Successful successions

Some school principals remain in their positions until they retire.  Others prefer to move on to new challenges every five to seven years or so.  Both approaches have their benefits and shortcomings.

Principals who remain in their schools for more than a decade are usually seen as long-serving Heads.  They know the school’s culture well.  They have usually played a part in shaping that culture during the early years of their tenure, and they will have certainly helped to perpetuate it during their later years of service.  Long-serving Heads tend to have strong networks of relationships in the school (both for better and for worse), and they usually provide consistent if sometimes traditionalist leadership.

Principals who remain in their schools for less than a decade are usually seen as change-makers.  They are usually uncomfortable with the status quo and quickly recognise the potential for improvements that will enhance the school’s mission and vision.  They tend to implement change quickly and efficiently, even if this is sometimes at the cost of upsetting long-serving, more conservative personnel who feel invested in ‘the way things were’.  Change-making Heads are motivated by improving a school’s practices and infrastructure, and once significant advances have been set in place, they feel the need to move and implement new reforms elsewhere.

Long-term principals usually lead only one or two schools in their career.  Change-making principals often lead four, five, six or more schools in their career.  In the interests of full disclosure, I was Principal of five schools in four countries during my 25-year career as a school principal, which suggests I was in the “change-maker” category – a label that would be confirmed by the large number of building programs I led and the quantity of educational innovations I initiated.

When I announced I was leaving my third headship (a prestigious boys’ school in Australia with a history of over 140 years) to lead an international school in Hong Kong, there was widespread consternation as I was the first Head of that school since 1875 to leave in order to take up another position.  All the other Heads of that school in the intervening period (numbering only six) had retired from the role; one had served as Head at the school for 39 years.

Passing the baton

The average tenure for School Principals today is seven years, considerably shorter than it was a few decades ago.  This reflects the changing role of Heads of Schools, where boards increasingly view effective change management as essential if schools are to retain their relevance to the challenges of our rapidly changing world.

Whether a school operates on a “long-term Heads” or “change-making Heads” model, surprises can – and do – happen.  That is why succession planning for the school’s headship position is important for a board.  It should never be avoided because it is uncomfortable or because the Head might feel threatened.  Planning a Head’s succession represents an important risk minimisation strategy for an event that one day, sooner or later, must inevitably be required.

Wise succession planning explores three possible scenarios:

Scenario 1 – An immediate departure

Sometimes referred to as the “hit by a bus scenario”, it is probably more affirming to label this as the “winning the lottery scenario”.  By their nature, immediate departures are almost always unplanned and unintended, which makes having an emergency plan in place so important.  This plan will usually have a person (or small team) within the school in mind to assume the responsibilities for leading the school, communicating with the school and wider community, and reporting to the board.  It follows from this that any Principal must have a strong leadership team of exceptional, supportive people in place at all times.

Scenario 2 – A planned departure within (say) six months or so

When a Principal leaves within the minimum period (or less) specified in the employment contract, the board may not have sufficient time to conduct a full search process to find a replacement.  In such cases, it may be wise for the board to consider appointing an Interim Principal to guide the school through the intermediate period until a permanent replacement can commence duties.  Two key issues arise in this scenario for the board.  First, is there an external person (such as a retired Head of School) or another suitable person who could be called in for an extended – but not permanent – period of time to cover the search process?  Second, is there a suitable consultant who could assist with the appointment of an Interim Head if the board does not have the contacts required?

Scenario 3 – A planned departure two or more years in the future

This is the ideal scenario to plan an orderly succession because it allows sufficient time for the current Head to complete key projects, for a search to be conducted, and for the successful candidate to give and complete an appropriate period of notice in their existing school.  A successful succession plan in this scenario allows (a) a Search Committee of the Board to be formed, (b) a professional consultant to be engaged who is sympathetic to the school’s mission but also independent, well-connected, and experienced with a wide range of school environments, and (c) a carefully sequenced communications and implementation plan to be established.

Of course, there are no ‘guarantees’ when it comes to appointing new school principals, but with guidelines in place such as these the chances of a successful succession are greatly enhanced.

-Dr Stephen Codrington

We help school boards with recruiting a new Principal, including assisting with Interim Headships.

Further information on the characteristics of effective principalship and the recruitment process is provided in the book “Optimal School Governance", which can be ordered directly through Pronins.

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