Q&A: Charles Caldwell: "Coaching is the key to better leadership"

Author: Doveen Schecter | Date: 06 Jan 2016

The English Schools Foundation’s HR director on the post-heroic leadership model

Charles CaldwellBeing in charge of HR for 21 educational institutions, mostly internationals schools in Hong Kong, requires a leader who can identify and develop other leaders to become excellent educators. In a 2014 TedX talk, ‘Leading Through the Green Light’, Charles Caldwell – who joined the English Schools Foundation as HR lead in 2011 after a lengthy career in the technology sector – told a compelling story about his own journey to overcoming ego and finding a path that combines both charisma and humility to enable collaboration. He continues to ask himself tough questions as he helps others develop their careers, he tells People Management.
 
How has your experience informed your current approach to leading HR in an educational environment?
A coaching model supports an approach to problem-solving that is all about asking questions. By asking the right questions, a team member or subordinate can identify the solution to an issue and have higher ownership on implementing the solution. And coaching also assumes that people are full of good ideas and potential, as opposed to the manager or leader having the ideas. Whether it’s in the educational field or the technology industry, a coaching approach is more motivating and applicable. Today, coaching is being used more often as a leadership development tool instead of the large, company-wide leadership programmes we saw in the past. Coaching supports a post-heroic leadership model, which is what my TedX Talk was about.
 
How have you had to adjust your approach to working with teachers compared to business professionals?
The technology industry is much more ambiguous and fast growing, while the education industry is more predictable and moves more steadily. We have more than 1,000 staff from overseas, and helping them adjust to Hong Kong can sometimes be a challenge. For example, many staff come from countries with a very different standard or model of medical care. This is an area where we constantly need to manage expectations, while ensuring staff members receive the care that they need.
 
What innovations or new technology are you using to manage HR among your 3,000 employees?
We are making inroads in the areas of employee and manager self-service. We see our role as preparing students for the workforce of the future. That might be next year for some graduates or in 15 years for others. Regardless, we are constantly looking for ways to embrace technology. We are aggressively shifting HR technologies and approaches to adapt to the latest trends, such as social media recruiting.
 
Almost a third of your teachers have been with you for 10 years, but you still have a large annual hiring process. Is this expansion or a replenishing of your staff?
We have approximately eight per cent attrition each year, which is actually quite low. Most of the talent acquisition involves replacing the 100-ish teachers who leave. The annual recruitment process, however, happens in a concentrated time frame from December to March each year, making it look like a big recruitment push. We do have areas of ESF that are modestly growing, which will of course add to the annual recruitment.
 
What are the biggest challenges for retaining teachers in a transient city?
At this point in time, we don't have a challenge retaining teachers. Part of that might be because we spend a lot of time inducting them in advance. The process starts as early as March, when they first receive an offer from ESF. From March to July, we provide a significant amount of collateral, including connecting them with real estate agents, to begin the settling-in process. Obviously, Hong Kong is perceived as an expensive city and is a completely different culture for most. Once landing in Hong Kong, we spend a lot of time orienting teachers, from finding a reasonably priced flat to where they can get the best deals on household wares and food. We also provide some basic cross-cultural training (including learning Cantonese) and forewarn them that they will go through a cross-cultural adaptation curve.
 
Do you offer development and benefits comparable to other schools?
We offer a competitive pay, benefits, medical and life insurance package, but even more so, we provide extraordinary career and professional development opportunities. The CPD offering is one area where ESF scores off the charts when departing teachers complete our exit interview surveys. It is a big differentiator for us and we even have many cases where other international schools in Hong Kong are sending their teachers to ESF for CPD.