors which must be rooted in mutual respect, with a vision for success that is clearly defined, shared, agreed and ultimately achieved. Successful leaders are also those who are ambitious for those they lead and are motivated to achieve the best for their school/organisation and not simply for themselves.

When in your career did you find you really began to be an impactful leader and what gave you proof of this? 

As a teacher we are all leaders, from the classroom teacher to the Principal/Headteacher. You realise very quickly how important it is to be an effective leader in your classroom and how the success of those in your care is direct a result of the impact of your leadership. It is just that the scope of the impact has grown as I have progressed through my career from classroom teacher, to middle leader, then senior leader and more recently Principal. In all cases I realised that I was beginning to be an impactful leader when I could see that my consistent, honest and fair but firm manner enabled students, staff, parents, or governors to understand my approach and my decision making, thus enabling them to trust in me and follow my lead.

Share with me your greatest leadership success/experience. 

In teaching and in education nothing stops and we never get to the end of our “to do list” so it is not always easy to remember to stop and recognise your success. However, these questions have prompted me to take the time to do this and there are two experiences that really stand out. The first is taking up a Head of Year 7 post when I was a young and very inexperienced middle leader; Four weeks into my new job in south west London the school failed an Ofsted inspection and was placed into special measures, the years that followed were very turbulent ones for the school, but I decided to stay and see the job I had taken on through. What followed involved working with other middle and senior leaders to identify and implement the actions required to get the school out of special measures. This experience provided me with opportunities to take on key responsibilities and develop my leadership skills, ultimately standing me in good stead for future roles. It was a baptism of fire, however 5 years, 4 Headteachers and 2 successful Ofsted inspections later I was Head of Key Stage 4 (Year 10/11) and so proud to see the students I had started with in year 7 leaving with the school’s best GCSE results in 14 years.

The second has been taking on the role of Principal at St Michael’s; the experience of leading a school has been the most demanding, exhilarating, and fulfilling of my career. Having ultimate accountability can be terrifying but it does somewhat focus the mind! It has been the steepest learning curve I have ever experienced but is a challenge I am relishing.

Recall your biggest managerial challenge. Tell me how you handled this. What did you learn that you might do differently next time? 

My biggest managerial challenge has most definitely been making the transition from Vice Principal to Principal within the same institution. It was not simply the move from a mainly operational role to a much more strategic one but also managing how staff, students, parents and governors perceive me and recognising how it important it is to demonstrate the qualities and gravitas required in this position. I handled this by very clearly mapping out and

planning how to handle my “firsts” that is my first senior leadership meeting, first whole staff meeting, first middle leaders meeting, first assemblies with each year group, first parents’ evenings, first governors’ meeting and first open evening which all took place within a month of me starting in post. At all of those meetings I set out my vision for the school for the next 5 years and communicated to the different audiences how I saw their role in helping to achieve this vision. Looking back, this really helped me to make my mark in the first few weeks and staff in particular commented that my emphasis on “evolution not revolution” and in gathering their feedback about the strengths and areas for development at the school helped allay the nerves they had about someone new taking over.

Who has been your greatest mentor(s)? Where they a colleague or did you hire a professional coach? What about this person or the experience had the biggest impact on your growth? 

I am grateful to a number of people at various stages of my career that have had course to impart their sound advice and take the time to coach and mentor me. In my early career they were a couple of Headteachers who took a chance on me, enabling, empowering and supporting me to take on positions of responsibility when I was very inexperienced.

When I became a Principal, I was advised by my previous Principal of the benefits of having a professional mentor and I was fortunate to be able to work with someone who had been a very experienced Senior Leader and whose advice and support was vital in my first year. Unfortunately, she has now retired but having realised how invaluable her support was, I have sought out another very experienced Headteacher to mentor me as I continue to learn the role. Additionally, I have also recognised the importance of taking up opportunities to network with other Headteachers/Principals when possible to share and learn from their experiences.

> Common opinion states that in order to succeed in business one has to be ruthless. A quick survey of world’s most domineering companies seems to support that view. Do you think it’s possible to be very successful in business and still be a nice person?

I do think it is possible to be a successful leader and to still be a decent person who acts with integrity and the pursuit of this is what motivates me. To be clear, this doesn’t mean that you are willing to settle for anything less than the very best. I often talk to my staff about the need for us to drive success at St Michael’s by inspiring our students to have the highest aspirations for themselves and thus be intrinsically motivated. I believe that success that has come about through leaders being ruthless and instilling fear to deliver results, cannot be viewed ultimately as success.

Let’s talk about managing pressure – how do you control your own emotions and temper when things don’t go to plan? Not lashing out on those around you is a skill – what are your tips? 

The very nature of schools means that you learn very early on that things don’t always go to plan, no two days are the same, which keeps you on your toes. My default setting is that I don’t really panic and I always think there will be a solution or way of resolving an issue which helps enormously. That doesn’t mean that I don’t get annoyed or irritated though, because I quite often do! Nevertheless, I always try to avoid knee jerk reactions and I like to consider my response.

I find that taking time to think about difficult situations and the outcomes in advance, including my own possible responses is a very good way of helping to manage pressure.

I know that it is essential that staff see me keeping my calm, even at the most stressful of times makes a situation or them feel more pressured if they sense my panic. It also helps that I can always rely on my family and a close network of friends for support, my husband is very good at keeping me grounded and making me see the absurd and often funny side of many of the things I have to deal with.

At times we all hit a low point. How do you motivate yourself? 

I’ve learnt early on that being a Principal can at times be a lonely job, you need to be seen to always be in control and sometimes you aren’t even able to share your worries and concerns with your senior team. This can be difficult when dealing with child protection issues or when you learn about some of the challenges students and staff are facing in their personal lives. However, I believe I am fortunate to have a strong faith and a spiritual sense of vocation and service that has been instilled in me by my family and the many inspiring people I have worked with over the years. I am also a very resilient, some may say dogged person and I am determined to see things through in pursuit of the best outcomes for my students.

I have found that the easiest way to motivate myself is to get out of my office and spend time with my students and staff, simply chatting to them at break and lunchtime or observing their interactions reminds me of what a privilege it is to do this job. On the toughest days, at the end of the day I try to think back over the day and find something that has happened to be thankful for, be it the conversations I have had with students or support I have received from staff or my family and I always find something. This definitely keeps me going and inspires me to do my job as best I can.

What are you top three book titles that you were most impactful for your leadership development? 

  1. Leadership Matters: Andy Buck-invaluable for any school leader but can translate into lots of other workplaces, I regularly refer to his advice about setting the vision, creating alignment, having difficult conversations and incremental coaching for success.
  2. The Salesian School of Life, Working from the Heart: Fr David O’Malley– based on the principles and methods of St John Bosco who dedicated his life to the betterment and education of disadvantaged young people in 19th century Italy with an emphasis on respect, understanding, affection and humour, which still resonates today in 21st century London.
  3. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Stephen Covey – describes the journey from dependence, to independence to interdependence and how you can achieve more from working interdependently than working on your own.

Working in an organisation where business culture isn’t people oriented, how do create an environment where people want to work for you/in your department? 

Schools are very much people orientated and a school’s ethos is key to its success. I see it as my job to work with staff and promote the ethos in such a way that it creates an environment resulting in people wanting to work here. At St Michael’s Catholicity and therefore Christian principles underpin everything that we do. Kindness, tolerance, respect, understanding, forgiveness and most importantly love are role modelled by myself, staff and students on a daily basis.

People, particularly children need to know that they are loved and valued and the ethos of a workplace or a school is key to transmitting this.

The overwhelming majority of our students are Catholics, but many of our staff are not, however they recognise how important the Catholic ethos of the school is to its success, how it contributes to a positive climate for learning and working and as a result helps build discretionary effort.

Most large organisations today have a strict bonus and pay raise policy, which makes it difficult to reward people even when you know they truly deserve it. Have you found a way of dealing with this? 

School budgets have always meant that strict pay rise policies are in place so this is something we are used to. I have found that staff really appreciate being given professional development opportunities to help them progress in their careers and move on to promoted posts/up the pay scale. Recognition of work is always important, I always ensure I thank staff publicly for any successes and additional activities they have taken on and I send written letters of thanks to those who give up time outside of school hours to lead trips, school concerts, productions or create resources and these have been well received. In schools the culture is such that staff often go the extra mile in support of the students, but it is important that this is acknowledged and not something simply taken for granted.

Company often refer to themselves as “family”, yet only few support their employees like a family supports its members – unconditionally and always. Aside from professional training, what support do you offer your employees? 

As a school we would refer to ourselves more as a community due to the many different stakeholders who play a part in the day to day running of the school and I would always take whatever actions are required to support these different groups. At St Michael’s aside from professional development we have clear systems and policies that help all staff carry out their job to the best of their abilities. Importantly, there are clear structures in place e.g. line management to embed support at every level and stage of someone’s career be they teaching or non-teaching staff. Recently, I asked two staff governors to establish a wellbeing committee so that all staff have a forum for raising concerns and suggesting ideas to aid staff wellbeing. This has resulted in staff sports now taking place after work on Fridays, produced ideas for Christmas and social events and generated vital feedback about measures we have recently introduced to reduce workload.

Some managers believe in strict hierarchy and the “do what I say approach”, sighting cultural norm as an excuse. What are your thoughts on this? 

The way schools are structured means there is often a very traditional hierarchy in place. Clearly as Principal I am ultimately accountable, but I believe for a school to be successful it is important that distributed leadership is in place. I am not able to be the expert on everything but I need to be able to identify who is and empower them to take on the responsibility required. The leaders who I respect the most have always been those who demonstrate a “do as I do” rather than a “do as I say approach”, leading by example through actions rather than words is always more powerful and helps build trust.

Tell me how you decide what to delegate and to whom. 

The role of school Principal is a strategic one, therefore I need to delegate the responsibility for the operational management of the school to a team of senior and middle leaders. This has been one of my biggest challenges, in particular when delegating operational tasks that were once my responsibility as a Vice Principal. Andy Buck says this requires you to “develop the habit of letting go” which can be tough but is one I’ve realised is a necessity if you are to be an effective Principal. Of course, there is a big difference between delegating and abdicating responsibility and I understand the importance of making sure that those I delegate to are empowered and trusted to complete the tasks they have been given and have the authority required to make any decisions.

Team building has become a buzz word in the corporate world, yet many still not see the value in applying it to their group or organization. What are your beliefs and or successes around team building? 

The senior leadership team that I work with is central to the success of the school and if the staff within the team are not aligned and working effectively the impact of what they can achieve is reduced. Therefore, I recognise that team building is important and I have actively identified opportunities to spend time on team building activities at key points in the year, to enable them to better understand each other’s roles and also how their own roles directly contribute to the success of the college.

Team building helps foster more productive working relationships and trust so that we can celebrate the highs together and support each other through difficult moments.

This question has prompted me to realise that my team is probably ripe for some team building as we are now settled in to the academic year and therefore it is a good moment to us to take stock and spend some time together as a group, where the focus is on us.

Here are some activities that I found that worked.

  1. Asking one member of the team to leave the room (all names are placed on piece of paper and folder and a draw is made to select the person) and the rest of the group have a few minutes to try summarise what that think the person’s job description is. The person then returns to the room and they are presented with the summary- what usually happens is 1or 2 things get missed out or an responsibility is misinterpreted so it is a really helpful activity to clarify roles- you then repeat until you have gone through the group.
  2. Place inspiring quotes about leadership around the room , ask the team to go around and read them and then stand under the one that they find the most inspirational and then team members take it in turns to explain why. It helps you learn a lot about what kind of leadership style people value and what they perceive leadership to be.

When it comes to morning or weekly briefings do you conduct those in person or via a memo? 

I do all my morning/weekly briefings in person, we have two each week with all staff, 2 with different sets of middle leaders, 2 with my Vice Principals and 1 with all senior leaders on a Monday morning. The fast pace of schools necessitates regular communication and being a visible presence is important for me and allows me to remind everyone of our vision and the focus that week towards realising the vision.

How do you decide to be available to your team (i.e. text/Email/voice call/video call)? How do you determine the best way for them to contact you that does not interrupt your workflow? 

I do make myself available to my team as much as possible and they know they can knock on my door, email or call me to ask to come and see me as needed. If I am in the middle of something that can’t be interrupted I will say or I will ask my PA to let them know and give them an alternative time to see me. Often people just need to know when you will be able to see or speak to them at some point. Funnily enough, I’ve found it much easier to manage my time since becoming Principal and being able to set my own deadlines and timings for things than when I was a Vice or Assistant Principal and had to work to deadlines that others had set.

Do you make yourself available to your team 24/7 or do you define ‘down’ time that your team knows you will not be available for a reply unless under unique urgent situations? 

When I’m in the school building, I’m pretty much available 24/7 to staff and students which can be very demanding, but it is the nature of the job and it is important that I am approachable, however my PA is very good at acting as a gatekeeper when required! My senior team know that they can email me if they can’t get hold of me in person when needed and I have made it clear that they along with the Safeguarding Lead and Premises manager can call/text me at any time if there is an emergency. Staff are usually very respectful and know that emails sent later in the evening or over the weekend may not get a reply straight away, unless they are urgent. That being said, I would always want to be forewarned of any concerns so that actions can be taken promptly if needed rather than allowing issues to fester.

How do you communicate with your team – in person or online? How do you feel about your team members calling you direct? 

It depends, if it is not urgent then I use email to communicate with my senior leadership team as a whole or individually. Often, I prefer to communicate in person and will ask them to pop by my office or I will seek them out if there is a matter I would prefer to discuss, it is sometimes much quicker to reach a decision and solve a problem in person than sending a series of emails. I don’t mind members of my senior team calling me directly, but this is usually the exception rather than the norm as they usually drop by my office to talk in person, unless I am offsite at a meeting or an event.

How much do you value transparency of information at work? To what extent do you share information with your team? 

Transparency and truth are two of the things I value the most and are key to fostering professional trust.

I have found that honesty and transparency can be very powerful tools and taking the time to explain to students, staff and parents the rationale behind your decision making often results in much more buy in. However, there will always be times when situations or circumstances require confidentiality.

How do you best separate work like from personal life – for a healthy balance? What are you biggest challenges around this? How does this impact you personally? 

Like most leaders I find that I can’t avoid my work spilling over in to my personal life particularly during term time and with the early starts and late finishes, it can be all consuming. If I’m honest it is very hard to switch off however, I have found that organising activities in advance like day trips, lunches, holidays etc. and getting them in my diary for weekends and school holidays ensures that I get to regularly spend time with my husband, family and friends and step away from work. I have also found that exercise helps, for me running is the best way to clear my head and even the most difficult day can be run off. A few weeks into my first term as Principal I discovered that I had gained a once in a lifetime ballot place in the London Marathon, when I first found out I burst into tears overwhelmed at the prospect of undertaking the training for it whilst getting to grips with my new job. However, it turned out to be just what I needed as in order to follow my training plan I had to be disciplined and make time in the evenings and weekends to train, forcing me to put work aside, which actually gave me the space I needed to switch off for a while which really made a difference to my wellbeing.

Explain how you work with HR for recruiting and interviewing. What works for you and how do you handle the interviewing process for vetting candidates? 

As a school we have to follow safer recruitment procedures so there are strict processes for vetting and interviewing candidates as a result of the enhanced safeguarding procedures that have to be legally followed when employing people to work with children, so this makes it easier. I make decisions with the senior team and in the case of recruiting senior leaders with Governors about who we need to recruit and the content of the job descriptions. I would usually interview all teaching staff, middle leaders and senior leaders myself along with another senior leader and a panel for senior leader appointments.

How do you respond to employees / colleagues who are diagnosed with a mental disorders, e.g. depression or anxiety? 

I am conscious of my responsibility as an employer for the wellbeing of all of my staff and would always take action to support them with a health issue be it physical or mental health. This would usually be done in conjunction with the line manager and if I think it necessary I would refer the member of staff to occupational health who would then advise them and the me of the best course of action to take to support them in addressing or managing their health issue.

Sometimes an employee is not working out despite your best efforts and you know that this relationship is not serving them or the business. At which point do you decide to part company and how do you go about it? 

Clearly, this is one of the more difficult aspects of the job. If a member of staff is struggling and the significant support they have been given has not brought about the improvements necessary then as a leader I have a responsibility to the employee, their colleagues and the students to take the actions necessary to move that person on. This means having difficult conversations, however in my experience the member of staff has usually come to the same conclusion as you, namely the situation is not serving them or the school. In these circumstances remaining completing professional is key and I have gone to great lengths to ensure that the member of staff can leave in a dignified manner and to support them in seeking more suitable employment.

The Best Boss Coaching Project brought to you by Talent Investors is here to promote excellence in the workplace. Throughout 2018 we are speaking to people from across the world, and across different industries, regardless of the companies’ size or their job title. Over the course of 52 weeks, you will be introduced to 52 bosses, from 52 backgrounds, answering 20+ questions. All designed to motivate you to lead, and grow effectively. We are here to provide wisdom from, and recognition for those making every day other people’s lives better.