Following the publication of a recent post about how you can establish yourself as positively as possible when you move into a new leadership role, I became involved in a Twitter conversation about the benefits and potential drawbacks of being promoted to a leadership position within a school where you are already employed. What is it like when you move from being a member of a team to the leader of that team? What advantages can you make the most of, and what specific challenges does internal promotion bring with it?
I had written earlier about what you should bear in mind when you apply for a post internally, and in that post I suggested that there were positive and negative elements to being an internal candidate. I think these probably ultimately cancel each other out so that in the end you don’t necessarily stand a better, or worse, chance than someone who is applying from outside the school. I suggest this is true for those who are successful in the selection process, too. In some ways you have knowledge which should help you to carry out your new responsibilities successfully. In other respects there are specific challenges which being internally promoted may bring which you need to navigate.
So what advice would I offer to those who are internally promoted to a new leadership role?
- Recognise that the dynamic in the team will change as you assume your new role. You still need to be true to yourself and what you stand for – don’t try to be someone you are not – but with leadership responsibility comes a shift in your professional identity which it would be naive, and unwise, to try to deny. You need ideally to have thought this through BEFORE you applied and ensure you are prepared to negotiate this shift.
- Successful leaders, in my view, need both to support, and to constructively challenge, those they lead if they are to get the best from each individual, and from the team as a whole. As these are colleagues you already know and have worked closely with, the ‘support’ side of this (sometimes protecting, advocating for, defending your team and fighting its corner) is likely to be much more comfortable (and pleasant!) than holding them to account if all is not as you know it needs to be. But you will not be fulfilling your responsibilities as a leader if you are not prepared to challenge when it is necessary in order to set and meet high standards. You have to be able to hold difficult conversations at times, and this can be tricky with those who were peers and who may be friends.
- Which brings me to this key point – as an externally appointed leader, you have the luxury of establishing yourself within a new team where you may determine to be friendly without actually being friends. Your social life may lie beyond the team, and this can be more comfortable than trying to deal absolutely transparently and fairly with those who know you socially, personally, and even intimately. Again, this is something which you can navigate, but it requires care, thought and sensitivity. You are working to establish the most positive, productive, professional relationships within a context where personal relationships have already been formed and may bring emotional complications. I don’t think you can get drunk together any more…
- Remember that when you were a member of the team your focus was on being the best teacher/tutor/member of staff you could be. Your focus now is on helping every member of the team to be the best they can be – and you know them already, for good or ill. Build on the positives, and don’t allow past issues to cloud your vision of what everyone can be. Recognise potential and build capacity. Work to earn respect so that those you lead forgive your own past indiscretions, too.
- As you navigate your new space within this professional context, this sometimes means setting aside your own ego and recognising that it is all about the team, not about you. And it isn’t about taking credit and basking in glory, either. I am fond of the Harry S Truman quotation; ‘There is no limit to what we can achieve if we don’t care who gets the credit.’ You may plant seeds which others cultivate. If what follows is good for the team as a whole, whose idea this originally sprang from isn’t so important. Don’t let personalities of those you know well get in the way of this. And, if course, you may not have been the only internal applicant for this post, which requires particular sensitivity.
- Finally, consider what you know of what this team could achieve and the best direction of travel, based on your experience within the school so far. Beware of saying anything which is openly critical of what has gone before, and of your predecessor, but build on the strengths, make the most of the legacy and tap into the potential for growth and development. This is your opportunity to realise your vision for what this team could be – work with and through others to make it happen. And enjoy the adventure!
Photo montage: John Berry