In my previous article, I wrote about “The Great Resignation”. One of the consequences of The Great Resignation is that an unusually large number of schools have (or soon will have) new principals.
The first hundred days of a new principalship represents a critically important time. The new Head will (hopefully) be doing lots of listening, consulting and thinking during this period. This is the period when initial impressions are made, impressions that may become quickly entrenched.
How should a new Principal approach the first hundred days, and how should the Board support their new Principal?
Regardless of the circumstances of their predecessor’s departure, an incoming Principal almost always starts with enormous goodwill, or what I call political capital. (This is not a universal truth, and the amount of political capital may be smaller if the new Principal is an internal appointment, because internal appointments inevitably begin their new role with a combination of historical baggage and existing relationships).
This large balance of political capital enjoyed by an incoming Principal leads to what is known as the “honeymoon period”. After the insecurity of the search period for a new Principal, there is always widespread excitement (and perhaps relief) that after a thorough and exhaustive search, the Board has managed to select the ideal candidate with the right balance of ideological alignment, experience, enthusiasm, character and skills to lead the school into a bright future.
The honeymoon period for a new principal may last a year, or just a month, or even just a day. The first time that a new Principal makes a decision, his or her political capital begins to erode. This is because every decision benefits some constituencies while also disadvantaging other constituencies in either relative or absolute ways. Principals who have been selected to advance a particular board agenda are especially vulnerable to rapid erosion of political capital because they may be forced into making changes prematurely without sufficient consultation or nuanced understandings of the consequences. As a result, they may take anger upon their own shoulders that should really be directed to the Board.
Incoming Principals would be very wise to spend one-on-one time with every staff member – teaching and non-teaching – as quickly as possible, and ideally before they begin official duties. This is an opportunity to learn about every staff member’s story, who they are, what they do, why they do it, and what their aspirations are for the future. Like any community, schools work through relationships, so building relationships is an essential foundation for a successful principalship.
Of course, Principals relate to a wide range of constituencies in addition to staff, including board members, parents, students, alumni and the general public. Each constituency rightly demands that their aspirations to be heard and considered. It follows from this that the new Principal should make it an urgent priority to meet with anyone and everyone who is (or may see themselves as) a key stakeholder.
The new Principal’s relationship with the board, and especially with the board chair, is of supreme importance. The Head-Chair relationship is rightly regarded as the most important single relationship in any school. Therefore, regular (preferably weekly) meetings should be scheduled to establish a professional working relationship of mutual trust, transparency and a ‘no surprises’ environment.
Having got to know the people, the next task for a new Principal is getting to know the school thoroughly, inside and out. A good tip for a new Principal is to carry around a small pocket-sized note pad for the first couple of months to note down thoughts and observations as they occur while walking around the school. It is almost inevitable that the new Principal will see and observe things in the first six weeks that will become ‘invisible’ once familiarity sets in.
Getting to know the school involves more than just casual observation, of course. Familiarity includes developing a thorough understanding of the financial position and the school’s programs, policies and procedures.
This all takes time, and some Principals become frustrated when they are constantly interrupted by staff and others coming to the door of their office. As a young Principal I remember being frustrated by these seemingly interminable interruptions to my work, until one day I realised that these people were my “real work” – the paperwork was what I did in between dealing with my real work, which was people.
A third priority area for the first hundred days is training and networking. Very few new Principals have ever been specifically trained for the role; rather they rise through the schooling profession along one of several pathways.
Therefore, a new Principal should commit to networking widely through as many associations as practicable, getting to know other like-minded Principals, as well as engaging in leadership and governance-oriented professional development. Coming to a clear understanding of the board’s role of governance and the consequent unique delegation-accountability relationship between the Board and the Principal is arguably the most critically important insight to understand – for both Board and Principal.
It is often said that the role of School Principal is the best job in the world. It can also be one of the most lonely jobs in the world. However, it doesn’t have to be that way.
The first hundred days may not necessarily make or break a new headship, but they can profoundly affect its success. The new Principal needs to take the occasional deep breath, pause, and remember to take on only a manageable number of tasks at a time – a number that will almost be certainly be fewer than the demands that flood in from those many constituent groups.
Meanwhile the Board’s duty is to support the new Principal, both publicly through affirmation and privately by ensuring the new Principal’s personal needs are being met. It is in everyone’s interests to ensure the new Principal’s honeymoon period outlives the first day, the first week, and hopefully the first year “in the chair”.
-Dr Stephen Codrington
Many of the pointers in this article are expanded in greater depth in our workshop OSG-S1 Board Operations.
Detailed advice on school leadership, including the Principal’s two-way relationship with the Board, the delegation-accountability relationship, and much more, is provided in the book "Optimal School Governance", which can be ordered directly through Pronins.
You may also be interested in previous articles which are archived at https://optimalschool.com/articles.html.