3 Jul 2023

Graham Morley, senior leadership consultant and experienced college leader

This month, senior leadership consultant and experienced college leader Graham Morley has discussed his experience of managing crises and why effective communication is so important. 

How crucial are communications to the effective handling of a crisis in a college? 

I’ve found one of the things that typifies almost all failing colleges is poor communication. It was always obvious to me that good internal and external communication is an essential element of running a good college in all circumstances. But it particularly comes into stark focus during a crisis. If you've got a bedrock of good communication to start off with, managing a crisis becomes a lot easier. 

Staff need to believe that they know their leader, and they need a vision for the future. You have to establish a bedrock of trust, transparency and honesty. For example, when I went into a college in difficulty, the first thing I did was talk to the whole staff and introduce myself.

My message was, ‘this is what I'm here to do’ and ‘this is the way I see it at this moment’. I would also say ‘you are going to have to bear with me, I don't know it all yet and you know far more than me, so I want to be talking to you and I want you to talk to me’. That was my key message. Then I would meet with staff regularly and make it known that I would welcome their emails.

I’ve found at the start in some colleges, staff can be very reticent to actually put their hand up or ask a question. There can be a culture whereby if somebody had asked a difficult or challenging question, they could find themselves on top of the redundancy list the following week, something indicative of bad communication and a badly run college. 

Staff in FE colleges are very intelligent people. One of the things I know from experience is that individual staff members, and staff collectively, deal with crises better when they know what they're dealing with. 

Similarly, for external stakeholders, I found they gain confidence if they know who you are, can contact you and look you in the eye. They need to hear you explaining what the issues are, and then how you're going to get them resolved even if you don't know all the answers. You get an enormous amount of credibility in the early days of managing a crisis by saying, I don't know that yet. 

Do you think the number of trigger events for crises in colleges (e.g., negative Ofsted reports, ESFA notices to improve) has increased? 

I’m not sure but I do know that when a college is well led and managed, there is always the potential for things to go wrong. 

I remember in the old days, before I was a principal, David Collins [a former principal and FE Commissioner] would ensure we'd have to have a crisis management plan in place, covering who was responsible for what. Then without any warning to anybody, he would just launch a practice crisis. We’d then run it through as if it were real. Afterwards, we'd have a debrief and we'd think through what went right and what went wrong, and it was a really, good, sensible thing to do. 

If you have a bedrock of good communication to start off with, managing a crisis becomes a lot easier
Graham Morley, senior leadership consultant and experienced college leader

And it's what I did when I was a principal. For example, I remember on one of the initial practice runs the duty manager had to go and stand by reception, as the person responsible for managing the crisis. But what we realised is they couldn’t communicate or hear anyone over the alarm, which is why it’s important to practice, to find out these things.

With Ofsted grades, I do think the stakes have got higher. I think we've moved more to a time where principals are treated a bit like football team managers. You have a couple of bad games and you can very quickly lose your position. 

During your time as a principal, did you put in place any measures to prepare or improve a college's ability to communicate during a crisis, such as additional training for staff? 

Yes. One of the first things I did when I became principal, because of the experience I'd had working for David Collins and what I'd noticed over the years, was to set up media training for myself. For example, I didn't want the first time I was doorstepped to involve having a mic shoved in front of my mouth as I pulled up at the college!

To that end, I went away with the senior team for a few days to practice different scenarios. I also ensured managers knew what was expected of them at induction. 

Even though I never went on to be doorstepped, I wanted to ensure I would always be able to present myself as articulately as I could. 

In your experience, has misinformation been a common problem during crises and where has that originated from? 

There's always been room for misinformation but the better the communication, the less room there is for misinformation to spread. 

I saw a tweet a couple of weeks ago saying that staff don't read 90 per cent of emails. I’m not sure whether this is factually correct but it does indicate that communication isn’t just about sending out an all-staff email. I focused on one-to-one meets, group meetings and getting all staff together often.

The more staff understand what's going on in a crisis, the more they understand the narrative and what's being said in the press, the less room there is for gossip and hearsay. I used to say if you haven't heard it from me, don't believe it. If you've got a question, ask me, I'll tell you. 

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