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What Should We Look for in Senior Leaders?

This post was prompted by #SLTchat which has started to become part of my Sunday evening preparation for the week ahead.  It gets my mind back on the job and allows me to pick up a whole number of ideas through rapid fire responses to key questions of the day.

SLTChat - What are HTs Looking for in SLT

About three to four years ago I changed both the information requested about colleagues applying for a leadership role and the style of the response.  The reference request is built around a document called “Rush to the Top” from Hay Group – it is well worth a read.  A full copy of the leadership reference request form is attached at the end of this post and you are welcome to download and use all or any part of it .

The part specifically focussed on leadership is the second table.  I’ve not only used it for references but also as part of a self reflection exercise for potential senior leaders on a number of courses I have been involved in.  There are a series of different elements which I have split up and commented on below.

Impacts Positively on Outcomes, Systems & Process and Others

SLT Reference 1I’m looking for a senior leader who is a credible teacher, someone who has a positive impact on the academic or vocational outcomes on the students in their class.  It is difficult for a senior leader to expect high standards from their team and others across the school when they cannot deliver themselves.

The administrative and management skills are linked to efficiency and trust around day to day issues.  Whilst someone may be able to achieve good outcomes in their own rather idiosyncratic and disorganised way this does not transfer to leading a team.  The team requires an element of clarity, coherence and consistency if they are going to deliver for the students.  I don’t take this to seeking someone with a high level of OCD but I need to avoid the person who can’t organise the proverbial in a brewery or who undermines systems and processes through not meeting deadlines.  On the management side I want someone who will effectively set up sensible and necessary systems and processes that bring a sense of order to the areas that they are responsible for.

Emotionally Intelligent & Resilient

SLT Reference 2Next comes a section which is seeking information about a candidate’s emotional intelligence and emotional resilience.  As leaders, if we want staff to follow us, we must be able to influence them.  This is not about a Machiavellian or underhand approach rather the ability to convince people about the direction of travel and how we can get there. As leaders we don’t need to get it right all the time – people in my experience are pretty forgiving particularly if you acknowledge when you have messed up or over egged the pudding – but they do expect you to empathise with their situation and show the necessary self-control when making decisions and taking the school forward.  I don’t want people without the necessary emotional intelligence leading at any level within the organisation.  The ability to empathise and show the necessary self control all starts with your own self awareness and I’ve blogged about this before (Who Do You Bring to Leadership?).  These are the four critical emotional intelligences for leaders and I want to know, from people who currently work with you, how you behave in these areas.

Finally, in this section, a person’s emotional resilience and their response to the stresses and strains of leading is vital to elicit.  It’s no good appointing a person who is likely to buckle or fold when it comes to a defining or key moment – everyone expects senior leaders to stand up and be counted when the going gets tough.  To be honest this equally applies to middle leaders.

Thinks Creatively, Deals with Complexity

SLT Reference 3

These next few are key if the person appointed is going to be successful as a senior leader – we need creative problem solvers, who can deal with complexity, prepare themselves for current and future challenges and who are ready to go.

We often don’t recognise and reward the different thinkers in education, we tend to like conformity.  However, I’m looking whenever possible for a senior leader as well as a senior manager.  I’m interested in people who can take a problem, which maybe we’ve been grappling with for years, and look at an innovative way to solve it.  The best of these people go beyond thinking outside the box, to not even accepting the box is there – they are the Belbin “plants”.  When given a difficult problem in a team meeting (or interview situation) how many different solutions do you normally come up with?  Too many meetings I’ve sat in go something like this – problem is posed, someone suggest a solution, which is supported by some and criticised by others, but you have to either implement it or do nothing as there are no other suggestions on the table.  Sound familiar?

The ability to deal with complexity, see the bigger picture and manage the tensions between different competing demands is important for leaders.  At a senior level you need people who can make connections between disparate parts and weave them into a coherent picture for others to see.  If it is a simple issue the senior leader or leadership team shouldn’t be spending too much time on it – make a decision and get on with it.  The person who is important to avoid here, unless you are convinced they can learn and learn rapidly, is the “I am my position” person, for example, the head of department who thinks it is their job to fight their corner even when it clearly damages the whole.  The very best middle leaders bring a perspective not a position, these are the people who can operate best at a senior level.

A middle leader who is ready to step in to senior leadership (“potential” is a very difficult thing to define and notoriously fickle) is likely to be someone who simply can’t walk past a “situation”, always heads towards the problem and just can’t stop themselves leading.  The most successful senior leaders I’ve worked with always had these tendencies.

What you are doing in your current role and how you are doing it is the critical preparation for senior leadership – this always comes out in interview, are you behaving like a senior leader now?

Reference – Leadership Post – SLTChat



15 thoughts on “What Should We Look for in Senior Leaders?

  1. Really enjoyed the blog. I think you capture the essence of it with not watching past an incident.

    Posted by Glyn Potts | May 12, 2013, 8:50 pm
  2. Great post. You comment on one point applying to middle leaders as well. Reading it I think you could apply a lot of it to middle leaders. We have lots of potential in our middle leaders, what advice would you give to them in preparing to move to senior leadership?

    Posted by Sean | May 12, 2013, 9:25 pm
    • Thanks for the comment Sean. My advice would be “keep leading”. The skills we all develop as middle leaders are the bedrock of our work as senior leaders. There is a temptation to sometimes get on “doing jobs”, this is important in keeping schools functioning but not leadership. Find something that excites and fascinates you about learning, teaching, students’ development and get other people involved in making a difference. Good luck.

      Posted by headstmary | May 13, 2013, 6:51 am
      • Thanks. Clarifies some of my thoughts. I often see middle leaders wanting some form of ‘elusive’ CPD to prepare them for senior leadership. My response is to carry on doing a good job as middle leader, that’s the best prep.

        Posted by Sean | May 14, 2013, 7:07 pm
    • Hi Sean,
      Just read, with interest Stephen’s reply, then yours that follow this question. I am a middle leader that has already applied for (and been interviewed) for several Assistant Head jobs – I have been told that I loads of potential but not enough whole school experience? – I have been a middle leader in a large school (over a dept of 12 staff for 10 years – so how do I pick up what you describe ‘as the best prep’? I should add that in that time, my department has gone from strength to strength.

      Posted by Fiona | May 16, 2013, 8:21 am
      • Dear Fiona,
        Time for a chat with your Head or other member of the SLT – two things: what does s/he think is holding you back (stress you want a really honest answer) and secondly think of a whole school area that really interests you and excites you – offer to lead or help lead it without any extra pay or time. This is a tough one but throughout my career various heads have asked me to do thing as they would be “good professional development” for me. Good luck.

        Posted by headstmary | May 16, 2013, 3:05 pm
  3. This is a really interesting post – shame Jill’s topic missed out by one vote, because this is definitely an area that would benefit from discussion at #SLTchat. A thoughtful post like this one is really helpful for any aspiring school leader. Thanks!

    Posted by chrishildrew | May 14, 2013, 10:39 am


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