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Advice to New Senior Leaders

#SLTChat is providing a whole raft of great issues to blog on and I’ve picked up another one this weekend proposed by @ChrisHildrew.  He posed the question, “What single piece of advice would you offer to someone taking up a senior leadership post in September?”

SLTChat - Advice to New Senior Leaders

The chance of me limiting myself to one piece of advice is negligible but I do have some thoughts.  This February we attracted the largest and most outstanding field of applicants, for two Assistant Headships, that I have ever seen in my time at St. Mary’s.  In taking a number of candidates around the College, prior to the closing date for applications (by the way it is a really good idea to go and have a look at a school and meet the headteacher when you are applying for this type of post), I was asked various questions.  I tried to give them honest and frank answers so they could determine whether St. Mary’s was a place where they could be happy and make a contribution.  It was also important that I gave them some idea of the type of person we were looking for.  In the end we appointed five of the applicants, the governors often think it’s a BOGOF (Buy One Get One Free) offer when it comes to appointments.

Here are some thoughts if you are taking up a senior leadership post, this September, or hope to be taking one up in the coming years.  This is my six of the best pieces of advice I can offer.

Outstanding Teaching

Best TeacherYou must have credibility in the classroom.  Don’t make the mistake I did as a Headteacher of the three part lesson – arrive late, give it some tap, apologise and go early.  In the end I was doing more harm than good.  My symbolism had in fact become tokenism.  Staff forgave me as they realised that there were other issues I had to deal with at the time – they will not be as forgiving to others in or new to a senior leadership team.  Everyone will expect you to lead by example in the classroom.  Model the behaviours and the quality that you want from others.  Follow the systems and processes like any other member of staff just do it with the exceptional skill and talent you undoubtedly possess.

Be Present, Be a Presence
There is a price to pay for all of us as senior leaders and people will expect you to be there early and to stay after school.  It is no good pretending that you can arrive at the last minute and be off early – I’m not going to be dishonest and pretend to you that it is.  This isn’t a macho thing but just a matter of getting the job done.  Teachers in particular, who have full teaching timetables, may need to see you before the start of a school day or when classes have finished.  You need to be there for them.  The number of meetings you have will increase and you need to have thought of how you will mange this alongside other commitments as part of preparing for the job.

When in school make sure you are visible to students and if possible parents – the latter almost a daily requirement in primary schools but a bit more difficult in a secondary where students are happier for their parents to stay away.  Stand on corridors, chat to students at break, lunch time and start and end of days.  When I was first became a Headteacher I use to keep a tally chart of how often I stood on a corridor and how often I popped into classrooms.  For many years these were part of performance management measures for my senior staff.  Being a presence is important.

Head for Trouble, Don’t Create It
When various prospective Assistant Headteachers turned up for a tour I told them I was looking for someone who would “head for the gunfire”.  Sadly with events most recently in America but also in other countries I don’t think the phrase is appropriate any more but I’ll try to give a sense of what I meant by it.  Schools need people who make them tick like clockwork, at an operational level, day in and day out.  The Assistant Headteachers I was looking for would be people who just couldn’t help but get involved in and resolve an incident that could potentially disrupt the smooth running of the College.  They just simply wouldn’t be able to walk by.  Don’t walk past any potential trouble, get involved.  De-escalate the situation, discern what has happened and then consequences can follow.  As you tell classroom teachers, “follow up and follow through.”  Don’t rush to judgement as you will make a mistake in your haste and back tracking is a real pain even when it is right and necessary.

Overview & Detail
Life gets a bit more complex in the senior leadership team as you are expected to take into account a far wider whole school perspective.  You are now expected to see the dots (issues) but also connect them together into a coherent picture.  This is important as staff will now look to you to make sense of what is happening in school, be clear about the direction of travel and how the separate parts make a coherent whole.

dot to dot image

This is one of the most challenging but crucial parts of a senior leader’s role.  If you are to get everyone “into the same boat, all rowing in the same direction” than staff need a connection between the vision and their part in helping it be realised.  You stand at the critical point where you can connect the two.  Make sure you have this as clear as possible in your mind.

Publicly Support, Privately Challenge

As a headteacher I expect the total loyalty of my senior leaders.  This loyalty has two dimensions.  The first is, whilst happy to debate vigorously and at length a whole variety of issues, once you walk out of the SLT Meeting you must actively support and implement what has been decided, irrespective of whether you argued for or against it.  No half hearted engagement, no distancing yourself from the decision and no undermining the team.  If you think that is difficult the other dimension of loyalty is even more challenging – being honest with the headteacher if s/he is making her/himself look like a total wally or doing something that has had an unforeseen negative impact on the school.  This is tough but it goes with the job.  A Head may not immediately thank you for your honesty – ride out any momentary storm – but the ones that are worth working with will take a chance to reflect and recognise if s/he has got it wrong.  Your wise counsel and early warning will be valued.

This is similar when you work with teachers.  Don’t criticise anyone in public, stop gossip don’t add to it.  Teachers need public support both when they get it right, as they mostly do, but also when they make a mistake.  The honest and sometimes difficult conversation is a private matter.

Get the Ronseal Moment

For those not familiar with Ronseal, they make products that go in a tin that has a very simple description on the label.  A series of adverts have been run on television with a strap line, “Ronseal, it does what it says on the tin.”

I always talk with candidates at interview about the College and alert them to the Ronseal moment.  “St. Mary’s Catholic College, it’s like Ronseal, we do what it says on the tin.  You’ve applied to join a Catholic school and this is what we expect …”  It’s like the Blackpool rock analogy, no matter where you cut into the stick of rock you find the word Blackpool.  All good schools will have a root, a touchstone or a Ronseal moment that helps clearly define the ethos of the school.  This may require some unpacking for new staff but are you clear what the school is about?  You must be clear in your own mind what is at the core of the school’s ethos, what its driving force is.  Your actions as a senior leader will need to be in congruence with it.

If you have a new job for the coming academic year, good luck and I hope you enjoy it.

I’ve blogged before about “What Kind of Leaders Do You Want?” which may be of interest if you have found this post useful.



12 thoughts on “Advice to New Senior Leaders

  1. Great stuff, Stephen. Have just spent the day in Cambridge leading a course on Preparing for Senior Leadership. I talked about the power of Twitter for CPD and the value of #SLTchat. Will now retweet this and hope they have all signed up/are following me/will read it! Thank you!

    Posted by Jill Berry | May 20, 2013, 7:09 pm
    • Dear Jill,
      Thanks for the note. Twitter & blogging have been a revelation to me over recent months. The ability to personalise CPD by following people with similar interests is a huge bonus. Hope you had a great day in Cambridge.

      Posted by headstmary | May 20, 2013, 7:18 pm
  2. Thanks for writing this in response to my #SLTchat suggestion – it’s great to hear these ideas which really chime with my thoughts.

    Posted by chrishildrew | May 20, 2013, 8:17 pm
  3. I was particularly struck by:

    “If you think that is difficult the other dimension of loyalty is even more challenging – being honest with the headteacher if s/he is making her/himself look like a total wally or doing something that has had an unforeseen negative impact on the school. This is tough but it goes with the job. A Head may not immediately thank you for your honesty – ride out any momentary storm – but the ones that are worth working with will take a chance to reflect and recognise if s/he has got it wrong. Your wise counsel and early warning will be valued.”

    If SLT don’t tell heads the truth, who will?

    Posted by Jill Berry | May 21, 2013, 1:36 pm
  4. Good old #SLTchat!

    Posted by @TeacherToolkit | August 16, 2013, 2:27 pm
  5. Excellent advice for everyone on SLT new and in post.

    Posted by Joanne Egerton | August 16, 2013, 7:26 pm
  6. Thank you. Very sound words that I whole heartedly agree with. As a new head you have reaffirmed my thoughts and so I will endure to be very visible and on that front line . Thank you .

    Posted by Helen Davis | February 17, 2016, 6:25 pm
  7. Very useful article.

    Posted by Joanna Griffin | April 6, 2017, 10:52 pm


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