What I wish I'd known when I first went into leadership

One college leader shares the wisdom of his experience for those starting out on the leadership journey
5th April 2020, 9:02am


What I wish I'd known when I first went into leadership

Leadership: College Head Of English & Maths Jonny Kay On What Leadership Mistakes To Avoid

So, you've received the phone call, you've told family and friends, and the elation of your first (or next) leadership role is starting to feel real. But what next? Whether it's a first leadership role, or a new role in a new setting, there are plenty of opportunities waiting for you. However, where there are new opportunities, there are also new potential threats.

Having made every mistake it was possible to make when I first started in leadership, below are some of the things I wish I'd known when I started on the leadership journey. 

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It is tempting to enter a new setting and immediately begin to make the changes you think will lead to new/renewed success. Unfortunately, this can appear as if you don't value the quality that already exists - it is vitally important to evaluate as much as possible when starting a new leadership role, meaning anything from identifying those with the most/ least experience to recognising existing leaders (and rebels) within a team and identifying successful existing practices. If a team performs well with certain student groups, why suddenly change this? It is only after thorough and in-depth evaluation that any changes can be made, and successfully integrated.

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Whether changes are made or not, it is important to realise that your management style will itself potentially represent the biggest change that some staff have experienced. This can be unsettling to some even before any changes are made. With this in mind, it is vital that you listen to any and all feedback from all members of a team. Whether this is in one-to-one informal chats, whole-team meetings or through those who can be most important in a team, listen. More importantly, identify those who can act as lieutenants, providing the information to make the best decisions for students and practitioners.


As part of this listening process, it is also enormously important to identify what practitioners want or need in their own professional silo. Whether this is more flexibility (in workload/ timetabling/ responsibility), or the opportunity to take more on (responsibility, training), it is very rare that practitioners are entirely content with every aspect of their working life. It is important to balance these individual objectives with the needs of the team and departmental priorities. Very often, there will be some harmony here - practitioners will want to improve in an area that is a departmental priority - but there can be clashes, too, so it is important not to make promises that can't be kept.

Knowing their role

An obvious one, but it does need to be stated. It could well be that you are entering a department in which there are unknown agendas or grudges - you may not be aware of previous staff roles or relationships (ie, did anyone apply for your role? Did your predecessor rely on some more than others? What impact did this have?). It is vital that staff start on a level playing field, and know this is the case. Any level of favouritism can have negative impacts across the team and lead to resentment. Once this happens, it is very difficult to counter. Not only should you find out what staff can do, but also what they want to do and the impact this will have on others.

Modelling inputs

A very simple technique, but one that should always be evident - it is vital to model excellence in everything that you do and ensure that anything other than this is challenged. The means and frequency of this challenge may change, but the consistency of it must always remain the same. If you are giving anything other than your best, challenging others will become more difficult as a result of your own hypocrisy.

Changing pace

Through the nature of your role, you will eventually want to change aspects of practice. However, it is important that this is done within the timeframe of your team's capabilities. Change too slowly, and this won't impact students; change too quickly and it could unsettle current successful practices. It is important to remember that change must happen with your team, not to them. Gathering regular feedback and tweaking your approach accordingly will mitigate against much of this, but always remember that those who are struggling with the pace might not always want to flag this for fear of how this appears - again, use your newfound lieutenants to help this.

Whatever the leadership role, it is vital to remember that you are dealing with people, and so tailoring an approach wherever possible should be one of your priorities - hopefully, the above will help with starting points to do this (I just wish it hadn't taken me so long to figure it out!).

Jonny Kay is head of English and maths at a college in the North East

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