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Tired of taking orders? A new guide identifies the qualities you will need to become a principal, reports Joe Clancy

The "magical ingredients" aspiring college principals need to get to the top are revealed in two new reports.

The ability to be both self-critical and thick-skinned, to be open-minded and flexible, proactive and resourceful are all vital elements to be whisked into the mix of personal qualities, say the reports published by FE's leadership training body.

Qualifications, motivation, values, mobility, networks, and the ability to see the bigger picture are also crucial. Add a sprinkle of confidence, commitment and clarity of vision - and the biggest office could be yours.

Fifty principals gave their views on how they reached the pinnacle for the reports, produced by the Centre for Excellence in Leadership, the body set up to turn FE managers into the leaders of the future.

Lynne Sedgmore, the centre's chief executive, said: "Many people told us how useful and interesting it would be to learn how others made it to the top so they could discover the magical ingredients. We need to follow every avenue to give potential senior leaders in the sector the knowledge and confidence to take their path to the top."

The result is two reports entitled Career paths:how individuals made it to the top and Hints and tips - career insights from successful leaders.

"Above all, believe in yourself and have the courage of your convictions," one principal advised. "It is important to do it your way."

Self-confidence is put forward as probably the most important ingredient of all. The most frequent advice is "go for it, take sensible and balanced risks and be prepared to show you can lead from the front".

It is also important to do your homework and make sure you know what you are letting yourself in for. Several principals stressed the importance of making sure "you understand and really want the top job" before going for it.

Marion Plant, one of the principals interviewed in the survey, spent seven years as a midwife and district nurse before she began part-time teaching at a college in Birmingham in 1990. Eight years later she was appointed to her first senior management post and now heads North Warwickshire and Hinckley college, which has 25,000 students.

She said that it was not until she became a senior manager that she found the determination to become a principal.

"Until then, I was always surprised when I was asked to take on more responsibility," she said.

"I had no career plan. I was bringing up my children and it was harder to progress with a career. But once in senior management I was working with a small group of people watching the roles of the people above me. I came to realise that I could do it, and probably do it better.

"I worked for a number of college principals. Of some I thought I could do their job as well if not better. There were others who inspired me."

She said her background in nursing helped to form her belief in developing individuals and communities, and that it was important to hold on to a sense of perspective and emotional balance and not to allow the job to take over her life. She added: "When I was nursing I was involved in a lot of life or death situations. Whenever I get into a difficult situation here I think, 'No one's life is at risk.'"

Marion Plant is married to a Church of England rector, so outside work she is a public figure.

"It is so important to have a stable and happy life outside of the job," she said.

Sujinder Sangha was 16 when he left school and came to England in the late 1960s to find work as a shop-floor worker in a steel plant in the West Midlands.

He was the first person with an Asian-Indian background to become principal of a general FE college when he was appointed at Stockton Riverside college, in Stockton-on-Tees.

He developed a taste for FE while doing education work with the Trades Union Congress and went into teaching full-time in 1981 after completing an Open University degree. "What motivates me is making a difference to peoples' lives, and you have to be in a leadership position to influence that development," he said.

The two reports can be found on the CEL website at


Some words of advice from principals...

"Not getting the principal's job made me realise how much I wanted it and had to do something about it."

"I came to the role by accident - it was not a career aspiration."

"As a vice-principal you tend to become frustrated as you don't take the final decision. You can create a vision, but someone can say no."

"I think there is snobbishness about principals needing to come through the pure educational route. The vocational route is still seen as second class."

"If you have a qualification you have added credibility as people take you more seriously."

"If I had been clearer about my goals I would have made principal sooner."

"Age is a definite barrier and there is a view that there is a right age to be principal - early to mid-40s."

"What exactly is your motivation? Personal ambition? Financial reward? Being in charge? Be honest with yourself."

"If you don't want to take the final responsibility for everything that happens in your college, then you don't want to be a principal."

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