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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The Gentle Leader

Why do organisations exist? What is their purpose? What should be the ‘status’, roles and rights of different stakeholders? In the total history of mankind, the modern day organisation is still something very new, so to a large extent, we’re still engaged in a process of figuring out the answers to these questions.

The earliest organisations were tribes of hunter-gatherers where people came together out of mutual benefit. To serve one’s personal best interest entailed contributing your best to the group. Where necessary, there were traditions and norms in the group that enabled cohesion and a sense of duty and loyalty. leadership was often determined by lineage, sometimes by strength, size and simple power.

The industrial revolution brought very different kinds of organisations – far larger, more complex and with many more artificial processes to create the sense of belonging, commitment and common interest. There are plenty who are willing to say that the primary role of such organisations is to maximise value for the owners – everything else is peripheral. If this is true, then the duty of leaders is to organise all resources and stakeholders in the best possible way to achieve this aim of owner value growth. And further, those who are best at achieving this rise to the top and become the leaders.

We know that these things called organisations can cause some very odd human behaviour. For one, isn’t it pretty odd when we think about it that in organisations where only 13% of employees say they are engaged, all the employees turn up daily, on time and do the work they’re told to do, at least in principle. Further, we know from the work of experts like Stanley Milgram (famous obedience experiments) that the authority, status and title of being a leader can enable us to hold enormous and powerful sway over others. For those unfamiliar with Milgram’s experiments, he took subjects in to a lab situation where fake other subjects were required to learn and memorise random pairs of information. When they made mistakes the subject was required to administer an electric shock to them. If they showed disquiet about doing this they were instructed to continue by an official, lab-coated technician who clearly held authority in the lab. Shockingly (pun intended), almost all subjects in this situation continued to administer ever stronger levels of shocks to the person in the other room, even when they were screaming for mercy or even appeared to have passed out due to the extreme pain. They may have shown stress and anxiety in what they were doing, but all the time the authority figure told them to carry on doing it, they continued.

Modern society has many ways, right from when we’re very small, of drilling in to us the importance of compliance with authority. Whether it’s parents or teachers in school, so much of what goes on is about obedience, compliance and rewards and punishments are used continually to reinforce the ‘correct’ behaviours. To my mind, this raises some critical questions that i believe we’re not asking enough and where we shy away from the very difficult discussions we need to have;

a) As parents and educators, we need to challenge ourselves in critical ways as to our role and duties when dealing with children. Is our primary duty to teach them how to comply? When schools put ‘citizenry’ on the syllabus is this about performing a role for society that will make people do what they’re told, when they’re told, how they’re told?

b) As parents and educators do we inadvertently find ourselves acting as the agents for compliance with the small minority who wield the real power in our society, whether those are politicians or big businesses? Do we see frequent examples in our school activities and the syllabus that are actually about reinforcing, for example, beliefs that consumerism is a good, healthy and positive way to exist in the modern world? Do we, consciously or unconsciously, teach children that having things, acquiring things and joining in the pursuit of the latest shiny objects is a positive, healthy way to live in the world – almost that it’s our duty? The reality is that whether we like it or not we live in a modern society where if a sufficient number of us switched to consuming more for our need rather than our wants, modern consumerist, production based economies would hit crisis very quickly.

c) As educators, especially in the private sector, we’re fond of selling our credentials on the basis of our inclination to develop young people who will be leaders tomorrow. However, do our actions match our words? If we teach children in elementary classes that blind obedience is the only way to comfortably succeed in our classrooms, are we actually producing tomorrow’s compliant followers and obedient grunts, rather than true leaders? Worse, are we, at times, producing those who will be very good at ‘kissing up and kicking down’ who will form the vital middle layer that enables the vast majority to be controlled by the tiny minority?

d) Further, are those of us engaged in International education in developing countries part of an inadvertent process where we trade off access to greater worldly knowledge and exposure for the efficiency of compliance that will ensure that those countries don’t rise to preeminence at the expense of our own ‘Western’ countries current superiority?

e) If we are leaders in the educational domain, why do our schools need ‘anti-bullying’ policies? Is bullying such a ubiquitous and natural activity that we need a deliberate policy against it? Or, is that we create such awful artificially competitive environments in our schools that children’s behaviour is steered towards acts of physical violence towards each other as an unfortunate byproduct?

f) If we are leaders in the educational domain, how should we lead if we wish to have schools/ organisations that are sensitive to the needs of all stakeholders and produce a caring culture that provides the right environment for children to grow and develop naturally?

g) What, if anything, can educational leaders already teach leaders in other types of organisations? It already seems to me that there’s ample evidence that old style leadership ways of manipulation, sticks and carrots and force/ pressure are not producing the outcomes that the organisations seek for the longer term. I personally know that I had been trained in many ways in the traditional and conventional late Twentieth Century leadership approaches and style during my time working for a major UK bank.

As I transitioned in to the education sector, especially in Asia, I realised that I had to un-learn so much of what i took for granted. If I had lead in education the way I had lead in banking I would have achieved very poor results. In my early career I often had bosses who would ‘provoke and cajole’ me to be very task oriented. People issues certainly came second. Even as I was later encouraged to shift my position, it was conveyed that you needed to give people a higher priority (after making sure that you make all the top-down targets that are set). So, you get the classic middle-manager stress – you’re told to be a people person and to carry people with you, whilst being managed from on high in a thoroughly task oriented manner. The result, for many is phony people orientation that is actually more manipulative than caring.

So, having been thinking about these things (what else do you do with a four day Chinese New Year break from the office?) I was stimulated to write this piece when i read this article from Greg Thompson of Bluepoint Leadership Development.

Bluepoint Leadership – The Gentle Leader

In the article, Greg makes the case that the time of the ‘wolves’ is over – leaders who use good, bad, honest and dishonest means to achieve their goals and to meet the simple ends of maximising owner value at any cost in organisations. Instead, he advocates for a form of leadership that is far more akin to Servant Leadership. Some make the mistake of interpreting servant leadership as the leaders making themselves martyrs to organisation and people, everyone’s whipping boys to be used and abused. I don’t interpret it that way. For one, in the pursuit of the best interest of the most, there are times when a servant leader is duty bound to get tough with individuals who put their self-interest ahead of the collective needs. Also, the leader has a duty to lead the debate around vision and the fundamental purpose of the organisation. They then owe it to the collective group to address issues of individuals whose ideology or actions are incompatible with that agreed vision. However, when they have to deal with such situations, they must maintain the dignity of the individual and deal with circumstances with compassion. people need to be given reasonable chance to align, but the key is alignment to a commonly agreed and shared set of goals, rather than something artificially imposed from the top.

The rewards for getting leadership right in this age are more motivated and engaged employees, the fish shoal swimming in a common direction, less worthless conflict, lower employee turnover and a greater ability to attract highly motivated, talented employees in to the organisation.

Some fear that gentler, more collaborative and open leadership leads to harm to the interests of the organisation. Plainly, if a company has the scope to introduce technology that will significantly reduce costs compared to competitors, but at the expense of 30% of employees losing their roles, it requires a very mature level of understanding throughout the organisation to engage employees in a debate that sees them put the organisation’s needs ahead of their own short term self-interest. However, if employees in that scenario knew that the alternative was loss of competitive position and maybe even the complete failure of the organisation, they may see and understand the need. The compassionate and gently lead organisation provides support and help for retraining and job alternatives for those impacted and the level of trust is such that they understand what needs to happen.

Community in organisations and trust isn’t necessarily built in those challenging times. Rather, it’s built over the long time whether things are going well or poorly, so that there is a surplus of trust to be drawn upon in those challenging times.

In conclusion, school and educational leadership comes in all sorts of shades and levels of quality. However, I believe we’re now in a time where the best of schools leadership offers lessons and guidance to the leadership of many more types of organisations about what it means to build community, to lead with caring and compassion and to give a genuine voice to all stakeholders whilst leading towards a vision which is truly inspirational for all stakeholders.

Great School Leadership

Repeatedly, surveys and research have demonstrated that leadership is a more important defining factor between average and great schools than between average and great companies. I believe this is partly due to the fact that, unlike a company, there’s a far more significant element of ‘community’ about a school.

There isn’t a single template for what makes great school leaders. They come in all sizes, shapes and genders; introverts and extroverts and having taken all sorts of different paths to reach their roles.

Here’s a short post from Edutopia in which a blogger identifies what she believes are the key attributes:

Edutopia – What Makes a Great School Leader?

I can’t fault the three things she highlights; vision, community building and EQ. However, nobody should underestimate the point that comes through her personal experience in the last section so strongly – great school leaders care passionately about children.

Leadership Lessons

The CEO of CISCO sharing his thoughts and beliefs on leadership, all aspects are highly relevant for those who lead schools:

Fortune Interview

I was particularly struck by the things he had to say about the importance of shaping the organisation’s culture and the actions necessary to carry people with you in the pursuit of a vision.

New Leadership

When we have so many concerns about the mismatch between school education on offer today and the needs of young people, we have to acknowledge that little is really going to improve until we are prepared to look very seriously at leadership within education. In short, will we have the schools and the education we need and want unless we bring about significant changes in schools’ leadership culture – and what are the changes that would be necessary?

I found this article from a senior member of the Ken Blanchard Companies interesting. Whilst its talking about the new ways of leading required in all types of organisations (especially those that need to harness the creative and innovative power of the employees – is that now all organisations?) I found some parts especially interesting when thinking about where we are currently in school education.

Ken Blanchard Companies – Unleashing The Crazy Ones

The article identifies three core roles for the leader; catalyst, architect and coach. The latter of the three is something I’ve believed in for some considerable time as an effective approach to leadership in schools. I think part of the appeal has to do with the importance of the first of the three roles. Directive, controlled leadership that centralises power and authority, decision-making and accountability doesn’t ‘grow people’ or have the potential to engender passion, commitment and true innovation.

The ‘abundance mindset’ talked of doesn’t just apply with the organisation’s own employees, but also with outside vendors and contractors. As time goes on I have found myself less and less interested in squeezing out the best price or a bit of cost saving (scarcity mindset), and more and more interested in building high-trust relationships with vendors and suppliers that are mutually beneficial and based upon the willingness of the vendor to work creatively and effectively to support what the schools deliver.

The second role – the ‘architect’ is undoubtedly the most important when it comes to change management, innovation and educational reform. This is the one that potential worries me the most. I see far too much ‘going through the motions’, replicating yesterdays schools and just trying to do everything they did. It’s often considered innovation and commitment if leaders in schools just seek to do the same old, but to do it 1% better. However, I don’t believe these are the approaches that are going to bring us the schools and the education we need today and tomorrow. That is going to require the courage and commitment to lead teams that think in new ways, are willing to try new things and are not afraid to sometimes fail.

One particular area where this is apparent is in the harnessing of technology and ICT to bring about fundamental changes in learning processes.

A Depressing Read

If we’re all running in the same direction – does that automatically mean that we’re running in the right direction? Does it make a difference if that direction is the easier downhill, rather than the troublesome, effort-requiring uphill?

How quickly would trust erode, if doctors prescribed what their patients thought they wanted, instead of what their professional judgement, learning and experience says the patients should have?

Reading the following news report from the Chennai edition of TOI, nobody should wonder why educators no longer hold a preeminent position of trust and status in the society today, or why all private schools can so easily be portrayed by the government as self-serving, profiteering and untrustworthy.

It shows that the hurdles in front of us if we are to create an education system in India that is truly for the twenty first century are many. As far as I’m concerned – that just means we have to be even more determined, less tolerant of those who care more for an easy life mired in outdated ways and more resolute in educating educators, school owners and promoters and parents, business people and the wider community about why and how education for the new century must be something different if we are not to fail our children and the country.

Times of India – Chennai – article

10 ‘Big Ideas’ of School Leadership

I loved this piece for the pithy and thoughtful ideas about how to run an effective school. It’s a timely reminder that running any organisation where there are thousands of people with their own personal agendas takes courage – and you can’t please all the people all the time:

10 Big Ideas Article

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