Given the significant and vast expansion of the role of headteachers – a process that shows no signs of slowing down – it is worth asking whether it is time for school leaders to have a second-in-command (2IC). Not simply a traditional deputy head, but an ally whose role is just as front-end, intensive and strategically important as the leading figure.
It’s not such an unusual question; 2IC’s have existed in commercial businesses for an age. Many high-profile leaders came to realise that they needed to delegate once-untouchable roles to a sidekick, including Bill Gates (Microsoft), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) and Steve Jobs (Apple). Most top football managers also rely on their trusted assistant to engage with high-level management issues.
So, what can we learn from experiences elsewhere? Not unsurprisingly, the relationship between a head and a 2IC must be very special. There has to be unbreakable trust. This might take time, but the sooner it gets there, and hopefully stays there, the better.
Also, the 2IC really has to at least be seen to be pulling in the same direction as the head, with the same overriding objectives. Divergence at this level can be misleading and plant seeds of doubt in observers’ minds.
This is not to say that a head of school and a 2IC shouldn’t be debating the direction – including the potential for change – but they must present a united front.
The 2IC does not necessarily have to try to be an exact complement or a substitute to the head either. Indeed, a 2IC might best be someone who brings something quite different to the table. And, when a 2IC clearly adds value, others should be made aware of where the credit lies.
Who would make a good 2IC? It might not be the obvious choice. Rather than a person with an intricate working knowledge of the school, it could be someone who has a clear vision for where the school might go in the future.
But the challenge is not just about the appointee per se but also the nature of the 2IC’s role. Before any appointment is made, there should be detailed discussion between a head and any potential 2IC over what the new role will entail, the level of authority it carries, what is expected (including targets), other support available, and so on.
The earlier that such a discussion takes place, the more likely it is that the relationship will be sustainable. And, following such a discussion, absolute clarity must exist on both sides of the relationship.
Delegation of high-level duties to a 2IC would seem a sensible way forward in school leadership. Old-fashioned, top-down structures – with heads holding the bulk of power – are no longer fit for purpose. But, as always, there is no generic model of change to follow. Every school’s specific needs should be considered in their particular context.
Why you need a sidekick