About Fiona Thomas' ELT Blog

I have been working in the ELT industry since 1988 as teacher, Director of Studies, Director of Education and currently COO for a large online language school. I am particularly interested in management including client management, teacher and tutor management, management of projects and management of online communities.

The Happy Manifesto – book review

happyI came across The Happy Manifesto via an article by Oliver Beaumont in the LAMSIG newsletter. Part of Oliver’s article talks about how he introduced a “simple happiness feedback form” in staff appraisals influenced by his reading of Henry Stewart.

Henry Stewart is CEO of the training company Happy Ltd which trains around 20,000 people a year. His company has been awarded:

  • Best company in UK for customer service (Management Today)
  • Best work / life balance of any UK organisation (Financial Times)
  • Best positive impact on society of any UK small business (Business in the Community)
  • Best for promoting staff health and well-being of any UK company (Great Place to Work Institute)

One of the great things about this book is the relevance of what he says to the language teaching industry. Henry Stewart has set up and runs a very successful company running IT courses. OK, it’s not language teaching but it is in the field of education.

It’s a very easy read with lots of personal anecdotes and practical suggestions for applying what he is promoting. Each chapter focuses on a different area included in Henry Stewart’s Happy Manifesto and ends with different reflective questions and a bibliography.

This is his Happy Manifesto:

  1. Trust your people
  2. Make your people feel good
  3. Give freedom within clear guidelines
  4. Be open and transparent
  5. Recruit for attitude, train for skill
  6. Celebrate mistakes – a no-blame culture
  7. Community – create mutual benefits
  8. Love work, get a life
  9. Select managers who are good at managing
  10. Play to your strengths

I found it inspirational and it definitely resonates with how I think language teaching organisations should be run. I was a believer before I read this book but it still gave me lots of new ideas which I want to try to apply and reminded me of some good management practices which I need to do more of.

I think it should be required reading for all owners, directors and managers of language teaching organisations.


The Happy Manifesto by Henry Stewart – Make your organisation a great place to work (2012)

Communicating effectively with students and clients

Communicating effectively with students (people doing our courses) and clients (people paying for the courses) is fraught with difficulties. There are just so many things that can interfere with effective communication and yet if we don’t manage to communicate at a minimally effective level, our students and clients’ experience is going to be far from optimal.

The following is a list of the most common reasons why in my experience communication can breakdown:

  1. Information overload. Providing students and clients with all the information they could possibly ever need all at the same time is not the most effective way to make sure that they get or can find relevant information when they need it
  2. Timing. We assimilate best and are attentive to what somebody is saying when we think the information is relevant to our needs. This means that if we provide students and clients with information which isn’t required at that moment in time, few will remember the information for when it is relevant.
  3. Expectations. Students come to your language teaching organisation (LTOs) with a series of already formed expectations about the sort of experience they are going to have. These expectations will be influenced by a myriad of factors such as their experience of studying English at a different language school; what friends and family have told them about what language courses should be about; what they have seen in social media, on television, in advertisements; and importantly on their experience in education in general (their cognitions).
  4. Language issues. Inevitably if your communication with your students is in English, communication will be limited by their level of English. But, less obviously, communication will be influenced by other aspects of language. We often use technical language with our students and clients without realising we are doing this, what I term TEFL- speak. This is a language specific to those working in the field but which the majority of our clients and students don’t speak.
  5. National and regional cultural identities. Geert Hofstede defined these as the “those things that are shared by people who grew up in the same forest”. Through research he carried out in the 1960s and 1970s on people working for IBM in 70 countries around the world, he developed 6 categories (later 7) on which he scored different countries accordingly to how people behaved in the categories in the different countries. By doing this he proved just how different some cultures are from others and how this influences how we behave. The language teaching industry often brings different cultures together with mixed nationality classes or a teacher from one nationality and students from another. These differences can also contribute to break downs in communication. See http://geert-hofstede.com/ for more information.
  6. Assumptions. We tend to make assumptions about what people know and how they behave e.g. if you send around an email with information, that students or clients have read it and understood it; that a new training manager with an established client will have been brought up to speed by the previous manager, etc.
  7. Chinese whispers. Many students who study at language schools come via agencies or third parties rather than directly. The more middle people there are between you and the end client or student, the more likely information is going to become distorted.

As you can see, there are lots of reasons for why communication can break down so as LTO managers, what can we do about this? How can we limit breakdowns in communication?

Student / client journey

A tool which I find incredibly useful is the student / client journey. It’s a tool that originates in the principles of relationship marketing which focuses on the importance of creating, nurturing and developing a relationship with your students and clients during and even after their time with your language school. This tool can help you work out what information you need to give to your students and clients and when. If this tool is used well, it can help to make sure you share relevant information when required and avoid bombarding students and clients with irrelevant information.

It is suggested that the best way to do this is by breaking down the student journey into different stages which in the case of LTOs would look typically like this:

student journey

For each stage, you need to ask yourselves the following questions:

Actions – what is the student / client doing at this stage?

Motivations – what is motivating the student / client?

Questions – what questions might the student / client have?

Barriers – what might be impeding the student / client from moving on to the next stage?

The answers to each question should help you select what information you need to communicate to your students and clients at each stage of their journey. It helps you to sort out the what and the when of communication. Ideally this would also be used to work out how this information is communicated and by whom. If you do this and involve different people who deal with your students and clients in the process, you have the beginnings of a “communication strategy” which is ideally what you should be striving towards. This is a strategy which reaches across departments and people to ensure that everybody representing the LTO and dealing with students or clients is communicating the same information, message and set of values.

For an inspiring read on just how effective this tool can be, read this article on Sungevity, a solar panel installation company.

But of course effective communication is so much more than what, when, who and how. For communication to be effective it is necessary to understand that it is also about human beings interacting on an emotional and social level. So the second aspect of communication which LTOs need to understand and do well is the importance of applying the principles of emotional and social intelligence competences.

Emotional intelligence competences

Emotional intelligence competences are those competences that allow us to be aware of our emotions and manage them. Moods are contagious; it’s amazing to observe the effect of the mood of a person, particularly managers, on the people they are with. So if we are aware that we are in a great, upbeat mood that is an ideal time to talk to our clients and students. And on the flipside if we are aware that we are not having a great day, maybe we can consider postponing certain meetings or at the very least, try to temper our moods before communicating with people. Interestingly our moods are transmitted not only in person but also by email and at a distance.

Social intelligence competences

Social intelligence competences are the abilities to be aware of other people’s emotions and manage them. One way to communicate effectively with students and clients is to find out and use what is really motivating your students to study English or what is really motivating your clients to contract a course with you. These motivators might just be the necessity to pass an exam but they can go much deeper than this. A lot of importance is being given now to the influence of what is known as Emotional motivators on why we do things.  According to an article in the Harvard Business Review   “emotional motivators drive human behaviour” and when “companies connect with customers’ emotions, the payoff can be high”.

Below is a list of the top emotional motivators which transcend most fields according to this article:

Emotional motivators

If we learn to tap into our clients’ or students’ emotional motivators when we communicate with them, what we say is inevitably going to be more meaningful for them, they are much more likely to want to listen to us and be receptive to what we are saying.

Social intelligence competencies also include showing that you care about your clients and students. Simple things like using your students’ and clients’ names in all communication can make a difference. When dealing with people in person, remember personal information about them and use it. If people feel that you care about them, they will again be much more receptive to anything you need to communicate to them.

And finally, remember to be mindful. Remember to be fully present when you are communicating with somebody. Don’t allow your mind to wander, keep your mind fully in the present in the here and now and demonstrate that you are listening to the people you are talking to you. They will know if you are not and it will be counterproductive. And they will know if you are really there for them, and communication will be much more rewarding if you are.

Feedback and Reflection

Effective communication is hard and getting better at it will only happen in my opinion if we build into our communication strategy moments of reflection involving as many key players as possible. It is essential to frequently revisit the strategy, question its effectiveness and fine-tune it. As Peter Drucker said:

“Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action”

Carefully designed mid- or end-of-course questionnaires which focus on aspects of communication can provide invaluable information on how effectively we are communicating with our students and clients. If they are carried out regularly it also serves as the perfect excuse to bring key players together to talk about the feedback and to give their own feedback about the effectiveness of communication. This keeps communication issues in the forefront of your team’s minds. Reflection needs to include all players who deal with students; it needs to happen on a regular basis; and the resultant reflections need to influence how an LTO’s communication strategy evolves.

Click here for the link to a webinar I gave for LAMSIG: Leadership and Management Special Interest Group (IATEFL) on this topic.

Women in Leadership – Part 2

Proposals on how we can confront the issues brought up by the course Women and Leadership summarised in Part 1 focused on the personal challenges that women face and what women can do about these to maximise their options of getting those top jobs and opportunities for development. The course did not go into any great depth on how the first two barriers (organisational and interpersonal) can be tackled, presumably because they are issues that require far-reaching cultural, organisational and societal change.

It did focus though, on the importance of building women’s self-confidence and on improving women’s negotiation skills.


Women in general have a lot less self-confidence than men and as a result put themselves forward for jobs and promotion proportionately less than men with the equivalent experience and qualifications. Confidence, though, does matter and affects the way people assess our competence in our current job or potential for a new job. A confident, not outstandingly competent person is more likely to get a job in higher management and leadership than an extremely competent not very confident person.

Unfortunately the flipside of this is that confidence in women tends to be considered unfeminine or undesirable by many men although necessary for somebody in a leadership position.

Self-confidence is related to four pillars and according to this course women need to learn to develop all four:

  • Authenticity: this refers to being true to your beliefs and to who you are
  • Self-efficacy: this is about the belief in your ability to sort out problems
  • Adaptability: this refers to the importance of being resourceful
  • Persistence: this is about the determination to persevere in whatever we do

In addition to this is the importance of developing a voice, in other words, the ability to say what needs to be said in a way that is heard. Women in general are “listened to” a lot less than men.

Negotiating skills

Men are four times more likely to negotiate than women and are more likely to get what they want and not be criticised for negotiating.

The course recommends that women need to learn to reframe negotiations as interest-based discussions which aim to find a win-win solution (the organisation gains as well as the person negotiating). In order to make these negotiations more effective it is important to:

  • know your BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement) and the BATNA of the person you are negotiating with
  • balance empathy and assertiveness when negotiating
  • understand the role of your emotions in negotiations and learn to manage them
  • learn to negotiate from your authentic best strengths (rather than trying to imitate somebody else’s strengths)

I know a lot of very competent women in LTOs who are lacking in self-confidence and are not recognised enough for what they do. These women want to believe that they will be recognised because they are good at their jobs. Unfortunately, they can end up being bitterly disappointed and slightly resentful when this does not happen. Whether we like it or not we continue to live in a male-dominated world whether and the unspoken rules about how to get promoted and recognised are set by men. However unfair it may seem, women have to learn to play by them to a certain extent. Women need to develop the confidence and the negotiating skills which will enable them to sell themselves in this male-dominated world and get those positions and opportunities that they deserve.

I’d like to end this post in the same way as the course ended by emphasising that “success” is a subjective word and what counts is not what everybody else thinks success is but your personal definition of success. It was suggested that each women should complete the following three sentences:

To me success means ….

To achieve success, I need to ….

As a successful woman, I …..

Women in Leadership – Part 1

I watched from afar the discussion created around Nicola Prentis’ and Russell Payne’s talk at IATEFL 2015 and was deeply saddened by some of the responses to Nicola. While I choose not to take part in that particular debate, the response to their talk made evident that unfortunately gender discrimination is present in the LTO (Language Teaching Organisation) world.  While we might choose to believe that these remarks were made by isolated individuals, an accumulation of these seemingly low-impact attitudes accrue and create serious issues. Mountains after all are made from molehills.

It was with a certain amount of curiosity and apprehension that I started a MOOC on Women in leadership: Inspiring Positive Change. I had never considered myself a victim of sexual discrimination.  I also believe that I deserve to be where I am today. What’s more, I also recognise that at least two of my most significant professional development opportunities in my career in the teaching English as a foreign language industry were instigated and supported by two men.

On reflection though, thinking back to the all the LTOs where I have worked, all the directors of these organisations have always been men and this gives me food for thought.

The following is a summary of the most important issues that were addressed about women and leadership on this course. I am summarising the points here in two posts, the first post covers the context and the second possible courses of action. I think it is useful for both LTOs and individuals of both sexes working in the English Language teaching field to stop and reflect on the issues. I think we need to question whether sexual discrimination exists in LTOs and if it does, what we can do to address it. The following points do not necessarily reflect my personal opinions.


Across all fields the proportion of men to women in jobs is much larger the higher up the responsibility ladder we go. There is more or less parity between women and men with regard to conditions and opportunities at the teaching and middle management level (DoS) but for positions above middle management the proportion of women to men drops substantially. I don’t have data about the LTO specifically but the following is data on the education sector in general in the United States: US Education women Source: Catalyst 2011, AACSB 2012, AAMC 2012

Why is this?

The course explained that there are three types of barriers to women advancing professionally above middle management:

Organisational barriers

  1. Research shows that most people are more comfortable working with people of the same sex. And given that there are more men in positions of power, these men have a tendency to recruit more men to work with them.
  2. Most organisations do not have development policies targeted at women and as traditionally they were targeted at men, it is more difficult for women to access these opportunities.
  3. In general higher standards of performance and effort are demanded from women than men.

Interpersonal barriers

  1. Expectations about how men and women should behave at work are different. It is acceptable for men to be outspoken, to put themselves forward and to negotiate better conditions and promotion. Women, on the other hand, who behave in similar ways are perceived as being aggressive, ambitious and unfeminine. These biases are usually not conscious biases and are known as second generation gender bias. They are the result of ingrained beliefs about the role of women and men at work.
  2. Many women are excluded from informal networks which are dominated by men where a lot of business and networking takes place.
  3. Due to the lack women in key leadership positions, there is also a lack of mentors for women to refer to and use as role models.

Personal challenges

  1. Many women face challenges related to balancing home life and work commitments and while this is also true for some men, the number of men who face these challenges is still very small.
  2. In general women have a lot less confidence in themselves than men. Apparently in general men will apply for a job when they are 60% qualified or experienced for it while women will only apply for a job when they feel 100% qualified and experienced.
  3. Women tend to negotiate less frequently and in a different way to men. In a male-dominated world they are therefore at a disadvantage and are less likely to negotiate successfully than men are. It is generally acceptable for men to negotiate frequently and assertively. Women, on the other hand, tend to want to be recognised for their merits, they negotiate less and not are less likely to achieve what they want than men.

It is widely recognised that a balance of women and men in top positions in any organisation creates a much more successful organisation than one dominated or run solely by men or women. However, despite knowing this, the vast majority of organisations are lead and run by men. It is unlikely that the current imbalance will be changed unless action is taken by these organisations (in our case LTOs). They need to reflect on their current practices; become much more transparent in terms of opportunities, salaries, and development policies; and try to actively redress the imbalance.

See post 2 for examples of what women can do about this.

My reflections on the PCE organised by LAMSIG at IATEFL 2015

LAMSIG PHOTO 2015This year was my first PCE (Pre-Conference Event) at IATEFL (International Association of Teaching English as a Foreign Language) and the LAMSIG (Leadership and Management Special Interest Group) PCE was a great one to choose. The topic was conflict management. The day was divided up into an input session by George Pickering followed by an input session and case study presented by Andy Hockley which we then discussed in groups. The afternoon was a series of different case studies which were worked through in different groups. And then the whole day was rounded up by Loraine Kennedy who asked us to reflect on what we were taking away from the day.

The format was great and worked wonderfully and I think all the managers present could relate to the case studies in one way or another. The design of the day was perfect for this setting but there were four factors which for me made the day so fascinating. This is in relation to the incredible diversity of managers who participated in the event:

  1. Experience in management: the managers who attended ranged from fairly new managers (I think the minimum was 2 years’ management experience, maybe it was less) to people who have been involved in management for many years
  2. The number of people they were managing: some people were managing 650 teachers while others were managing 5 teachers
  3. Type of organisation: This included small and large private language schools, universities and online language schools
  4. Cultural backgrounds: There were managers present who were managing in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Spain, Israel, Germany, the UK and many other places.

This meant that our reactions to how we would respond to the different issues of conflict in the various case studies were just as diverse as the managers in the room and was both thought- provoking and stimulating. It also was a useful reminder that there is no right or wrong way to manage and that so much is dependent on context, experience and personal management styles.

I would have found it fascinating to have mapped people’s reactions and responses in relation to these four factors to see if there were any patterns which could have been identified. There probably would have been too many variables to have reached any conclusions but it would have been fascinating.

This just leaves me to say thank you Jenny, George, Andy, Josh, Loraine and Andy for organising a great day. I I look forward to attending more in the future.

Managers and identity crises

identity crisisI remember when I first got my current job back in 2001, it was decided that my job definition would be Director of Education. This was because the associations with the title Director of Education would allow for my role in the company to move in more directions and be more open-ended than if I had been given the more conventional title of Director of Studies. And this was fine by me. I was moving into a whole new world, moving from being a Director of Studies of a conventional language school to a world of distance learning and online language courses and schools.

It was a good decision in that job titles create certain expectations and associations which, if not met, can cause confusion and sometimes resentment and criticism. Since then my job has evolved in directions which would have been difficult to imagine back in 2001. The changes have been partly due to industry demands; partly because I have wanted to develop certain areas and take on certain roles; and partly because this is what the company has needed me to do. So while my job title still holds true in many senses of peoples’ expectations associated with the title, it also involves a lot of aspects of management that I think few people associate with it.

Incidentally one of the things I love about my job is the fact that my role changes so often and grows in different directions every year. However, the flipside of this is that these changes can lead to some minor and some more major identity crises. These crises tend to manifest themselves at certain times when something I do or ask somebody to do is questioned or rejected.

From talking to other managers and analysing my own experiences, there seems to be a pattern to when these crises happen. I have identified three:

  1. When people are under pressure, feel insecure, or feel threatened.
  2. In organisations which have a complex organisational structure. In my opinion, the greater the complexity of the organisational structure, the more complex the relationships with people tends to be and the more likely it is that misunderstandings will take place.
  3. Organisations in which cliques tend to form. These groups tend to be very defensive and rally to protect themselves from any perceived threat to their position of power or influence.

Of course, when things are going well and everybody is happy, there are normally not any issues.

I think these crises are part and parcel of being a manager, especially if you want to and are given the opportunity to grow as a manager. As your role changes, some people will inevitably feel that you are stepping on their toes or overstepping your mark.

The challenge is to learn how to deal with these crises and not let them knock your self-confidence.

You can obviously be sensitive to certain signs and be especially diplomatic around people you have identified as being likely to react negatively in potentially confrontational situations.  However, beyond that, most of the time there is little you, as the manager, can do to prevent these incidents from happening. Indeed the three points identified above are well beyond the sphere of influence of most middle managers.

So how can we deal with these crises when they happen? I like to remind myself of the following three points:

  1. Don’t expect people to change or react in different ways from what you have experienced. People only change if they want to change, not because you want them to or think they should.
  2. Accept that dealing with identity crises is part of the job of a manager and the higher up you go in terms of management, the more of these you are likely to experience.
  3. The key is how you deal with these moments. If you can manage to apply the principles of emotional and social intelligence to deal with these incidents, these crises will be a lot less severe.

I’m particularly looking forward to the PCE for LAMSIG this year at IATEFL in Manchester which is all about dealing with difficult people. I hope to see some of you there, share experiences and maybe get to exchange ideas about this.

And, of course, if anybody would like to share their opinions and experiences here, I’d love to hear from you.

Cognitions, Corporate Identity and Relationship Marketing

I have a Renault Kangoo. It’s a great car / van which gets me up most roads and dirt tracks despite not being a 4 x 4 wheel drive (for my mountaineering exploits). If a Kangoo is classified as a van, in Spain it needs to pass its M.O.T. (Spanish equivalent) every 6 months, if it’s a car, it’s every year or so. However, to establish that you are using your Kangoo as a car, you need a certificate from your Renault garage that states that you are using the vehicle as a car and not a van.


So, on Saturday morning off we went to the local Renault garage to try to get this certificate. This is more or less how the conversation went:

Renault guy: “Hi, can I help you?”

Us: explained the above

Renault guy: “I just sell cars”

Us: “OK, but how can we get this certificate we need?”

Renault guy: “I just sell cars, you need to get that from the Renault mechanics” (behind the showroom there is a Renault garage for repairing cars)

Us: “OK, are they open today?”

Renault guy: “I just sell cars” (yeah …. I think we’ve gathered this now – we presume that means no)

Us: “Is there a Renault place around here that is open today where we can get this certificate?”

Renault guy: “I just sell cars, there might be one in Sabadell (miles away), I don’t know …”

You get the picture, right? …….. He just sells cars

We left this “helpful” salesman with lots of food for thought and not exactly about cars. How could somebody be such a bad ambassador for the company where he worked? How could he care so little about the impression he was making and how this reflected on the company that paid his salary?

Leaving aside all the criticisms I could have about this particular salesman, our brief dialogue got me thinking about the effect one individual can have on the reputation of a company or organisation. And I started to think about whether this could happen in the Language Teaching Organisation (LTO) that I manage and what I can do to make sure that potential customers, current customers or ex-customers never experience anything like this.

I came to the conclusion that in order for people representing an LTO to transmit the values and beliefs of the LTO where they work, their cognitions firstly need to be in synch with the LTO’s beliefs and values and secondly they need to be aware of the importance of communicating them in any interaction they have with clients or potential clients. In other words their cognitions need to be in line with the LTO’s corporate identity and applied to the principles of relationship management.


Cognitions are belief systems which are based on our experience and the training we receive. These belief systems are often unconscious and are deeply entrenched in our attitudes to teaching, learning and management. They are based on years of learning and living in a certain way and according to Lou McLaughlin’s research are very difficult to change. Sending someone on a training course which introduces people to other belief systems will not change the beliefs of a lifetime even if the person attending the course seems to agree with them. These cognitions will only change when managers recognise that different cognitions exist; when we constantly monitor these belief systems and how they manifest themselves; and work on trying to move them in the direction of what our LTOs stand for (through training and development sessions as well as other means). If we are unable to bring these cognitions in line with the core values and beliefs of our LTOs, the messages that our customers receive may be very mixed and confusing.

Corporate identity

Corporate identity is about what our company (in our case, LTO) stands for and what people associate with the name of our company. It’s about the LTO’s mission and objectives. It is much more than “we sell cars” or in our case “we sell language courses”. Having a strong, shared corporate identity helps to build a team of people working towards the same objectives.

These are some questions which I think are relevant to ask yourself as a manager in terms of corporate identity:

1- Does the LTO you manage have a clearly defined corporate identity?

  1. If it does, do the people working for the LTO know what it is?
  2. Do the people working for the LTO share and believe in this identity?
  3. Do the people in your LTO transmit this identity and values?

Unless the answer is yes to all these questions, then this suggests there is work to be done on clarifying and agreeing your LTO’s corporate identity; on working on different personal cognitions; and on the importance of communicating this identity.

Relationship management

Relationship management is about analysing how you deal with your clients / customers before they become your client, while they are your client and after they have stopped becoming your client. This is about public and customer relations and about how you market your LTO and the services it offers. It obviously ties in very closely to both cognitions and corporate identity. Good relationship marketing is only going to be possible if everybody shares the same objectives and core beliefs about the LTO they represent. Administrative staff, teaching staff, front-of-house staff, marketing staff etc. all need to be speaking the same language J (awful pun – sorry) to communicate a clear and successfully appealing message which will be coherent with the experience people get if they sign up for a course.

By placing sufficient importance on the inter-relationship between cognitions, corporate identity and relationship marketing, we hopefully make this possible.

So, would I buy another Renault Kangoo? Well, definitely not from that Renault garage, and to be honest I would prefer to buy another make of car in the future. I don’t want to buy a brand new car from car showroom that “just sells cars”. I want to also buy reassurance that they’ll look after me if anything goes wrong, I want them to make me feel that they’ll be there for me if I need some help …..

I’d hate to think of somebody reacting in the same way about the LTO I manage.