Name: Rob Ford
Title: CEO & Director
Organisation: Heritage International School Group
Rob was previously Principal of Wyedean School, Gloucestershire, UK where he led a school nationally and internationally known for its innovative holistic curriculum and developed model of global learning. Rob was co-founder of the IB schools network in the SW of England. Rob has been a senior leader in leading schools in Wales and England. In 2021, Rob was given a "Global Principal" award from AKS. Rob is a long serving British Council Ambassador, an advisor and keynote speaker at many international conferences for the British Council and other similar organisations, and has worked with and advised schools and school boards around the World. Rob is a regular writer for both the TES and International Schools Magazine/ISMP and is an international schools leader for the Varkey/UNESCO/TTF2030 Global Leaders Network.
Rob blogs on https://mailfrommoldova.home.blog/
Thank you to the 2,000 leaders who’ve generously done the 7 Questions on Leadership!
I hope Rob's answers will encourage you in your leadership journey. Enjoy!
1. What have you found most challenging as a leader?
Any school leader operating anywhere around the globe in the 2020s will answer "uncertainty". I am no different. In my context in Moldova, this is not just operating for nearly 3 years with the challenges of Covid, which actually proved to be a positive game changer here as we developed a successful hybrid model and shared it with the national education community. But is also means the uncertainty of operating with a war over the border following the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and the issues related from this that impacts Moldova. In the last academic year, this meant high prices, energy outages and dealing with the fear of the escalation of the war to Moldova. Keeping the whole community safe, free from fear, focusing everyone on the hope and certainty of education during these times has been the biggest challenge for me as a school leader.
2. How did you become a leader? Can you please briefly tell the story?
Probably similar to most school leaders, by accident. When I started in education, nearly 30 years ago, I was inspired by my good teachers and I really just wanted to be a good history and politics teacher as far as my ambitions went. But then I found myself in positions of leadership to develop new initiatives like global learning opportunities, using ICT more in teaching and learning as well as setting up the IB curriculum in what was then the 1st state school in the South West of England to develop it. I realised I liked enabling ideas and supporting colleagues in the wider organisation. I also got to work alongside and for very impressive school leaders. I think the "reluctant" leaders in any form often are the best ones for the job because ego and ambition are not the driving force for an individual but to use the responsibility to serve others.
3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
I have to work on my organisation skills constantly. I keep an online daily diary and I have an old fashioned paper diary that I keep in tandem. I have always enjoyed the early starts and when I was a school principal back in the UK I would walk my dog at 5am and be at my desk at 7am. The daily walk was good for my wellbeing and allowed me time to process and think. I walk daily around the local park near where I live in Chisinau and it is essential for me to operate effectively. I make sure I have all my meetings with senior leaders, heads of schools, chair of the board, my teams, all scheduled for the year ahead. I am on the school gate every morning and last thing at the end of the day. It is crucial the students, staff and families see me here and also get the chance to say hello and raise things if needed. My door literally is open and my study opens onto the main social/cafe/canteen area of the school. I walk around the school daily, to pop into classrooms and say hello and to make sure I "walk the shop floor" and don't stay hidden in my room. This visibility is crucial. I have really fought hard for staff wellbeing and to stop calls, emails, late at night and into the weekends. I model that and I manage that with parents setting the culture and approach. I make sure I have a book on the go and love to read. I think getting the balance between the daily operational and the longer term strategic aspects of the role is always like riding two horses for any school leader. You get better with practice and with a good team of leaders, everything doesn't come landing on your desk or in your email constantly.
4. What's a recent leadership lesson you've learned for the first time or been reminded of?
The one lesson I have carried with me for a long time is from a brilliant former line manager I had in Bristol who came to see me just before I left that school to take on an assistant principal role as head of a 16-19 school. He told me "Rob, you don't need to be the bull at the gate always". Some would take that as an insult but I knew he knew my passion for education, my strong sense of injustice and my intolerance of bureaucratic nonsense for its own sake. This has morphed into a note on my desk in school and at home in my study cabin as a very simple piece of advice; "Respond, don't react". It has helped me on so many occasions to find the right response and for situations to calm down and emotions to settle. The 2020s are a very fraught decade to live in, social media makes the role even harder and people always get extra emotional where their children are concerned. I would also add to this the lesson of scripting difficult meetings and have a desired outcome where you want to land the solution.
5. 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?
The two authors I have read the most as a school leader, that has a direct influence on how I think and operate, are Simon Sinek and Michael Fullan. It would be hard to identify which of their books impacted me the most. Sinek's "Leaders eat last" should be read by all leaders and it is a clear case for the idea of servant leadership. Fullan's "The Principal" is a must for any school leader and again it is the same vein as Sinek's theory of leadership responsibility and in Fullan's more recent "Nuanced Leadership" looking at the level of impact a good leader can have on an organisation. None of the "hero Head" nonsense. As a student of history, I read a lot of biographies and I am a big fan of the late David McCullough. His work on the 2nd president, John Adams, put this key Founding Father rightly back in the pantheon of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin but he also showed Adams as a leader with flaws, emotions, devotion to his family, the sacrifices he made to be away from his family for his duties as well as an incredibly wise man. Especially taken with his equally wise spouse, Abigail.
6. If you could only give one piece of advice to a young leader, what would you say to them?
I have the privilege of working with a brilliant high school principal, now superintendent of schools in Prince William County, Virginia, Bill Bixby. When I got my first real headship, nearly a decade ago, I asked him for advice. He said; "Be highly visible, be highly energetic and always read the tea leaves". The latter is ok for me being British and someone who drinks tea constantly. The advice has always stayed with me and is both simple and insightful coming from someone who has walked the walk for a long time. I have found myself giving a version of this advice to new young leaders as I in turn are passing the baton onto the next generation.
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader, so far?
The lesson of tenderness and compassion as a leader, especially as school leader, is the one I think about and dwell upon a lot. My late father was a coal miner. He worked underground from the age of 15 for the next 40 years, giving up his sunlight for his children and going deep into the earth daily to dig coal, often in the most unimaginable conditions and was buried in accidents on a number of occasions. I think there are few other jobs that could be seen as truly working class and manual labour. He was also a trade union leader and fought all his life for social justice and a better life for his community. This man remained decent all his life. When he died last November 2022, the one word that came from people the most was his decency. In leadership, I have inherited schools to "improve" that have suffered from toxic leaders who never practiced compassionate leadership, or decency, towards the people they lead. To treat people with respect, even in difficult conversations and circumstances. When I became Head of my first school, I spent the first 3 months just speaking and listening to the whole staff individually, hearing the most horrendous stories that I vowed I would never allow in any school I was a Head/principal of. Stories such as not allowing people to attend key family events, funerals, children's 1st days of school or an accountability system that humiliated and pushed good people out of the profession. I am sure I haven't always got this right but even in the toughest and most emotional moments of meetings with colleagues or students or with parents, I stand back in my mind and think of my decency and my role in the room. This has helped me enormously to find solutions and to make sure things don't escalate to a point where anger and rage take over and it is often impossible to bring this back down again.