Love thy neighbour

It was one of the world’s most famous writers who once remarked that you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.

Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, made a salient point. But here’s another quirky little thought: you can choose your friends, but you rarely get to choose your neighbours … especially those next to your school.

I have a sneaking suspicion that a few of you reading this right now might just be nodding in agreement. Why? Because, for some reason, people who live in close proximity to an educational institution seem to wield strange, supernatural powers to cause the Head of that school an awful lot of grief.

Hmm, let me think … Complaints about too much noise from the school band practising on a Saturday morning? Letters of protest about parents parking on their verge at pick-up time? Outrage over rowdy kids on the local bus? Or, even worse, opposition to your planned school building program because it will cast a shadow over their backyard?

It’s that last one that can cause a lot of pain because, with local councils besieged by the ‘not-in-my-backyard’ phenomenon, just a single voice of complaint from a grumpy neighbour can be enough to put your whole future strategy on ice.

So, does it really need to be this difficult? Let me begin by acknowledging that some neighbours are just plain unreasonable; there are certain individuals who appear to derive great pleasure from causing school Heads grief. I know, I’ve met them.

But by and large, you can build positive and enduring relationships with your neighbours, and it’s an investment that can pay off in spades.

Here’s how I recommend you go about it:

  1. Be proactive; don’t just wait until you get a complaint. If you’ve created some form of relationship before an issue arises, you’ll be in a far better position to reach an acceptable solution. Familiarity is your friend when there is friction with a neighbour — being a stranger makes you open to suspicion and fear.

  2. Before you start, make sure you’re prepared to invest some time on an ongoing basis. That ‘ongoing’ bit is important. Relationships require commitment in order to be sustained, and introducing yourself once but never speaking again is really a waste of time.

  3. Get someone in your office to create a list of the names of the people who live in the 50 or so homes closest to your school. (I would like to suggest a greater number, but I don’t think that’s realistic.)

  4. Send them a brief, personalised note introducing yourself, and providing them with your email address and phone number. (This doesn’t need to be slick — a handwritten note on your office stationery is perfect.)

  5. Consider extending an invitation for them to join you sometime for a cup of tea or coffee. The vast majority will likely never respond — especially if they are full-time workers or have busy families. What’s most important here is the action itself. That invitation you’ve extended to them illustrates intent — you’re showing yourself to be accessible and friendly, not hiding behind the school fence.

  6. The other advantage of extending invitations for some form of verbal engagement is that it can be a lightning rod for trouble. You never know what is simmering on the other side of the fence. Better that the aggrieved individual reaches out direct to you with a complaint than rings up their local councillor or writes a letter to the local newspaper first.

  7. When you’ve got a large event coming up, like an Open Day or School Fair, write to your neighbours in advance and let them know what’s happening. Even better, if appropriate, invite them as a special guest.

  8. Send them a small gift at Christmas and take advantage of other opportunities for relationship building.

  9. Try not to sub-contract the relationship out to someone else on staff. I know you’re busy, but most people want to deal with the person at the top. If you must delegate responsibility for neighbourhood relationships, make sure the person is recognised as senior.

  10. Most importantly — listen. Often you will find that what people want more than anything else is to be heard, and getting a few things off their chest is all they are really seeking from you. More importantly, people often reveal their sensitivities (trees, parking, noise) and these can be useful clues to effectively engaging with them when you’re considering how to communicate with them about an important project.

Ultimately, good neighbours can become great advocates. Loving thy neighbour is a great investment in your future success.

John Le Cras has nearly 40 years’ experience in journalism, public relations, marketing and corporate executive roles. John launched his own consulting firm in 2011 and works extensively in issue management and crisis communication in the private school sector.

John Le Cras

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