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Following in Jamie Oliver’s footsteps – the birth of 20Q

By Peter Pearson - 14th Dec 2012

The tray was bright blue plastic, with separate molded sections for the different portions of food – were these still in use in 2005? However the vegetable curry and fresh fruit salad were unusually tasty for a school dinner. I was in a large comprehensive school in Greenwich where I’d been asked to develop leadership skills in the middle leaders. Now I was eating lunch in the very place where a few months before TV chef Jamie Oliver had declared war on the turkey twizzler and launched his campaign for better school meals. I am happy to report that the results did taste good!

I needed a way for the middle leaders to get feedback on how they were doing as leaders. I knew of several 360 degree leadership diagnostics but they all took a long time to do and were way beyond the budget I had been given. Teachers are such busy people they don’t like having their time wasted – they like to call a spade a spade. Surely it was possible to create a diagnostic that got to the point – that focused only on the core behaviours, attitudes and character traits that distinguished the effective leader from the less so?

By this time I had spent several thousand hours facilitating on leadership programmes and many more reading hundreds of books and articles on leadership. Whilst there is always more to learn (and being a good leader is harder, and more important, than knowing theoretically what makes good leadership), the same themes did recur time and again.

A good leader has a vision and a sense of direction. They are good at involving others, so that the vision becomes a shared one, and motivating others by celebrating successes and recognizing outstanding contributions. They also are able to hold others to account and don’t shy away from difficult issues. They have good management skills – using time and resources efficiently, they delegate effectively … I could go on but the important point for now is that these are true of leaders in any situation, whether President of the United States or Maths Coordinator in a small primary school.

Of course in some situations certain traits are more important than others, and this is where an understanding of Leadership Styles is so helpful. But this doesn’t change the fact that the actual list of core behaviours, attitudes and character traits is not a very long one.

A good way to brainstorm is to write down 20 ideas. Typically there is a lull after about 7, when all the ‘easy,’ more obvious ones have come to light – then the unconscious mind kicks in and there is a second wind of creativity. I wrote a list, then added a few more, then realized some were saying the same thing. But the number 20 seemed to work – all the most important things could be said in 20 statements.

In its first incarnation, the teachers had to identify the top 5 strengths, and then the bottom three ‘areas for development’ first for themselves, and then for each other. There was no numerical scoring. Yet even in this crude format every teacher gained useful feedback on how they were perceived by their colleagues. When 5 colleagues all identify that you have the same strength, even the most self-deprecating person can begin to think there maybe something in it.

Of course 20Q has been considerably refined since then. The decision was made to use an unambiguous scoring system, so that there is a difference between the exceptionally good and the merely good, and that the scoring is based on how well something is done, rather than the more common how often something is done (which creates the dilemma, what to do if some one does something often but not very well?)

It had its most thorough refinement when a dozen massively experienced leadership facilitators, covering between them decades of experience in school headship, educational psychology and university tutoring gave it a thorough grilling before its inclusion in a new leadership programme run by GL Education.

Now 20Q is used by companies such as GL Education, SELT and Coach4Teachers, and it is being opened up to middle and senior leaders in many different fields. It became a limited company in 2011 under directors Peter Pearson and Sii Cockerill from Design Twelve.

So, what can we conclude from this?

  • Inspiration happens quickly. Making an idea a solid reality …takes longer!
  • Leadership starts with vision. More than anything else, that distinguishes it from management. To adapt the old saying, Managers do things right. Leaders do the right things.
  • It took vision to see that school meals could be different. What is in your field of awareness – your individual sense of something not right in the world and your idea of how it could be put right? – that you have not acted on yet? When are you going to take the first step?

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