Retaining excellent staff

Every competent school board dreads the thought that one day, its highly talented, highly effective Principal will resign.  Similarly, every competent school leader dreads the thought that one or another ‘irreplaceable’ employee will resign one day.  And yet, both scenarios are almost inevitable when we employ highly competent personnel who authentically help the school advance its mission, vision and values.

Every school has its megastars, and both the board and the principal should do everything they can to retain such talent in the school.  Some resignations are inevitable for reasons such as family changes, geographical pressures, the desire to make even greater contributions to the educational world, or simply the inner need that many talented people have to take on periodic new challenges.

A student of The Awty International School in Houston, Texas, USA, 'plays' being Principal for a Day, and sits at the desk of the Principal, Dr Stephen Codrington.

Of course, no-one – not even a megastar – is irreplaceable.  If someone had to be found to fill their role, someone would be found.  More significantly, it is highly unlikely that any megastar will remain as long as the board and/or the school’s leadership might wish.  After all, a school’s most competent people will be the ones who are most attractive to other organisations.

Having said this, there are several ways a Principal can raise the retention rates of excellent staff (or retain excellent Principals in the case of the school board).

1.    Focus on mission.

A school’s best leaders and employees are excited by the mission, purpose and ethos of the school.  Maintaining a consistent, clear, explicit focus on the mission is a powerful motivator for a school’s most effective personnel.  For example, one extensive study concluded that “purpose” was the single most important influence on both job satisfaction and retention.  As the New York Times reported, “Employees who derive meaning and significance from their work were more than three times as likely to stay with their organizations — the highest single impact of any variable in our survey. These employees also reported 1.7 times higher job satisfaction and they were 1.4 times more engaged at work”.

2.    Remunerate generously, or at least fairly.

School leaders, and indeed all staff in education, deserve to be remunerated in a way that reflects the dignity, the importance and the effort involved in their work.  At the very minimum, remuneration must reflect the competitive economy within which schools (both government and non-government) operate.  It is a “penny wise, pound foolish” ideology to try and pay staff in schools as little as possible – how can financial meanness towards educators be justified when the future of our society is being formed in the classrooms of our schools today?  This principle applies especially to the Principal – having made so much effort to recruit a great Principal, the board has an obligation to compensate that person competitively.  This will usually include benefits as well as cash, and should also include opportunities for professional development.  The Principal’s remuneration should be reviewed regularly, probably on an annual basis.  In that context, any board that ignores a Principal’s spouse’s or partner’s needs does so at its peril – very few Principals remain at a school if their spouse or partner is disgruntled.

3.    Remove or discipline incompetent or toxic staff.

One of the greatest frustrations faced by competent staff is having to work with incompetent staff, or even worse, toxic staff.  The cost to a school of tolerating incompetence is greater than the inefficiency and lost productivity caused by that one individual’s poor work; a far greater cost arises when excellent staff with high aspirations decide they would prefer to work in an environment where they do not have to tolerate or compensate for the inefficiency of others, or battle their constant undermining and toxicity.

4.    Listen to others and consult widely.

Unlike corporate institutions, schools function on a highly collegial basis.  Professional, highly idealistic educators, leaders and board members all appreciate opportunities to express their views and be heard by others.  Although consultation may slow down progressive change, it usually results in more reliable and productive outcomes because it enables a wide range of diverse perspectives to be considered.  This is especially so for the school’s megastars who will invariably have unique, original, highly worthwhile ideas to offer.  Megastars deeply appreciate the invitation to contribute, and moreover, they feel highly affirmed if and when their ideas are acknowledged and put into action.

5.    Create new opportunities.

High performing school leaders and educators relish new challenges and opportunities, and a wise board will encourage creativity that leads to implementation of soundly researched reforms, especially those that benefit the students.  In order to facilitate such energy, it often helps to build curated career paths or make internal promotions for a school’s megastars because the position thus created is likely to be a more attractive alternative than leaving for another job elsewhere – a true win-win outcome.

Having made some or all of these efforts to retain excellent staff and leaders, it is inevitable that many will eventually leave at some time.  This is not necessarily a negative reflection on the school which is losing its megastar.  Indeed, such moves are often very positive reflections on a school which has almost certainly nourished the professionalism of its future leaders who are ready, willing and able to expand their positive influence in the wider educational world.  Such is true educational leadership.

-Dr Stephen Codrington 

Among the services we offer to support school boards and leaders are executive recruitment, mentoring of school leaders, and performance reviews of senior and middle-level leaders and school boards.

Advice on this and other aspects of effective leadership and school governance is also provided in the book “Optimal School Governance", which can be ordered directly through Pronins.

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