The Journal for Executive and Governance Leaders

Succession planning and leadership recruitment: a crisis not to be wasted?

Trust boards discover they have a leadership vacancy in one of two ways. But whether planned or unexpected, it’s a supremely valuable moment, where the status quo can legitimately be questioned, and alternative directions can be explored.

School trusts are a relatively new arrival on the civic landscape, and a lot of best practice is emerging through doing. Though there are plenty of comparable models and approaches on which to build (for example, trusts managing the provision of housing, leisure, health or community assets), school trusts are a particularly complex idea, with lots of moving parts. On top of this, public expectations of state-funded education providers are extraordinarily high, at a time of marginally increasing (or in real terms, reducing) inputs.

The challenge this presents to school and trust executive leaders, not to mention governors and trustees, is immense. After all, the pressure of leadership on its own can be more than sufficient unto the day – let alone finding time for horizon-scanning or strategic reviews and senior succession planning.

System-leading trusts are in a category of their own, and I don’t propose to discuss them in this short article. But for smaller to mid-size trusts – especially those where the founding CEO is still in place – one thing that often mitigates this pressure is a precious reservoir of organisational memory, contextual knowledge, inherited credibility and general continuity. In most cases, these trusts have made a conscious, positive decision to build on existing formal or informal links; they often have a shared geography, community profile and /or a history of collaboration in other areas.

As a result, a great deal of ‘what makes us us’ is likely to be collectively understood, rather than articulated or recorded. Indeed, there is frequently resistance to creating an over-codified summary of the ‘why’ of a new school trust; vision or mission statements are often seen as a management consultant’s imposition, to be denigrated or ignored because “we all know that already”. To an extent, I agree; there are far too many facile examples of these statements, which then permit organisations to move it to the ‘done’ pile, and thus out of mind. And if there’s no pressing need to generate a narrative of why schools have come together, it can feel artificial and strained to do so.

But there is one scenario where this shared and endorsed understanding of ‘what we do, and why’ is absolutely critical. In leadership recruitment, a clear, compelling proposition to candidates is essential. And if there hasn’t been a particular reason to undertake this process of pause and reflection before, it’s a perfect opportunity to do so.

Whether looking for a head, an executive principal, or a CEO, trusts must take an objective, forward-focused and evidence-based approach to determining their desired outcome. I know that not everyone has the DfE’s 2017 Guidance on Headteacher Recruitment on their bedside tables, so for convenience I’ll just remind you that section 5 (Planning and Preparation) encourages recruitment boards to:

“… take some time to consider the current situation of their school/trust, their future aspirations, and the leadership they need to enable them to achieve their objectives. Different roles have evolved in recent years and boards should be clear about which role they are recruiting and why.”

Trustees and governors are experienced people, who bring success in their careers (whether within or beyond education), a strong public-service ethos and an independent streak. Yet – and I speak as one who’s sat on or advised boards of nearly all of the various structures mentioned above – it can be really difficult to avoid slipping into a business-as-usual continuity mode, where we are happily monitoring and assuring, and avoiding existential risk. Consequently, recruitment of a new leader can feel more like one of those risks (where change threatens stability) than an inspiring opportunity to double-check our ambitions, reset our direction of travel, or raise an issue for which the right moment hasn’t yet arisen.

In leadership recruitment, a clear, compelling proposition to candidates is essential. And if there hasn’t been a particular reason to undertake this process of pause and reflection before, it’s a perfect opportunity to do so.

David Gooda

But confident, mature boards can seize this chance to ask themselves why their risk register looks a certain way, and whether it reflects the approach of the departing leader or of the trustees / governors; they can discuss whether their founding narrative is still appropriate to a rapidly changing world; they can safely debate different value-sets, and test unspoken inherited assumptions against previously unheard ideas. It’s a fantastically stimulating process, and if you’re considering using an executive recruitment firm such as ours, it’s absolutely fundamental to getting the best out of your investment.

So, be brave with that discussion, consider bringing in an external facilitator, and encourage the richest possible debate. I promise you won’t regret it.

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