5 tips to achieving buy-in for your school culture

April 3, 2018
Martin Atkinson

Martin Atkinson

Assistant Headteacher, Stopsley High School

“Leadership is about vision, about people buying in, about empowerment and, most of all, about producing change” John Kotter, Harvard Business School

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This blog is part of Ambition:Feed's school culture and ethos challenge. Find more tips and discussion on the Ambition:Feed homepage.

In my experience in leading in schools over the last ten years, the most helpful thing I’ve ever read is John P. Kotter’s Leading on Change where he demonstrates how buy-in is crucial and must be achieved before real change can be made.

Based on this, I’ve come up with five top tips for achieving that buy-in, in the hope they will help anyone attempting to create a positive school culture.

1. Self-reflection

Having a vision is crucial because you cannot move forward with purpose if you don’t know what the goal or target is. What are you moving towards? What are you trying to build?

If the answers are ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I’m not sure’, then you are existing at best and firefighting at worst. You are managing and not leading and therefore not growing the people in the team -whether that be a department or whole school.

The most pertinent question to define your vision is ‘What is the purpose of education?’

This answer will steer you towards your vision. This will articulate what energises you to work and the reasons why you became an educator in the first place. Is it simply to increase life chances through grades, or to build the capacity for a better tomorrow through education? 

2. Planning the journey

Speaking to your team about your vision helps gain buy-in and empowers your colleagues. In addition, more brains generate more ideas and leadership must be about creating an environment which accepts ideas and allows for great ideas to come to the fore. This will also serve the purpose of transparency of the direction of travel so everyone can move in the same direction or move on. 

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3. Mapping the starting point

A simple SWOT analysis is enough for this purpose, but make sure you do it with the team. Be creative with this process and have fun - this will allow people to feel involved and enjoy the experience, creating some momentum which will help with delegating and implementation. But make sure you really know your team. Make sure you are taking into account all points of view and you are sensitive to the dynamics of the team.

4. Creating the road map

There are many different instruments that can be used to plan this out, including  GANTT charts or swimming lanes. The best plans are SMART with specific goals to be achieved by different intervals.

Don’t worry if this does not pan out smoothly and don’t be afraid to scrap an action if it’s not working or to revise the plan after a period of time. It should always be a working document.

Make sure that different actions are allocated to different team members and that they have agreed to them. This allows you to empower staff, build self-efficacy and capacity for professional development, achieve buy in, and allow you to have the energy to lead.

Remember your vision should inspire and be inspirational, but it will only become a reality when your team works with you to create it.

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5. Navigating the road ahead

Like every car journey you can experience some hazards. Problems will arise, but instead of fearing them, welcome them as opportunities to test your dedication towards the vision.

There are different tools that you can use to navigate around barriers and problems such as the fishbone analysis and the 5 whys. Use these to seek out the route of problems and then tackle them with your team.

When you feel overburdened with the day to day functions of the job, a Covey matrix is very useful to help you prioritise and divide the sand (not vital to the vision) and the stones (important to the vision). Doing the things that matter will lead to progress, doing the other things will lead to firefighting and stagnation.

To ensure that your vision becomes a reality you also need unwavering optimism. Believe in the vision, believe that it matters and believe that by doing it you will be making a difference.


Do you have a top tip for achieving buy-in for school culture? Get involved in the discussion over at Ambition:Feed - tweet us using #ambitionfeed or join our Facebook group. 

Martin is a graduate from our 2012 Teaching Leaders Secondary cohort. Teaching Leaders is a leadership development programme for high-potential middle leaders looking to improve pupil outcomes and increase their impact as a leader.

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