Over lunches held throughout the country they sat down and pondered the future - for those who will come after them. How could they help to create and nurture leaders further down the ladder in their organisations? How could they attract talented people to succeed them and keep their colleges competitive?
The six seminars were organised by the Hay Group, a consultancy that specialises in leadership: what makes a good leader, how good leadership can be developed, and the impact of bad or good leadership.
The principals, and some members of learning and skills councils, attended the seminars to help Hay understand both the mood and the needs of the FE sector.
This was a follow-up to a study by Hay last year (TES, November 1, 2002).
It looked at how leadership in FE compared to that in industry. The study found that principals of the best colleges used a wider range of leadership styles than the strongest business leaders, and were more flexible. "The clear message is that good leadership can make a difference regardless of bureaucracy, rising expectations, poor pay or constant change."
Hay has been working with the Learning and Skills Development Agency, one of the four members of the consortium, to help to design and deliver leadership programmes for senior managers.
"We have worked with both private and public sector organisations and we are sensitive to the stages of development and pitfalls associated with setting up this type of organisation," said a spokeswoman for Hay. "We hope to be able to share our learning from these experiences, which will help (the consortium) make a smooth beginning."
There is an ageing population in FE colleges and a high turnover of principals and senior managers. Not many are willing to come forward, so planning a successor is difficult.
There have also been two significant changes in the sector. More women are being appointed, and principals are taking on two or three principalships simultaneously rather than just one. One college may need a different kind of leadership from another.
"Pace-setting and coercive styles are appropriate in certain situations," said one seminar contributor. Leaders needed to understand the culture of the organisation, perhaps create a new one, and ensure the values of a college "lived".
Recognition and reward were endemic problems. Time and again they asked themselves, what powers or ability did they have to reward staff?
There was also, said one, "a stronger sense of fear" about making controversial decisions on funding and staffing.
Some principals said there was a lack of government support for college leaders to deal with under-performance. "There are no levers to help I early retirement has gone."
Much leadership is about expectation. Mike Stanton, Hay's director for FE, said: "People say 'you cannot expect us to do too much with these students, can you?' Colleges that do best are those that say 'ignore that, we are going to have a drive for improvement'."
A number of principals stressed that the need to collaborate required leadership skills of a different order. To lead you may need to praise, flatter, tease or coerce. The art is knowing which to use and when.