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7 Questions with John Newton

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Jonno White

7 Questions with John Newton

Name: John Newton

Current title: Principal and CEO

Current organisation: Scotch College, Adelaide

Dr John H. Newton is the Principal of Scotch College Adelaide. He arrived and took up the position in January 2015. Originally from England, John and his wife Catherine moved to Adelaide from Taunton in the south west of the United Kingdom. John had been Headmaster of Taunton School for ten years before taking up his role at Scotch. They have four children. Their third child graduated from Scotch in 2016 and their younger son left in 2019. John is a graduate of Merton College Oxford with a degree in French and Russian. His PhD is in school management. A moderately talented musician and entertaining orator, John is partial to singing and has coached rugby, hockey, cricket, fives, rowing and football. He closely follows the fortunes of Manchester City Football Club.

1. What have you found most challenging as a leader in the education sector?

Everyone has a fine heart and a fine brain. Teaching is a vocation. The complex task of understanding, harnessing and directing the strong passions of educators and our professional supporters can result in high success, but it takes some doing.

Conversely, when schools go wrong, it is often very public and very hurtful. So it takes constant reflection and care to get it right.

Ultimately, we are not making widgets, but are called to nurture the next generation of fine human beings. Without a profound and humbling sense of the honour and privilege that brings, we have no hope of achieving the tough goals we set ourselves.

2. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?

I wake early and either do my podcasts, or wake even earlier and catch up with a Man City Premier League game. Either way I am at my desk by 7am at the latest.

I do the `hard thinking' stuff early while school is quiet and after that I am available to my community.

Lunch is very light. Diet is vital.

I can go to 8 or 9pm if there is an evening event (which is about three/four times a week).

I sneak in exercise three times a week either before an evening event or if an evening is free.

I walk the dogs at the weekend. That is when I think and listen to books. I also do lots of school things on Saturdays and Sundays.

Basically the job never stops until Christmas Eve (and even then I have had the odd message) and leisure has to be diarised.

Bed is by 10/10.30pm unless I have an evening social function. Sleep like a baby. Unless we are playing Man. Utd. at 5am the next day...

3. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?

How to work with a superb leadership team and board to elevate a College to a place of high prominence by creating a wellbeing vision and then a $26M building to support it. What an experience. The biggest thing I will ever do in my career. We open in 2022 and it will be such a strong statement about the quality, power and reach of our community and of the centrality of wellbeing in education

4. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell
the story of how that book impacted your leadership?

I read `War and Peace' every ten years. That is pretty powerful on the course of history, human endeavour, the spiritual, political and military implications of our actions and the significance of the humble individual not just the great leader.

Tolstoy is a mighty mind. History is vital as a source of inspiration and learning. `Show me a family of readers, and I will show the people who rule the world,' said Napoleon.

5. How do you find and keep great leaders in the education sector?

Value them enough to let them challenge you. I only appoint people who have the courage to tell me I am wrong.

It is critical that you are completely open and vulnerable with senior collages. Clarity means knowledge, informed decision-making and ownership of strategy. Keep things tight and everyone is confused. Share as much as you can. People appreciate you for that, and work well for you. Then make sure they are ready for the next move. Don't feel you will keep them for ever. Plan succession.

6. What's most important as a leader in the education sector for developing a culture of wellbeing in your staff and students?

Mindset comes before programmes before buildings before glossy brochures and before catchy phrases.

My PhD is in culture and it is a complex challenge to get a corporate mindset and culture right. But here are some pointers:

Avoid at all costs saying one thing and doing another - live wellbeing as a leader. Don't be a phoney, but set a strong personal example.

Stay close to subgroups and do not believe your organisation is one homogenous whole. It is a mass of dynamics that change daily, hourly even and you never completely control your culture. Live with it. You are a small ship on a choppy sea, but navigation is still possible.

Messaging is vital - every time you speak, make wellbeing at the heart of the message.

7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader in the education sector so far?

I have sadly had to handle a number of student deaths in my 16 years as a leader. They are such a test for the whole organisation. There is never enough you can do. Never enough conversations, discussions, re-thinks, updates.
Watch for the people on the periphery. The affected families, yes of course they get your attention. But what about the admin staff who take the weeping calls or those colleagues on the edge for whom the details of a tragic death have an echo in their own lives?

Being a CEO of a school is an impossible job. If you are humbled by that and expect to learn, grow and say sorry sometimes, you will succeed. Expecting to be in unquestioned control is a mistake.

Read `War and Peace'...