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‘I believe in distributive leadership’

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Guy Cassarchis sits atop as the Chief Executive Officer of Grange School, Nigeria’s foremost Ivy League institution. In this interview with Ibrahim Apekhade Yusuf, the Australian-born education administrator, who has served across three different continents in the past three decades, speaks on his management style and driving force. Excerpts:

How long have you been in Nigeria?

I have been here for 15 months now; precisely since August 2017 till now.

What is your background career-wise?

I have been in education for 31 years and I have been fortunate to be headmaster/CEO for a couple of schools from reception till grade 12. My background from the start is Physical Education and Health/Sports as a fresh graduate in 1988. I have held positions as Head of Teaching and Learning in classroom Wellbeing and also in the area of Health and Sports. Personally, I have been really fortunate to be given opportunity to cover all areas of the school. It’s not just academic like it is with some other people. But I have been very fortunate to be given opportunities in the area of sports learning and beyond the classroom area. Apart from that I was a footballer. I have had a very outstanding career in football. I used to be part of a football academy. I coached at league level as a youth Olympic representative back in Australia. Also coached for Track and Field and also I worked in football rugby and swimming. I have been leading in other British curriculum international schools. I was in South East Asia in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia before I came to Nigeria.

How do you compare your experiences in past schools with your present posting in Nigeria?

I find that the school management team is very hard working and they are up to date with international trends in education. The staff work very hard and always willing and continue learning and the children also are very accepting of change to better themselves in school. In fact, I always tell anybody if I could pick any school, I would pick Grange School to wherever I may go to teach or live in the future. The children are equal to if not better than any place in the world. This is beautiful. The challenges that we do have are mostly financial challenges due to recession with families struggling to pay school fees. And we have been assisting families in trying to set payment plans to be able to pay off the school fees. So been mindful of that is very important from a management perspective. But the Governing Council and our Board of Directors have surely been supportive of the school in resolving this issue. Basically, everyone wants to move the school forward. Yes, sometimes there are things that are done through processes that are may be a little bit archaic or old fashion because the school has here for a long time, it’s 60 years now. So it’s expected. You also find that when older people are in charge of the running of the school such as the Board of Directors, the Governing Council their mindset is from when schools were old. But the school is very dynamic in changing and therefore we need to think more about what happening around the world. So sometimes it takes a little bit longer to get change effected and you have to sort of educate them too on what it takes to run a school in a 21st century for them to keep learning. There are always going to be management decisions aimed at making things happen for the better. In this 21st century, schools are now offering different forms of subsidies for school fees. There are things like refer a friend to school for example, and they come in and sign in, you get a discount on your fees. There are a lot of things now we have to think about. Many organisations we come to because of the current economic problem.

Have had similar challenges of financial incapacitation by parents in other schools you have taught?

Yes. Essentially it is a global problem. When I came here, obviously coming from South East Asia in Kuala Lumpur we had the same problem. Their economy dropped, especially the value of their local currency, ringgit and therefore families found it hard to pay school fees. And other companies too with expatriate staff could no longer pay for their staff’s children school fees. So expatriates were also affected because their salaries, housing upkeep, airfares and all could not be paid the companies they work with. So people were heading back to their home countries. International schools out there, most of their students’ numbers were shrinking. So we had to strategise and come up with new ideas to keep the income steady. So it happens. It also happened back in Australia then. It’s a competitive market and you should be aware that there are other British schools in Lagos and we are all competing for the same type of children. So apart from having the grade at 9, great results and wide ranging offerings once your school fees becomes a contentious issue for families, you need to make sure that you don’t cause upset otherwise you lose children to other institutions of learning or you won’t get children coming in at all.

As the CEO of Grange School when does your typical day begins?

Traditionally, you try to be at work by 7am because the student’s starts coming in by 7:30am and by 7:45, the school day starts. So you try to get in around 7am. And the school day for the children finishes by 3:15pm but there are programmes after school till usually 4:30-5pm or so. So around about 5-6pm, I head home and once I get home I have a short break and see my little boy and we have a bit of chat and then after that I have dinner. So you tend to put in somewhere between 3-4 hours minimum at home and then the next morning you start again. So it’s not a typical CEO job in an office because I have multiple days: working in school, talk to the children by going to the classrooms, have a looksee. I run a football competition for the children. So after lunchtime, I play football with the children or skipping with the children. I go into the dining room and from that atmosphere you then go into the boardroom where you have to present a paper and talk about education and the financial status of the school. So it’s quite a vibrant job and you have to be switched on all the time because you’re talking about teaching and learning, you’re talking about technology, you talk about education, our extension plan to the island. Then talk football, swimming pool, and all. And that’s all in one day. And then you will be running a policy document and you will be looking at appraisal documents and modernising processes.

As the CEO, do you have time to unwind?

I try to hang out every once in a while.

Do you have any specific regimen you follow?

I try to do cycling when I get home. I spend a little bit of time with my little baby and then slowly start doing a little bit of work. In some weekends, I try to also communicate. Usually, I try to go for a run. So we do a lot at the gym and I try to do about an hour. Weekend we use to have Saturday school here. So there is a lot of sporting activities here in the morning. We also have family time. We usually go to the island for lunch or dinner. In Sunday, we would observe some family time in the morning, I get to the gym and sometimes it’s other school functions that I need to run. But I’m trying to keep Sunday as a day where I do my school work at my own pace; it’s not rush-rush-rush.

Can you tell us what your management style is? What works for you? Do you delegate or micromanage?

I believe in distributive leadership. So I don’t believe in micromanaging people. Once you give people a job, you let them do their jobs otherwise you don’t employ them. Of course, the executive we have in the school are very knowledgeable and we meet once a week to make sure that we are running as one whole school. That way a lot of people are in charge and they know what to do. And all I do is just keep me informed of where I need to be. And if I want to decide something, I will be prepared and I will go and support them. So that’s my style. I listen a lot and I never make quick judgments without listening to all the stakeholders and that includes the children.

Since you came on board as the CEO what has been the most toughest decision you have had to take?

That’s a very tricky question. (Laughs). One was the introduction of a new technology so we asked each and every one of the children to bring a laptop to school. They log into their Wi-Fi and when they go into each classroom the teacher can utilise the technology to get the children to search the web for education information based on what they are doing. But there was a little bit of traditional restriction. Some of the staff, of course, good Nigerian teachers were a little bit worried about the children been exposed to the internet and how will we manage to control that? I had to explain that this is the way to train the 21st century children, you must use technology. So if you restrict the students just to textbooks which are written and published, they are not getting the most up to date information. Because when you use digital technology for classroom, you don’t with traditional methods. So we also put software on the teacher’s device to enable us see what every student in the classroom has on their laptops. And the teacher now teaches from the back of the classroom to see the whole screen in front of him. So that was pretty one of the most challenging. The teachers here said this has never happened before; it is against our tradition and culture. But we really changed in the way we want to think. That was one of the challenges. The other one is getting better, is children’s voice across. In modern day international school, children are listened to from management perspective. Before now, the children wouldn’t speak up and they had a lot of issues. So what I found was that they didn’t want to talk come under heat from the local teachers. But funny enough, they come to my office and want to see me. And we sit down and they talk about all the issues they have and I’m quite amazed. Then I will meet with my executive team and relay what I hear from the students about what they are telling us. And that was also difficult because it was hard for them to take what the children had to say. But at the end of the day, we were able to tell the teachers what the children are saying and doing everything humanly possible to address their concerns.

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