Next in line

  • 13th February 2024

Tiffany Fleming offers advice on how to prepare the next generation of your school leaders

Succession planning is the process of identifying the most important and influential job roles within your school and creating a sufficient talent pipeline to enable you to secure the future of the institution when the incumbents move on and, in the event of an unexpected departure, fill those posts at a moment’s notice. We also have a responsibility to the sector to provide the next generation of heads, principals and senior leaders.

Fans of Succession, Jesse Armstrong’s satirical TV drama, will be familiar with the issues encountered when a company, or sector, lacks a team with the necessary skillset to step up when needed. As a latecomer to the series and yet to reach the denouement, I am fascinated by the Roy family struggles. Judging by the level of expletives uttered almost every other word, successful succession planning is not as easy as it sounds. Identifying who stands next in line to fill your key positions, having the time and ability to mentor those waiting in the wings, while at the same time managing the day job, is a toughie.

Gadding about
Some school leaders appear to have time aplenty to visit every educational conference and event in the calendar and grace every panel and think tank. They wax lyrical about those colleagues and peers whose company they have most recently enjoyed, and seemingly swan effortlessly from presentation to presentation, picking up accolades for excellent leadership despite appearing to rarely set foot over their own school threshold. I am sure their reality is vastly different, but even to have the time to post all those event updates on social media is impressive. Their schools are successful. How can this be? Is it that they have already replaced themselves and delegated their role to the next in line? If so, their ability to organise is a thing to be admired.

Is it even possible to identify the next in line without running the risk of power struggles in the staff room? It’s no surprise to hear that schools are at their most vulnerable when critical roles are left vacant for extended periods. Skill gaps unsettle parents, they breed resentment in the team and put pressure on those staff attempting to fill the vacuum. Planning for the worst by identifying the best, and anticipating the effect of key departures while preparing current staff for future roles and developing their skillsets, is future-proofing your school. It can also be a great motivator for a team to see where the opportunities lie: a win-win for your people and your parents who can rest easy knowing the school is safe, whatever the future holds.

Succession planning is an insurance policy for continuity and sustainability and doesn’t only apply to senior-level replacements. The abandonment of any post will have some level of impact, particularly as lower-level staff are more involved with everyday operations. Preparing staff to step into key roles, and upskilling them to assume key positions, can help you to recognise and identify both current and future needs. This is particularly important when the school’s strategic planning calls for a change of direction. Identifying the skills lacking in the existing team affords you the time to get those skills in place before they are required.

It appears to me that in the TV programme, Logan Roy’s big mistake is that he is relying heavily on loyalty and longevity to help him determine the next in line, favouring those who favour him without considering whether they genuinely have the skills for the larger role. Plus, he has made the situation competitive, and therefore it is doomed to fail as all trust is lost.

The right path
The pathway to successful succession planning is a straightforward one. Identifying the key short, medium and long-term goals of the school, the experience and key skills required to deliver them, where that experience and those skills currently sit, where the gaps are and how best to plug them. But where to start?

Performance reviews and 360-degree appraisals are extremely helpful in identifying where latent talents lie and where skills gaps sit. They help to identify aspirant leaders who have potential. However, not all staff will agree with your plans to place them in the key position you have in mind; they may have other plans. The appraisal process helps you to include people in your succession planning thoughts and talk to them about their career goals and personal progression plans in the wider industry. By encouraging a culture of learning in your staff, as you do with your pupils, your team will quickly gain skills. Identifying opportunities for mentoring, shadowing and job rotation should form part of your appraisal process. It fosters a culture of continuous development and makes the appraisal process a positive experience for all involved.

Gap analysis will determine who can fill which positions and identify the skills deficit, both for now and for the future by reviewing your succession plan alongside the school’s strategic plan, which will deliver a clear list of training requirements.

Training plans will identify training requirements. A timely programme of learning and development can take place with the most pressing skills learnt first. Staff who can fill critical positions now may have outdated skills by the time succession rolls around. Likewise, staff who may not be ready to fill certain positions yet, might be the best choices after the right training and coaching. The succession planning process should be developed alongside the training plan by including opportunities on exchange schemes, secondments, shadowing arrangements and regular coaching.
Review should be a dynamic policy at regular intervals with ongoing appraisals undertaken to map progress.

Clear plans
One of the most important and influential actions is to ensure the plan is clear and concise. Creating a formal process promotes consistency and can be communicated more easily to everyone involved. Communicating your aims and intentions properly, ahead of time, can positively impact your team. Staff and potential staff will recognise that the school invests in talent and in its people. Trust and loyalty will be enhanced. It may also help maintain or improve morale, as staff will not have to worry about what will happen if a leader, or influencer, leaves. Demonstrating to all staff that they all contribute to school leadership, showing the school is open to considering alternative leadership structures, and demonstrating that the school considers work-life balances, will do much to underpin the loyalty of those already in post.

Looking internally to fill a position removes the need for onboarding. If you promote from within, you are filling a position with someone who already knows your school’s history, objectives and vision. It supports retention and enhances staff engagement by demonstrating that you value your team and want to give them opportunities for advancement. However, recruitment may be unavoidable when the position cannot be filled from within. Planning and budgeting for external support to help identify the right candidates of sufficient calibre is recommended. Recruitment specialists help to focus on what is really needed and may assist you in finding a more suitable pool of talent than you are likely to reach independently through the benefit of a fresh perspective and a certain amount of detachment. Perhaps Logan Roy should take note.

Tiffany Fleming is a director at consultancy Headspace Academics.

Heather Lamont

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