July 2022 edition: Building a Culture of Belonging

Building a Culture of Belonging

The issue of transferability can be problematic in education discourse. Conferences frequently feature voices from other walks of life, from sportsmen and sportswomen to business people and even the odd TV celebrity. The supposition is often two-fold: firstly ideas from beyond education may provide otherwise untapped perspectives and approaches educators might use to improve their practice, and secondly, they might change how we feel – the art of the ‘inspirational speaker’.

In practice though, this can be hard to pull off. What works in one domain is not guaranteed to work in another, and after the ‘feel good’ of the inspirational speaker has worn off, the audience can be left with little in the way of tangibles they can take back into their schools. I’m sure many of us have experienced this: the conference equivalent of chocolate cake – great tasting in the moment but little benefit beyond that.

Occasionally, however, you encounter people who are able pull it off, bridging knowledge and practice effectively between domains, and equipping us with the enthusiasm and conceptual framework to head back into our schools with fresh eyes and new concepts. This was exactly what performance coach Owen Eastwood achieved in his keynote at CST’s annual conference.

Owen is a highly accomplished and well-respected performance coach who is credited with helping to create the cultures upon which numerous sports teams and corporations have built their success. For example, his work is known to have been significant in supporting Gareth Southgate’s ‘revolution’ in the England men’s football team culture.

Of course, track record is important, and Owen’s CV speaks for itself in that regard. But as important to us is the potential transferability of his work into our context. The raucous applause Owen received at the end of his keynote was testament to how he made people feel in the moment, but equally telling was the feedback we received from delegates and the conversations taking place in the queue for the book signing that Owen undertook following his keynote.

His magic as a performance coach is not about catchy slogans or bombastic exhortations for excellence, it’s about our connection with each other. Much of Owen’s approach builds from the culture and beliefs of his Maori ancestry. In particular, the concept of Whakapapa is central. This describes an infinite line of people of which we in the present are momentarily illuminated, after which the sun sets on us and moves on to those who come after us. Taken literally this is a way of considering genealogy but Owen’s work is broader and deeper, manifesting the concept within teams, cultures, and organisations. It is a conceptual framework for thinking about how we relate to who has come before us and who will come after us. In essence, it’s a means of exploring and creating our sense of belonging. As Owen observed, belonging is an essential part of high performance, evidenced in both sociological and scientific research.

Shrewdly, Owen observed the dynamic of Whakapapa is important for us to consider as Trust leaders. After all, many within the sector refer to themselves as custodians of their organisations. Owen asked us to consider what we inherit from those who came before us – the values, perspectives and beliefs that have mattered to them. We should enshrine these and see it as part of our duty (while the sun is on our part of the line) to pass these on to those who come after us.

The second thing we should consider is ‘what needs fixing’? Inevitably, some of what we inherit will be in need of adjustment, repair or reconsideration. This could speak to operational challenges but could equally be about culture. It’s part of our role to tackle these issues.

Owen is a strong advocate of storytelling as a means of enshrining this thinking, helping everyone to be part of the culture. For example, in order to build a strong culture with Great Britain’s diverse Olympic team, he led the creation of an animated video of the GB Whakapapa that was played to the athletes on the plane to Tokyo. The video featured key figures throughout the history of the GB team who played a part in the story of the team’s evolving diversity over time; for example, the first female, Black and Asian athletes. Tellingly, the video closes not with the 2021 team but with those who come after. The point here was to emphasise to the athletes that we are not only inheritors of the stories that came before us, we are also architects of our own stories. The challenge for teams is to write their own story, and by doing so underpin the sense of belonging felt by others in the future.

Sometimes these stories speak to higher purposes than we might expect. For example, in the case of the England men’s football team, one might argue their story is as much about diversity and togetherness as it is about results on the pitch, albeit that there may be a beneficial relationship between the two. This sense of a higher purpose spoke well to the conference theme of #TrulyCivic.

His magic as a performance coach is not about catchy slogans or bombastic exhortations for excellence, it’s about our connection with each other.

Steve Rollett

After establishing the conceptual framework, Owen went on to elaborate on areas of performance coaching and team building, skillfully weaving together his observations about working with people and the potential considerations for Trusts. For example, he made reference to the deliberate reorganisation within the FA to ensure that in key areas teams of all ages were working to a common philosophy and tactical approach. He described how careful thought was given to where there should be commonality and where teams were free to go beyond the blueprint. Rightly, he observed that many Trusts are undergoing the same process as they try to establish the degree of commonality that should exist across a group of schools. He didn’t take a particular stance on this issue, but he provided a useful conceptual framework, again drawn from Maori culture. The aim, he argued, is to establish the non-negotiables that matter to the group, helping everyone to understand why these are part of belonging and not simply arbitrary, and to signpost where there is flexibility.

It was a privilege to listen to Owen speak to Trust leaders at CST’s annual conference; he’s a gently spoken, humble man with a big story to tell about how we build a culture of belonging. The audience’s reaction certainly suggested his work resonated with them and provided food for thought on the challenge of building a cohesive culture across complex organisations.

If you’d like to know more about his work, you can read about it in his book ‘Belonging: The Ancient Code of Togetherness.’