Be brave. Be authentic.

Cate Begbie was appointed Principal of PLC Perth in mid 2019. SMJ talked with Cate about the priorities of a new Head and working with school marketing and communication teams.

SMJ: What is PLC Perth like?
I think it’s one of the most beautiful schools in Australia, located right between Cottesloe Beach and the Swan River. I don’t know that you can get a better location for a school! It doesn’t have big fences or walls around it and it actually feels like a part of the local community. It’s a school with a very strong heart and I think that was what drew me back here. I’ve never been in a school where the ties are so strong between all elements of the community. The staff, the parents, Old Collegians … people continually come back. I attribute that to the fact it’s a school based on a very strong value set. I know all schools are, but the strength of those values and the consistency amongst members of the community make it something quite special.

SMJ: How did you grow up to aspire to be a Head?
CB: I always wanted to be a teacher; I don’t ever remember wanting to be anything but a teacher. I think I was really drawn to being a part of that moment when a child gets something for the first time. I started out as an Early Learning teacher in Singapore for four years, then I went back to Sydney and taught at Kambala for six years. After that, I came to Perth and was the Deputy Head of the PLC Junior School. Then, while in a Head of Junior School role at Wesley College in Perth — which I thought was my dream job, my forever job, and I loved it — I started to wonder if there was something else out there, something else worth trying. Did I dare venture across the road into Senior School and give it a go? I was lucky enough to be offered a Dean of Students role at St Aidan’s Anglican Girls’ School in Brisbane. I did that for a year, then went into a Deputy’s role for a year and now I’m the new Principal at PLC Perth. So I didn’t set out wanting to be a Principal; I set out wanting to be a teacher. Then I think what grew in me was the desire to lead a school of teachers who love teaching as much as I do. And I think that’s what drives me to be a leader.

SMJ: Introvert or extrovert?
CB: Well, I thought I was an introvert, but when I did the testing for this role, I’ve become an extrovert apparently! So, I think I probably am a little bit more extroverted than I used to be, but a fairly contained extrovert.

SMJ: Coming from Early Learning to Head of a PP-12 school is not a common career path. Have you felt lonely along that journey?
CB: I’ve had perceptions of myself that were wrong. I had a lot of self-doubt, but it was absolutely my own perception of myself. Nobody else at the school thought that, so it was more that I had to reframe my thinking of myself rather than anything else. I’ve had a few people reach out to me saying, “How did you do it? What was it like to cross that bridge?” I think there are some amazing Primary School leaders who hold themselves back from taking that step into Senior School or whole school leadership.

SMJ: What are some of your immediate communication challenges as a new Head?
CB: Introducing someone new to a community in the middle of the school year probably meant that the team had to frame some things a little bit differently. I really appreciated that the team led by our Director of Strategic Communications, Keryn McKinnon, took the time to get to know and understand me to make sure the media we produced reflected who I am as a person and a leader. The challenge wasn’t so much in the creation of the media, but in taking the time to build the relationships so that the people who were creating the media understood me well enough to know that it was projecting me for who I was.

SMJ: How important is projecting who you are?
CB: Well, to me it’s critical. I am me; I can’t be anybody else. I’ve talked a lot about the concept of being brave, being courageous, helping young people step outside their comfort zone and like who they are. Those are the things that I stand for and that are important to me. If I reflect on my own career — and this is something I talk to the girls about — if I hadn’t been brave at different points, I wouldn’t be here now and sometimes it would have been a lot easier to not be brave.

SMJ: What is your definition of school marketing?
CB: I think it’s celebrating the positives and the great things that happen within a school. It’s celebrating and highlighting the things that we’re really proud of and who we are. I don’t think it’s just about celebrating the awards students win or the very top moments. It’s celebrating the things that reflect our values and making sure those things come through really strongly in our messaging. But I don’t necessarily see it just as a tool to sell the school. It’s a tool to communicate.

SMJ: When you communicate, what do you want the audience to take away?
CB: That we are a school that walks our talk; that when they do a community tour or when they meet with a member of staff, the things that we say we do are the things that happen in our everyday doing. It’s the way we are. It’s the way we do things. It’s the way we react together. That parents actually see that what they’ve heard transfers to practise. Whether it’s external or internal, you’re marketing all the time. You want that messaging that’s going home to your current parents to be positive all the time.

SMJ: What are the next steps for your marketing strategy?
CB: We’re looking strategically at our marketing needs, looking specifically at who we are marketing to and what is our point of difference, but also holding onto that authenticity of who we are. I want to make sure that parents are picking the school that is the right one for them, the one that sits best with their family values. Looking at what it is about us that makes us the right school for their child has been an important part of our discussion.

SMJ: How does your marketing strategy link back to your whole of school strategy?
CB: Marketing is a key strategy for any school today. It’s a reality for all schools that we need to refocus our marketing and link it closely to our strategy. I think parents over the last five to ten years have been looking far more closely at the strategic plans of the school — where the school is going — when they’re enrolling their children. Parents are actually showing a lot more engagement there than they ever have.

SMJ: What place does the marketing and communications team have within an independent school in 2020?
CB: I think it’s a combination of driving and support. One of the shifts we’ve seen over the years is the level of support provided by those teams, in making sure there’s clarity about what’s going out, and consistency in what’s going out. But you also have a team who is on top of and very aware of what the trends are around us, who are keeping us up-to-date about what’s in the news and who’s in the news, where the enrolments are sitting, what’s happening and what marketing is coming out of other schools. So, in terms of helping narrow and drive our own marketing plans and strategy, I think the role of that team has become quite critical in navigating the ship. I’ve only been here a short time, but they have very much guided and advised me along the way. This navigation is certainly not done in isolation. As a team, they have a very good understanding of the values of the school, where the teachers are at, where the school is at and where it’s going. So I guess in that sense we’re really fortunate that that alignment is very, very strong. I don’t know in other schools whether the alignment is as strong, whether you have that same level of drive or whether that’s something that we’re fortunate to have here because of the team that we have.

SMJ: Your marketing and communications team have access to you. It’s not arm’s length?
CB: No, not at all. I’m probably down in Keryn’s office a few times a day to bounce ideas around, run things past her or just to get her perspective on something. It brings a very different perspective into the school. I am a teacher; I’m a classroom teacher. I will always be a classroom teacher. I know that my opinions are biased by that. The advantage of marketing teams coming into schools is that they give you a fresh perspective that is beyond the school and beyond the classroom. I’ve been in education now for 20 years and marketing has changed in that time. If you don’t have a team who keeps you abreast of those changes and what is happening in other organisations, I think there’s a missed opportunity. So, to have a team who can actually add that perspective gives you a different dimension as an organisation beyond just a school.

SMJ: What would your advice be to other new Heads on marketing and communication in their school?
CB: Market yourself and your school as you are. Be authentic. Our parents are highly intelligent people and they see through things. Unless you own yourself, who you are and what your school is, I think it would be very hard to market yourself with any value.

Insight applied

  • Your self-perceptions could be limiting.
  • Be yourself and be authentic.
  • Your school must walk the talk.
  • Marketing is also internal.
  • Know your own bias and seek other perspectives.

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