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Wanted: a pool of potential principals

Succession planning will never work in FE until we move away from our highly inefficient and time-consuming approach to senior appointments.

It would be absurd if a bank or retailer with branches or sites across the country let each site independently recruit and develop its senior management team. Yet, amazingly, each college is effectively left to its own devices when it wants to recruit a principal or senior manager.

This means colleges are competing with each other for the best people and that can only be damaging to the sector. And, frankly, it is less than helpful to the budding talent within it.

I am beginning to think that FE is not really a "sector" like the retail sector or banking, where organisations compete for customers and staff. In fact colleges are more akin to a single national retailing chain that should be mobilising all of its resources in a co-ordinated way to achieve the best outcomes for customers and staff.

In order to replace the ageing population of principals, a national approach to planning future manpower will be needed.

A national database should be established holding the names and details of all staff currently in senior positions or who are considered as future leaders. This database should hold a profile of each named person, including information about leadership competencies, location preferences, suitable next appointment in terms of role and appropriate size of college.

This national database or talent pool would be the single source from which candidate shortlists would be be drawn up.

The benefits of a single immediately accessible source of such information would depend on the quality of the information. It would have to be built using strict quality-control standards and using one competency framework for everyone in the pool.

The Centre for Excellence in Leadership could play a leading role in developing this competency assessment programme. A consultation document shortly to be released by the Department for Education and Skills will address this issue.

Also, the Association of Colleges' new pay framework provides a vehicle for succession planning at all levels, from learning support to leadership and management. Its framework of career "families" and pathways can be linked to occupational standards developed by FE national training organisation and the new Lifelong Learning Sector Skills Council. Reference to the standards will enable colleges to identify the skills, knowledge and experience needs of individual employees and develop their potential for leadership.

Getting people in the sector to think seriously about their aspirations, to consider and recognise their strengths and development needs and to indicate where they would and would not be prepared to relocate is in itself beneficial. Being accepted into the "talent pool" would recognise the potential of those marked for leadership. Placing limits on where people could move next - based on an assessment of their capabilities - would also make them more realistic about their amibitions.

When seeking to fill a vacancy, a college would fish in the pool for a shortlist but that would not preclude advertising as well in order to offer the opportunity to others inside or outside FE. However, any applicants who are attracted by advertising would need to be assessed using the same standards applied to the pool.

Managed shortlists also provide an opportunity to co-ordinate a series of moves. Instead of setting off a chain reaction of recruitment activity as one filled position causes a vacancy elsewhere, the whole chain could be mapped out at the beginning of the exercise and a great deal of time and cost saved.

At a time when the strategic role of college corporations is being challenged in some places by local learning and skills council activity, the last thing that they might want to hear of is yet more centralised planning. However, I do not believe that it is a concern that has any foundation. The national talent pool, if adopted, would soon be seen as an aid in finding quality leadership and management for their respective colleges.

There are a number of organisations that are well placed by virtue of their current activities to take up the responsibilty of driving this national approach and early adoption of the process is feasible.

So, having indulged in my little trip into fantasy-land, I wonder how many other corporation members and principals, not to mention aspiring senior managers, would like to jump on my bandwagon of a national approach to recruitment and selection. Conversely, how many will prefer to stay in the warmth of a local, independent and disjointed approach?

I look forward to reading the letters page of FE Focus over the next few weeks and no doubt the DfES may be reading it with more than passing interest as well.

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