Outlook is rosy... until things start to go wrong

It seemed a good idea at the time to volunteer to write a brief article forThe TESS - but what to write about?It's a bit like the freestyle section in Strictly Come Dancing: it should give you an opportunity to do your own thing but, in reality, it can be more difficult than following a strictly choreographed routine.

So nearly three years into being a college principal, I think I'll have a stab at writing about the role.

The first thing to say about the job is that it's fabulous. Full stop. The sheer enjoyment of leadership at a time of supported change is one most people would envy. There is no doubt in my mind that the external environment in which colleges operate is one where significant investment is taking place. Nowhere can this be better seen than in estates development and support with capital investment from the Scottish Further Education Funding Council.

To exchange outdated and outmoded accommodation on such a large scale for estates that are both modern and fit-for-purpose is fantastic for the college sector. How many of us are working in surplus school buildings dating from the 19th and early 20th century?

Colleges in general are moving into a much stronger and financially confident position and are shaking off the image of the Cinderella of the education sector.

Apart from the sheer enjoyment of the job, the second most obvious thing I am aware of is that good colleges have good principals... or is that good principals have good colleges?

So what are the traits that college principals should aspire to emulate? Obviously all principals are accounting officers, so they first have to think like accountants. What this really means is that they are responsible. But it is not just about being responsible for the financial health of the organisation and for hundreds of jobs. It's about ensuring that money is invested in the right areas, whether for the immediate benefit of staff and students or to ensure that it is used to help the college to generate increasing amounts of commercial income.

Leadership skills as an architect of change are central to the performance of the role. It demands someone who is self-confident, determined and passionate about improving their college. Visibility and an ability to mix comfortably with all levels of staff must be key strengths. Obviously it is crucial that the staff have faith in the direction in which the organisation is moving, and that they are willing to participate in the journey.

Managing the brand image and promoting and leading good internal and external communication are vital. Knowing what the real messages are in informal communication is as important as the formal routes. I am sure that good principals enjoy the politics of the organisation and seek to actively manage these.

To the above can be added: being responsible for promoting and selecting the right team to encourage staff to develop; giving managers enough autonomy to develop their areas of responsibility; and being responsible for the quality of what we have to offer to our students.

Principals, of course, have to accept that everyone and their auntie wants to audit the organisation to death and more and more stakeholders show increasing interest in what is happening to "their" college.

So, three years on, what have I enjoyed about the job? The first thing is that I have been really lucky to be appointed in a college that wanted to change. I am fortunate that the college is in the fifth largest conurbation in Scotland, and only capping now keeps us from expanding significantly.

To arrive at a time of supported change, both in helping us to return to operating surplus and in the development of the estate, is really fortunate. Monies from the funding council, Europe via the Strathclyde European Partnership and the sale of the existing sites will ensure that we move into a brand new, single-site building in 2007, which will replace three disparate and tired facilities.

Being able to work with a chairman and board of management who really want the college to change and develop makes all the difference, as well as having a depute principal who knows the business inside out. Nearly three years down the line, with a new staffing structure in place to support a first-class workforce across the whole organisation, we are ready to move again - not simply in location, but also in what we have to offer our students and the wider community.

So can the job be as rosy as I paint it? Well, it's pleasant to smell the Christmas roses but perhaps real leadership is only displayed when things go wrong...

Stewart McKillop is principal of South Lanarkshire College

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