What Schools And Colleges Can Learn About Culture From Stokes And Southgate

David Price
6 min readJun 19, 2023
Photo via The Independent

It takes a lot to get me interested in a game of cricket. However, The Ashes is different. And this summer’s series promises to be one of the best we’ve seen: two teams who have undergone significant changes, where events on the field have been almost secondary to changing the historical culture of the two teams. And, coming close on the heels of the changes Gareth Southgate has brought about in English Football — almost societal in impact and reach — means that I have a professional interest in our two main national sports.

In both cases, the respective managers — Southgate and New Zealander Brendan McCullum — have taken the view that, if you get the culture of the team right, results will look after themselves. It’s taken me 30 years of leading people at work to realise that there has never been a truer word spoken about organisational culture. The great management guru, W.E.Deming argued that organisations had to drive out fear, cease inspections and actually understand what was going on in the organisation if they wanted to be successful. As Deming said, ‘If people do not see the process, they can not improve it’. Identifying and understanding your culture allows you to see what’s really going on under the hood. Or, to put it another way, culture is what goes on when no-one is watching.

So, having spent 20 years leading innovation programmes in schools, running creativity workshops in corporations, or bring design thinking into organisations, it finally dawned upon me: you are wasting your time. You are wasting your time if you think that an organisation’s performance will be transformed by whatever latest fad you bring into their collective mindsets if ‘how we do things around here’ doesn’t change. This was politely, yet forcefully, pointed out to me after I did a week of workshops following the invitation to ‘make our people more creative’ in a high-skill, high-tech organisation in the North-West of England. A very articulate senior member of staff sidled up to me at the end of the final session and said:

“Don’t take this personally. You’re the fifth consultant we’ve had in here in the past 12 months. You all seem like nice people. You entertain us for a few days. But nothing changes because the cancer at the heart of this company is the way we treat each other and especially the way management treats us. So they bring guys like you in, to make it look like they’re doing something when in fact all you’re really doing is distracting them from facing up to the real problems.”

Once I realised that I was actually part of the problem and not the solution, I stopped doing those kinds of sessions. And if you’re that guy — the entertainer — I’d urge you to stop too.

Instead, I resolved to understand (I mean really understand) organisational culture because I knew that making change happen there might just lead to lasting change. It’s been some of the hardest work I’ve ever done (we’re challenging beliefs and emotions, remember) but also the most rewarding.

And look what it did to the England teams. After a couple of decades of results-fixation typified by the mythical (but accurate) pleading of the hapless Mike Bassett, England Manager stereotype, when he begs players to ‘Just bloody win, will you?’, Gareth came along sounding more like Ted Lasso. Results weren’t important, having fun and being fairly treated was what mattered.

In the commercial world, leaders are starting to realise the importance of culture, but in the test-driven world of education it barely registers. Results are all that matter and culture is a by-product, considered after all the KPI’s have been ‘met’ — in some cases by dubious methods because as Deming said ‘It’s human nature, give me a target and I’ll find a way to hit it’. But few people — and certainly not governments — think of inverting the telescope. There are many examples where a focus on making schools happy, trusting, transparent, equitable, and engaging places in which to work and study also brings performance benefits (trust me, I have the evidence). Whereas, neglecting the above guarantees that you won’t make your targets anyway. So why not start with culture?

Think about the recent storms surrounding our Police Forces. Misogyny, homophobia, racism abound and the dreaded ‘T’ word (Toxic) is how cultures are deemed to be dysfunctional. (We really need to find another word to describe cultures that are damaged). The net result is that prosecutions have dropped precipitously, 95% of burglaries are not being solved, and trust in the police force is at an all-time low. Does anyone seriously believe that the completely broken culture at the Met, and their dismal KPI’s, are unconnected?

A Deloitte study found that organisations with strong cultures outperformed those without, by a significant margin in terms of revenue growth (4x), net income growth (8x), and job creation (5x). Culture doesn’t just eat strategy for breakfast, it finds a way to infiltrate every aspect of an organisation’s performance. Including schools and colleges.

And the culture of the school or college can’t help but affect student attitudes — despite protestations from dedicated employees that they’re ‘shielding’ students from the tensions within the staffrooms. Dysfunctional cultures will always manifest themselves to users.

So, we at the Power Of Us Agency, can no longer look away. We’re running a global series of workshops — starting in Australia in October — to help people understand culture, and to become ‘cultural architects’.We’ll investigate in-depth the eight elements of effective organisations: Trust, Transparency, Engagement, Equity, Autonomy, Agency, Mastery, Meaning. You’ll be able to attend as an individual or we can come to your organisation. If schools or colleges want us to work exclusively with their organisation, we’ll give you access to our Online Full Cultural Audit, FREE, (usually worth over $20,000 AUD) and only charge you for the three consultants who will help you create the culture you’d like to have.

We talk about ‘leading’ culture, but with today’s leadership models, it’s not so much about telling people what to do, or how it’s going to be around here. Instead, it’s more akin to nurturing culture creators throughout the organisation — think of those impromptu on-field meetings Ben Stokes, England’s Cricket Captain calls when they need to change tactics. That sends a very public message to audiences in the ground and watching on TV: everyone’s ideas count here and good ideas can come from anywhere.

In the first year of our existence, our agency has worked with some iconic global brands, most of whom completely ‘get’ culture. They may have work to do on their own culture, but they know how much it matters: to recruitment and retention, to productivity and performance, and to the external yardsticks that inevitably flourish in a healthy organisational culture. But, with two-thirds of us coming from an education background, it was inevitable that we’d also want to support schools and colleges. We’ve now worked with around 40 schools and colleges. For some, it’s been an affirmation of their cultural development. For others, it’s been confronting — and I am full of admiration for the school leaders who’ve brought what they’ve long suspected into the light, so that, collectively they can help everyone become a ‘culture creator’, and fix it.

We’re excited about supporting many more schools and colleges in their quest to make their organisation a happier and more inclusive place to work, starting in Australia later this year. If you’d like to know more about our Leading Culture programmes (which will hopefully be accredited soon) please contact me at: us@powerofusagency.com