This podcast from Teacher is supported by MacKillop Seasons, whose Seasons for Life project supports schools with loss and grief following a suicide and other loss event.
Hello and thanks for listening to this podcast from Teacher, I’m Jo Earp. Our first episode for 2024 comes from our School Improvement series and it’s all about effective leadership communication. Before the holiday break, I caught up with Jacinda Euler Welsh, Principal of Brisbane Girls Grammar School. She’s been head of the Queensland independent school for over 10 years now and was awarded the Australian Council for Educational Leaders’ Miller-Grassie Award for Outstanding Educational Leadership in 2023. Among other things, the award recognised her authentic leadership. Brisbane Girls Grammar has more than 250 staff and 1500 students. In this episode we talk about different tools to engage with different members of the school community (including the school’s own podcast Illumine), the importance of consistency and honesty, and nurturing a 2-way communication process. It’s a cracking start to the year – I hope you enjoy it.
Jo Earp: Hi Jacinda, thanks very much for joining us here at Teacher. So, before we dive into the topic of leadership communication then, I thought it would be good – can you tell listeners a little bit about Brisbane Girls Grammar School?
Jacinda Euler Welsh: Absolutely, Jo, it's a pleasure to be here. Brisbane Girls Grammar School is a school of about 1,500 girls, secondary only. It's very old school, certainly by Queensland standards, we're coming up to nearly 150 years. And it's got, I guess, a great deep tradition of believing in the importance of education of the higher standards, but most importantly, education for girls.
So, if you think back to the early days, it was established at a time when the idea of going to school and university for girls with something not necessarily commonly invested in, and so it was considered something of an experiment. And I think that pioneering ethos is a big part of the school to this day.
JE: Now you're in your 10th year as principal of the school, and before that you were a teacher. But you were also in a different career prior to that, weren't you?
JEW: Yes, I didn't come to teaching straight out of school, I initially worked in advertising overseas a little bit in San Francisco and Sydney and London, but I came back in my mid 20s and decided that I wanted to be a teacher. So, I've been on that path ever since.
JE: So, we know that communication’s a key part of any leadership role really, but it seems to me that it's absolutely ramped up quite a bit with school leaders, with school principals. You’re communicating not just with the staff and students there, but also, you've got parents and families members of the board or school council depending on whereabouts you’re working, and also the wider community. This is perhaps a difficult one for you to give a precise answer on, because I know that things are different day to day. How much of your role would you say is about communication?
JEW: Well Jo, it is increasingly important, and I think an ever-expanding element of leadership. Those old days of, you know, hands off, trust us are no more. And as you identify, there are just so many different stakeholders that you're engaging with. So, the level of communication that a board might require will be very different from what a prospective parent would require. But I think what's important in all of your communication is to be consistent to be authentic, to represent yourself and your school openly and honestly.
And therefore, while the messaging or the tone or the level of detail may be slightly different, it should all be consistent, it should all resonate. And therefore, whether it's something that you're doing in the media or whether it's talking to your staff about a new initiative, it's really important to be flexible in how you deliver it but consistent, I think.
And therefore, it's not difficult but it is demanding. And I think as you say, more and more people want more and more information. People want more detail, they want to know about decision making, they want to be kept up to date with things. So, I think communication is an ever-increasing demand for leaders, on leaders.
But the other thing about it, too, which has changed obviously significantly in the last 10 to 20 years, is the immediacy of it, the demandingness of it, and the urgency of it. And a big part of, I think, leadership and communication is knowing when to pause, knowing when not to communicate, knowing when to perhaps say ‘we'll give you more detail in time’. People like to know what the timeline looks like, but a really important thing is to sometimes hold your nerve and determine what does require an immediate response or what might actually be dealt with, you know, the following day.
JE: I’m interested, you mentioned there about clear, consistent, being open, being honest. How do you ensure that as a principal you get that 2-way communication process going? It's not just a one-way thing. It's pointless being a one-way thing, isn't it?
JEW: Yeah, look, absolutely. And I think too, when you're the principal of a very large school, you understand at the outset that you can't possibly have a personal relationship with every student, every member of staff, every member of the community or, you know, the old girls’ network. And so, it's really important to think about how you’re presenting and whether you appear to be approachable … And I think, particularly with students, you can't possibly know and have a direct relationship with each and every one of them, but you have to give a sense that if they wanted to speak to you, if they wanted to communicate with you, if they wanted to send you an email, if they wanted to come to your office, that you're approachable. And that holds true with staff as well.
So, I'm a big believer in working through the appropriate channels of leadership, but I also believe that it's important to have a personal connection to the extent that you possibly can with all of your staff. So, you know, you don't work beyond the leaders of different areas, but you should be able to say, ‘how was your weekend?’ and have a have a general personal exchange and communication with staff. Because what that allows them to do is, I hope, feel that their views are valued, that they can speak up if they need to, and that there are forums for feeding information up, not simply receiving it down.
JE: What about that idea of modelling behaviours that you'd like to see in other people? Those expectations? So, communicating by doing really.
JEW: I believe that's the most powerful thing that you do. You can have all the fancy words and all the lovely slogans and corporate speak that you like, but at the end of the day people assess you on their experience of you; and that is how you behave, how you transact in the most small and micro ways across an organisation. So, people watch you, very carefully, how you speak to people, not just when you're on a stage or in front of a big forum I think is incredibly powerful for leaders. People are always watching and assessing, and they judge you by what you do, how you behave and what you model far more than the words that you say. And if you can try and get that right, they'll forgive you if you, you know, get something wrong or say something incorrectly, or perhaps, you know, not make things as clear as you might. But I think that modelling is really, really important.
JE: So, at a strategic level, then, it means being able to communicate the school priorities and plans. At a very high level that's what it's about – it’s policies, it's processes. I guess that is absolutely, really about consistency and clarity, being explicit about things like expectations and direction, yeah?
JEW: Absolutely. And I'd say at higher than the policies and the projects that you might be seeking to deliver is the philosophy. People like to know the why. So, if people can understand, and if you can share a sense of why people are part of this endeavour, why their contribution is important, that we're all part of a bigger whole; that philosophical articulation of our purpose – why we're here, why we're doing this – can help people make sense of all of the other details that need to be implemented.
And in times when you're trying to, I guess, harness the energy of an entire very disparate staff, it's really important that you start at the highest level with: Why we're here and what we're trying to achieve, the purpose of these policies, and the reason for this strategic direction, why things need to change if we think that they do. And that's where communication is incredibly powerful in having people align, not just strategically, but philosophically, with what you're trying to bring about.
JE: And in terms of priorities then, or expectations in particular, but priorities as well, how important is that explicitness, because that's often something that's quite difficult to get right actually, isn't it?
JEW: Absolutely. So, I think that [you do have to be explicit] and everyone's different. Some people like the high-level philosophical things, some people like the ‘please tell me exactly what I need to do and when and how and how we go about it’. So, I think you have to be very clear about what is a non-negotiable; and so, you need to say these are our expectations, this is explicit, this is how you will or won't behave, or this is what we will or will not tolerate, or this is what we expect you to deliver, or where we expect you to be.
So, I think absolutely very explicit articulation underpinning the ‘why’ is what people expect to provide certainty and it provides people with clarity and it's a guide. So, I think that explicit communication is important as well.
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You’re listening to a podcast from Teacher magazine, supported by MacKillop Seasons, whose Seasons for Life project supports young people affected by suicide and other loss events throughout Australia. Free for Australian high schools and based on the strong evidence-base of the Seasons for Growth change, loss and grief education programs, the Seasons for Life project builds wellbeing, resilience, social and emotional coping skills, and strengthens supportive relationships.
JE: So, for you Jacinda, then you might have things that are timetabled – so you might have an annual report or presentation for example. With something like a strategic plan though, and I'm sure there are lots of their examples too, but with something like that as a school leader is that something you have to kind of always keep in your mind to keep returning to again and again and again so that it's at the front of other people's minds?
JEW: Absolutely, because I think I think one of the most important things that leadership is discernment and deciding what ought to be prioritised or not. So, you hopefully have a school filled with experts. So, you have passionate people in various areas, whether it's in sport or whether it's in history or whatever it is that they're doing you want them to be expert, you want them to be passionate, you want them to be focused, most importantly on their areas and advocates for those areas.
So, I think one of the most important things for a leader is to look across an entire organisation to encourage that passionate dedication, but also to make sure we're aligned. And therefore, the strategic vision and the higher purpose of the organisation as a whole is really important and it's really important for the leader to be articulating that, reminding people that this is the course that we're charting and communicating that.
Because the other thing, I think one of the risks obviously in leadership is you're talking about these things all day, every day whereas you know, an English teacher in a classroom or an Art teacher won't be thinking about strategic design, they won't be thinking about, you know, the priorities of the future – that's not their job. So, I think it's really important for leaders to remember that that's the case; that you might be reporting to the board, you might be planning for the future, you might have a great new strategic direction or a big infrastructure project, but most of your staff don't spend most of their time thinking about that.
And the other thing I would say about that is they generally really enjoy that. So, I would typically perhaps once the term at a staff briefing tell people, ‘These are the other things that other people in the school are doing’. People really enjoy learning about their peers, their colleagues, what someone in Communication’s doing, what's the HR team is up to. So, I think sharing the strategic priorities and reminding people is a really important imperative for a leader.
JE: As you mentioned, giving people updates as well – the progress aspect of that too. It might be communicating progress on priorities and so on, or sometimes the need for change. I'm interested on that latter part about change. How do you communicate change? The need for it, not just the need for it, but also getting that buy-in and commitment.
JEW: Yeah, well, I think COVID gave us a crash course in change, and I think that was confidence-inspiring at the end of the day. People who didn't think they could pull off what they did were so proud afterwards and were able to negotiate it. So, for change, it is being very, very clear about why you’re implementing this change and articulating it, being absolutely certain that the change is required. I never believe in change for change’s sake; you know, even if it's like change the colour of the [school backpack], you know, the things that can set off in emotion … the phone calls, the emails, the seemingly smallest decisions, you know, change.
So, first of all, deciding whether it's worth it and whether you're committed to it and if you are articulating why this change is important, paving a path through, making sure people know who's accountable for which element of that change, and also then providing the resources and talking through all of those things, ‘So, this is what we're doing. This is who's responsible. This is a timeline. These are the resources that we're going to provide.’ And then celebrating and recognising effort – as you said, keeping people up to date with the progress of that change, celebrating the efforts of that change. And it's really important to communicate that too, not just at the end ‘we made it’, but ‘how are we going?’ or ‘we're going to reposition’ or ‘maybe we're going to change the timeline’ or ‘maybe we're going to let something go’, but letting people know what you're thinking and why you're thinking it as you go through.
JE: OK then. So, I want to talk more about the actual communication tools that you use now and how those have changed even during your time as a principal. You host a school podcast, don't you? Now, tell me a bit about that and why you think it's important that you're involved, because I'm sure there are lots of other demands on your time, but you’re making this regular commitment to the podcast.
JEW: Yes. And I have said it's much more fun being on the other side of it than being the interviewee. But yes, look the podcast – essentially, I guess in schools like all organisations, you're looking at how people like to receive information and that constantly evolves. You know, you think back to a time before social media; and you know it's always understanding: How do people want to receive information? What's the purpose of communicating and what are the different forums?
I think the podcast obviously has been an amazing initiative, people listen to them frequently. And so, our feeling was that the written word was still important but where in the past we may have written more extensive, even essays on various topics of interest we started to see that people were enjoying podcasts. And it came out of, too, wanting to give the girls a say. So, the students wanted to speak up about sexual consent, in particular, was a very timely topic. The girls wanted to have a voice, but we also understood that there were so many amazingly educated, intelligent, expert people within our organisation and this would give them a forum to talk about things they're passionate about. Whether it was why the creative arts is important, or a former student of our school who's now a Cambridge Professor in History. So, sharing those stories through a podcast, we felt, was a good way for people to learn more about our school, to feel more connected to our school and receive helpful information. Whether it's, you know, parenting adolescent girls or how to negotiate the social scene and parties, you know. So, we've kind of tried to segment it to the different audiences and provide information that's helpful, educative, and also connects people to our school and shares a little bit more about what the people are doing in our school.
JE: Yeah, we're big fans of the podcasting as a communication tool. It's great idea. It used to be though, didn't it, just the school newsletter. Which is fine and that's still fine, and that might be really appropriate for certain things. But as we mentioned earlier, sometimes it's a report or a presentation. Sometimes it's a parents evening, a staff meeting. For you then, is it a case of lots of different tools and trying to add to those?
JEW: Yeah, absolutely. And thinking about too, I think increasingly, when people are communicating so much, I think there's a bit of a challenge to make sure you're not doing too much either. So, what's going to have impact? When will people pay attention? How do they understand that this is a rare communication direct from the principal to parents? OK, this is something significant, like during COVID, or where's the kind of little lovely newsletter piece? But that's right, the style of writing and what you're communicating is very different. Whether it's a board report, an annual review, the newsletter, prospective parents information. So, I think you need to constantly revise what you do. So, you have to almost annually now consider: What’s serving a purpose? What no longer is? What can you let go? What do you prioritise?
And when you were talking about time, it's also important to know, you know, this is an important, significant document that needs to be absolutely right, it's going to become a reference tool. Something else might be bright and breezy and easy and kind of ephemeral, and therefore your writing doesn't need to be as formal. And also, because I think in schools, too, and I'm very conscious of it here, you have to make sure it doesn't sound corporate and corporate speak. We're in the very perfectionistic world where people are very quick to criticise. You can be, I think, overly conscious about getting it right and the greatest risk of all would be for everything sounding sanitised and corporatised, and therefore the words no longer have any meaning. So, I'm a big believer in it should sound like a human wrote it or said it.
JE: Yeah. You mentioned much earlier on in the podcast, authenticity. It's a big thing, isn't it?
JEW: Mmm, yeah.
JE: So, I wanted to finish off – now this is another big question, but I want to finish off by talking about situations where you do manage to maintain communication. So having a different mix of all these different formats, I can see how that will be extremely useful – so either if you need something with as many eyeballs as possible, so you want everybody to be aware of something, maybe you'll try some slight, you know, a mixture of communication tools; or something that's really time sensitive and really important and urgent like you said. And that was a really great point earlier – so less is more, sometimes, isn't it? What happened then during COVID 19, how did you ensure communication was maintained with staff, with students and families, and also the local community?
JEW: OK, that was probably the biggest task in COVID, particularly as the principal and kind of the spokesperson of the school. So, other people were furiously working hard to make sure we continued to deliver education, but communication, particularly when people were locked in their homes, uncertain about what was going to happen, there was a great deal of anxiety out there. So that was one of the most important crash courses in communication I think for any principal, because it was so intense, and it was so different.
So, communication was absolutely essential to getting through that period. It also meant that you were constantly reviewing every microdetail of what you said. So, a 3-sentence update to the community had to be perfect. Sometimes, in all honesty, I would work through that with our Comms Director – it could take over an-hour-and-a-half to come up with 2 sentences, ‘…if we say this, it's not that’. Because people were looking to you as an authority on, you know, not on medical issues as such, but they were looking for information. There was so much information out there that we had to very, very tightly and accurately curate that information. And so, communication at that time was about providing people with fact-based information, making sure that it was timely when they needed it, because so much it was changing almost hourly. And it was also a very important element of trust, which ultimately is one of the most important things in communication.
People are relying upon you to communicate faithfully and honestly, to provide reliable information, and to provide confidence and reassurance. So, communication, particularly during something such as COVID, ultimately came down to a relationship of trust with your staff, with your families, with your broader community. And therefore, it was an incredibly important undertaking to make sure that you were doing that through diverse channels and as reliably and honestly as you could.
That’s all for now, but we’d love to hear what you think. This year we’re keen to get listeners even more involved in the podcast discussions. You can record a voice note to share your own experience, comments, tips or questions. Just email it to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll include them in a future episode.
You’ve been listening to a podcast from Teacher, supported by MacKillop Seasons, Seasons for Life, supporting schools and young people affected by suicide and other significant losses. Visit mackillopseasons.org.au.
Which communication tools do you draw on as a leader? How do you decide on the most appropriate tool for the task? How do you ensure communication in your school is a 2-way, rather than one-way, process?
In this podcast, Jacinda Euler Welsh says a big part of leadership and communication for her is knowing when to pause. How do you assess which things require an immediate response and which things may be better left until later?