Principal Pipelines

Principal Office Sign

In schools Principals matter – they matter a lot. Some research has suggested that in immediate terms, their impact on student learning is second only to quality of teachers. However, I would suggest that in the longer term the quality of school Heads matters way more. For one thing, it will be very hard for a school to have high quality teachers doing their best work if there is poor leadership of the school.

Those of us heavily involved with private schools education have seen too many examples of good or great schools reduced to pale shadows of what they have been by the wrong leadership. Thankfully, we’ve also seen instances of the mediocre, ‘nothing special’ schools transformed in to great schools by the arrival of inspirational and impactful leadership. In all of this, the worry is that schools are clearly very vulnerable and sensitive on this issue of who leads.

It’s therefore a worry that insufficient long term attention is given to who will lead. I’ve even, sadly, seen instances of schools doing great work where the future looks vulnerable because all (including the great leadership people themselves) are behaving as though all the good will just keep rolling on in to the future looking after itself.

Good leaders aren’t always good at looking at the future of their organisation after they’ve moved on. I will never forget a discussion with the prominent Head of a highly reputed boarding school in England. That school is over 400 years old. He told me that when you lead in such circumstances you are always made mindful that the role, and the school, are never really yours, but rather you are a custodian within the limits of your time in service. He went on to express the view that in such circumstances the Head owes an enormous duty of care – not only to all the existing pupils, parents and teachers, but also to all those who went before and all those who will come in the future. This makes the leader continually mindful of the school as a long term continuous entity on its own foundations independent from the leaders who come and go.

In industry and business, lots of attention is paid to leadership pipelines – ensuring that not only are there good leaders in position today, but also that there is a better chance to have great leaders for the future (who are trained, motivated and ready to step in to roles with all the required skills and competencies, and rough edges smoothed off.)

This is much more achievable in large organisations with big, diverse workforce. When I worked for a bank in the UK there was an elaborate process for this. To be honest, at times that process was too dogmatic and rigid and would struggle in today’s fast paced, rapidly changing business environment. However, some system and process is certainly better than nothing at all. In the bank all who were deemed to have some senior leadership role in the future were sent on a one week Assessment Centre. This was an incredibly intense experience – 12 faculty and a head faculty with twelve individuals undergoing assessment at any time. On the final afternoon you would get a feedback discussion session that went on for 2-3 hours. Then, the following week, the faculty would submit a report that placed a letter on your personnel file. You were not allowed to know this letter, but it spelled out whether you were deemed to be long time mega-high, moderately high or medium high flyer. This served to enable the HR department to figure out what development  opportunities you needed along the way, which training programmes and postings to ensure that when you arrived where you were going you had all the skills and experience needed to be ready for your roles. it also enabled manpower planning to predict what manpower or resources at senior levels might need to be brought from outside to fulfil needs and avoid compromises with candidates deemed weak. Theoretically, the letter on the file wasn’t cast in stone, but in all reality, that was generally what happened, so I did have concerns about the rigidity built in to the system.  It also assumed a stable and predictable world and business environment within which to plan.

Today, it’s much harder for businesses to make predictions on manpower requirements for different calibres and skills requirements in to the future. Nevertheless, schools should be able to make reasonable predictions as their world and leadership requirement changes are far less volatile or market dependent. Yet, it doesn’t happen nearly often enough, with the result that when critical needs arise owners are left fishing desperately in the open market, their schools left vulnerable with all the implications for all stakeholders.

I have a few recommendations;

a) The first for groups with multiple schools – strategic plans will indicate the intended numbers of schools in future years. With this information, along with turnover data, the organisation should be able to predict future leadership requirements. Some form of appraisal that brings strong talent to the attention at Group level should aim to identify early those with future potential. Then, structure current roles, special project leadership opportunities and training (internal and/ or external) to ensure that they get to expand their leadership skills before they are called in to more senior roles,

b) Examine the culture of the group. If there has been a tendency for each school Principal to see their own school as an independent ’empire’ within the group, work gradually to develop more cross-group vision. Only in this way will people understand when small local inconveniences are created in favour of the bigger group wide benefits of promoting someone strong in to a leadership role elsewhere.
Groups where the Heads put their individual school’s interests ahead of those of the group will fail to realise the benefits of being a broader group. It needs to be understood that the owners/ CEO/ Director may need to move individuals for the good of the Group (and because failure to satisfy their career ambitions will probably see their services lost from the Group quite soon anyway).

c) When recruiting, especially for junior leadership and supervisory roles, keep in mind the future potential of candidates to meet more senior organisational roles and requirements,

d) Consider something that we were able to do very successfully when I was in Delhi – making at least one mid-level supervisory role (academic coordinators) in the group non-permanent. We gave people two year contracts in these roles. the thinking was that;
(i) If they had potential for higher leadership they would move on to new roles within the two years,
(ii) if they were unwilling or unable to step up to more senior roles, then it would be understood they would return to the teaching ranks after the two years. This also had the added advantage that people didn’t get ‘power crazy’ in these roles, knowing that in time the person they were leading would be their leader!
(iii) This had the advantage of avoiding ‘dead man’s shoes.’ Those with leadership aspirations among the teachers knew that within a relatively short time they would get opportunities to build their skills and prove their abilities in a supervisory role,
(iv) Structure more leadership development and training for those in these roles across the group,
(v) Only in exceptional circumstances would a person serve two terms in such a role,
(vi) The role carried an earned allowance, rather than a higher salary,
(vii) Group level leadership took personal and active interest in this cohort, so being more aware of how they could potentially fulfil roles right across the group. Being seen as ‘supernumerary’  their current leaders always knew that they were not part of the permanent local leadership structure.

e) This is a slightly tough one, but i believe if great leadership candidates for the future come across the radar, either through general interactions or recruitment, groups should be willing to consider taking them on board occasionally when available, even if a role requirement isn’t there immediately. In the short term this entails carrying a modest amount of extra cost, but can help ease pipeline in the future and can offer senior level staff to take on one off projects to advance the group.
However,  there’s a continuous need to not less this get out of control and to be clear about when and why it’s done.

f) For stand alone individual schools, this is much harder. They can’t afford the cost burden of carrying extra surplus leadership staff and it’s also undesirable as they’re liable to tread on each others’ toes.
In International Schools there is an acceptance of fairly frequent turnover, as most individuals prefer not to stay in one location for too long. There is a lot of research evidence that the optimum ‘sweet spot’ for school heads is around 3-5 years from taking up their role. So, history of movement and likely future plans should be a part of the recruitment process and thinking. In my experience, Heads with school going children tend to stay longer in one place.
In other respects, schools should build some strengths based on an expectation of turnover and less dependence on any one individual. A strongly team-based leadership approach and acccessibility of all the leadership team to parents can help to ease transitions when they do occur.

g) International schools that employ both expat and local employees should establish longer term plans to bring some strong locals through in to the leadership teams. This sends a strong message on career prospects to ambitious local teachers (both current and future recruits) and enables these leaders to provide continuity when expat leaders change. They are likely to serve for much longer time in each school.

h) Over time,  for this and other reasons many international schools stand to gain far more than they lose by building collaborative open trust relationships with other schools in the city/ country/ region. This entails breaking out of narrow competitive mindsets. As well as enabling schools to share training costs and resources at times, provide joint liaison with Ministries and local policymakers, it can also enable schools to support each others’ leadership needs for the longer term.
I won’t pretend this is easy. It takes time and personal investment to build the trust and it can be fragile if there’s a hint of poaching or otherwise undermining each other.  However, owners/ Directors shouldn’t underestimate the harm done to all international schools if any in the geographical vicinity fall on hard times as it makes all parents doubt the sector.

I was inspired to write this piece by a few articles etc. that i read in recent weeks about some research from the US, by Rand Corporation, involving the Wallace Foundation and some experimentation in Principal Pipeline management. I was surprised that the suggestion was that this was so very radical, or that it carried benefits for students and schools.
The following links provide more information for those interested:
The Hechinger Report – Study Examines Wallace Foundation’s Principal Pipeline Project
ASCD Webinar – Principal Pipeline
Wallace Foundation Videos – Principal Preparation

Leadership matters and recruitment in the open market will always be a hit and miss affair, not an exact science. Schools have a long term presence that requires long term thinking, planning and vision to ensure that present or near term success can all come tumbling down through latent fragility. Schools are ‘people businesses’ and these people issues require significant investment of time, effort and creativity.



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