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Call for collaborative leaders

YOU cannot fail to be impressed by the partners that the Learning and Skills Development Agency has brought together to secure the winning bid for the leadership college.

There is no shortage of intellectual horsepower, and participants at the college will have a wealth of input on the theory of leadership. However, rather like passing your driving test, it is the practical skills, developed during on-the-road lessons with an instructor, that ultimately produce the "skills certificate".

So where will this practical insight into leadership come from? From years of experience in leadership development in the private sector, I would like to see the extensive use of personal coaching when the consortium begins to plan the detail of the prospectus later this year.

I have been chair of a college governing body since incorporation and have met many principals and senior managers. Based on my experience in more than 30 years in industry I find that they are every bit as competent as their counterparts in the private sector in managing the activities for which they are responsible.

However, when it comes to creating a collaborative culture, motivating and developing individuals and teams, generating active participation and stimulating innovation, the FE sector has some catching up to do.

Fortunately, the leadership college can capitalise on the fact that such skills can be learned.

So, how should the new consortium deliver on its promise? First, I share the view of Chris Hughes, chief executive of the Learning and Skills Development Agency, about the absence of a large headquarters building. It will work as a virtual college. Indeed, we should recoil at the thought of sitting college leaders in classrooms for days on end, then submitting them to a written examination followed by the awarding of a certificate of competence.

I would encourage the extensive use of skilled coachesmentors to provide individualised support, instruction and feedback to principals and senior management teams at their places of work. This could be underpinned by some classroom activity, and Ashridge Management College possesses one of the best learning environments in the country. The experiences of the Open University will also be invaluable for the development of distance learning.

Second, what will be the key components of the curriculum? There is plenty of research and data about leadership competencies around the world and it is tempting to take something down from the shelf and use it. However, I would expect the development agency and its partners to identify the key leadership competencies required by college principals and senior managers.

The learning experience can then be concentrated on aspects of leadership that are critically important to the sector. The identification of these competencies will also greatly assist those involved in the much-needed succession planning programme to identify tomorrow's college leaders as well as raising the quality of promotion and recruitment processes for senior appointments.

Third, who will be able to access this college? I firmly believe that we should start with the top teams. We should resist the temptation to cascade further into the college structure until we know that we have made good progress with senior management. Of course there is a need to improve the leadership skills of those who have the potential. How else can we create an effective succession planning system?

Improving quality and achievement, meeting the requirements of strategic area reviews and getting to grips with college inspections and new funding regimes are the urgent responsibilities of the college principal and senior managers. For the immediate future I suggest that we should focus the vast majority of the resources in providing them with the skills they need to lead teams though these challenging times.

How long will it take? Leadership development is a long and unique journey for everyone. Coachesmentors need to be given regular access to participants, to observe, to discuss and to give feedback. New techniques will need to be practised and, as a result, it will be several months before significant sustained improvements are detected.

There is always a danger that people will become disillusioned if improvements do not come quickly but we, and government, must understand that this is not a short-term initiative. When dealing with leadership development, patience and persistence are real virtues.

David Kissman is chair of governors at Broxtowe College, Nottingham

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