Few changes are more disruptive for a school than a change at “the top”, that is a change of Principal or Board Chair. Both transitions have the potential to disrupt the smooth operations of the school during the often lengthy transition period, especially when either position becomes vacant unexpectedly.
According to statistical research conducted both in Australia and overseas, leadership positions across all industries are becoming vacant at unprecedented rates.
Schools and their boards are no exception. However, like most organisations, succession planning is a topic that most boards don’t like to think about. Like many elderly people who have ignored making their will, they ignore engaging with the uncomfortable thinking for far too long. School Principals, and to a lesser extent Board Chairs, often don’t want to discuss their departure, and their boards are quite comfortable avoiding the conversation.
It is therefore surprising – and paradoxically also unsurprising - that so few boards give serious consideration to leadership succession planning.
What should a board be doing to plan the school’s leadership succession, both of its own Board Chair and the School Principal?
The first step in planning a transition is to have someone lined up who can serve in an acting capacity in the event of a sudden or unexpected change. In the case of the Board’s leadership, this will probably be another member who has preferably had some experience stepping in for the Chair from time to time, or else has had experience leading boards elsewhere. In the case of the school’s leadership, this person may be a Deputy or sectional leader. Choosing the right person to be an Acting Principal may be politically complicated if it is likely that more than one current employee will become internal applicants, in which case bringing in an experienced external retired Head to serve as Acting principal in an interregnum capacity is definitely worth considering.
Assuming that neither vacancy has arisen from a firing, a sudden death or an otherwise abrupt transition, the departure of either the Board Chair or the School Principal is an occasion when both should work together and synchronise communications. If the Principal is leaving, the first announcements (which are to the staff, the students and the parents in that order) should be made as quickly as possible after each other by the Board Chair with the Principal present. If the Board Chair is leaving, the urgency of an announcement is reduced, and should be made to the school community by the Principal.
If the Principal is leaving to take up a new position, then the timing of public announcements should be co-ordinated with the other school so that both school communities learn the news simultaneously. This will reduce the likelihood of unhelpful rumour mongering.
After the announcement has been made that the Principal intends to leave, an important duty of the outgoing Principal is to prepare a confidential document for the incoming Principal with a title such as “Here is everything you need to know” that covers all items of unfinished business (especially those involving students or personnel), a personal perspective on priorities for the future (which may differ from the Board’s perspective), and which lists the people who are important in the school community (and those who think they’re important). This document should be discussed confidentially at some opportune time between the outgoing and incoming Principals.
Much more could be said about leadership transitions, although such detail quickly starts to differ between each particular school and each specific situation.
-Dr Stephen Codrington
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