It’s a long way to the top for future college principals

20th May 2016 at 00:00
A department head who aspires to senior leadership explains why you shouldn’t rush to climb the ladder

In a sector where change is the norm, finances are tight and the post-area review landscape is one of mergers, college groups and what may look like big corporate machines, the prospect of wanting to become a senior leader can be somewhat daunting.

Who would want to raise their head above the parapet and declare that they are a future principal? Who would want to put themselves at the head of an organisation in which income is set to reduce and success isn’t always measured on impact but by a set of changing rules defined by whoever happens to be in government at the time? It certainly sounds like a challenge – however, for some, the prospect of one day facing that challenge is not only motivating but also quite exciting.

I decided early on in my FE teaching career that I wanted to be a principal. I attended an event where I met a number of principals and I was inspired by their passion and commitment to their colleges and the students in them, and their will and determination to shape and change the sector as a whole for the better. I wanted to make progress in my career, to have as wide an impact as possible on as many people as possible, and, ultimately, to be challenged every day.

I started out by making the most of Twitter to connect with principals, chief executives and other senior leaders across the FE and skills world, often ending up having some incredible phone and email conversations with big players in the sector. I was given mentoring and support and, through my involvement in UKFEChat, I have continued to receive offers of guidance and advice. It seems that current leaders are keen to support those of us progressing through the ranks.

I then made a bold move and applied for a promotion to become a department head; I didn’t think I would get it, but I did. The role has put me completely out of my comfort zone. It challenges me daily and has really pushed me in terms of personal development, confidence and knowledge.

I am constantly learning, and I now understand those senior leaders who tried to tell impatient old me, “There’s no rush.” I had visions of leapfrogging from post to post, working my way speedily up the career ladder and making principal by 40. I was totally focused on the end goal.

Experience is vital

Being a middle manager has taught me some valuable lessons, one of which is that being a “natural leader” is not the same as being an effective manager. It has made me realise that there is no substitute for experience and that putting in the years in this role is going to make me far more effective later on. I have also realised that, however confident I am, leadership and management roles require you to be strong, resilient and very self-aware.

I have engaged in coaching, both personally and with a focus on my role, which has been completely life-changing. Dealing with personal baggage is making me far more able to do my job effectively. I have also realised that mistakes will happen; I will undoubtedly make some bad decisions and I shouldn’t beat myself up about it. I am not immediately going to be the best person in the world at my job (a pressure that I put myself under daily) and, actually, that is OK.

I have found that it is important to make the most of relationships and the support that is out there. Take up those offers of mentoring, advice and guidance, and make sure you have someone who you can chat with over a coffee about how hard it all is, who can provide perspective and hold your hand when times get tough and your staff aren’t being brilliant and everyone is calling in sick and a student has been arrested and the computers have all decided to stop working.

But also find time to see the good points in every day or week: to focus on the positives and consider how far you have come, appreciating this journey, and not just keeping your eyes on the destination.

There seem to be more of us in FE who are starting to voice our ambitions about senior leadership, but we still have a way to go before we can compare ourselves to the primary and secondary education sectors, where ambition and early headship are the norm. If we seek out other ambitious future leaders, the network that we create now will be invaluable when we finally get to where we want to be.

Tips for aspiring college leaders

Engage in some coaching.

Approach managers and leaders in your own organisation and ask for advice and guidance.

Consider investing in an accredited programme – it is excellent CPD and will be a useful addition to your CV.

Use social media to connect with current and future leaders.

Apply for your dream roles on the next step of the ladder. The interview process is great experience, and you never know, you might just get the job.

Nikki Gilbey is head of learning (land-based) at Chichester College @gillersn

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