Leadership - Two heads are better than one

6th June 2014 at 01:00
Shared leadership offers the chance to lighten the workload and pass on experience

Reaching a certain age as a school leader means facing hard truths. I turned 62 last year and I was torn between not being ready to slow down and accepting that I didn't have the energy to do the job as well as I did in the past. I know I am not alone in this.

Where my situation differs from many is that I haven't been forced to abandon my position and I haven't imposed myself on the school beyond my best-before date - two outcomes that often occur in these situations.

Instead, the governors offered a solution that not only maintains my personal interest but also ensures that the school still benefits from my expertise, the students are not disrupted by a new figure of authority suddenly pacing the corridors and career and development opportunities are provided for existing staff. The solution is co-leadership and it is one that should be used more often.

Division of labour

I have taken a step back, reducing my hours to three days a week. The appointment of an associate principal, Paul, means I can fulfil a strategic rather than a day-to-day management role.

When planning this arrangement, we both realised that we would need to agree some ground rules to make it work, so we divided up our responsibilities clearly.

Paul, who was previously vice-principal, concentrates on operational matters. For example, he now approves all staff leave, and handles exclusions and site issues.

I, meanwhile, have overall responsibility for the strategic direction and identity of the school. I work closely with the governing body to make decisions such as how to manage the budget, whether to change the status of the school and how we might need to adjust our curriculum to meet government regulations. I am also the primary contact for our feeder and cluster schools and I directly manage finance, communication and recruitment-related issues.

The arrangement has taken some time to bed in. Paul is very tolerant when I meddle with decisions that are now his area of responsibility - I find it really difficult to stay away from diary meetings, for example. I have to accept that this new dynamic no longer allows me the control I once had over every element of the school. I also have to accept that my door isn't knocked on quite as much as it used to be: staff now go to Paul in the first instance. Likewise, he has had to develop confidence to make decisions without my input.

Ensuring consistency

The whole setup would be a disaster if we didn't have a strong relationship, built up through working together for many years. It also requires a great deal of respect. We are both intrinsically motivated and open to change. We recognise that for a collaborative leadership model to be a success, communication and openness are paramount. And we believe that staff, students and parents deserve consistency.

That consistency is possible because of the way the school nurtures leaders. Our strategy is simple: to enable staff to grow and develop; to provide a clear pathway for aspiring senior teachers; and to encourage a collaborative spirit.

People ask if I feel nervous about being ultimately responsible for decisions that Paul makes without my knowledge - the buck still stops with me. I tell them I have complete confidence that Paul will make important decisions in the same way I would. And the same goes for the rest of the senior leadership team. Consistency is about teachers being able to get the same response from any of its members.

When mapping out the plan for my retirement, it was always clear that dual leadership was an interim arrangement and that the governors would need to monitor and evaluate its effectiveness. There are no fixed timescales and from our perspective it has been a great success thus far. The staff seem to agree.

Every school is unique, so this kind of arrangement may not be universally applicable. But for us, right now, two heads really are better than one. Distributed leadership is a great way to prepare for a transition and ensure that the expertise gained by the older generation is not lost in the handover but embedded in a framework to build further success.

Phil Munday is principal of Henry Cort Community College in Hampshire

What else?

Leadership is a team game, so learn the rules.

Empower your staff to help you lead.


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