Stepping up…. Advice

I have been delighted to provide resources for Mary Myatt’s CPD platform: ‘Myatt & Co’ – short videos on managing challenging conversations, moving into Middle Leadership, and moving into Senior Leadership. When Mary and I recently discussed what else I might contribute to the ‘Leadership’ section of the platform, Mary suggested I consider recording a Q & A session with aspiring leaders at any level. When I put out a tweet asking for volunteers to join me for such a session, I was inundated with enthusiastic responses!

I accepted the first six offers, and we recorded two thirty-minute sessions where aspiring Middle Leaders, Senior Leaders and Heads asked for advice on a range of subjects relating to the selection and transition process. These videos can be accessed here. But because there were so many aspiring leaders who had shown an appetite for such a session, Mary suggested we organised a free webinar, an hour and a half, in which we offered advice to, and answered questions from, anyone preparing to step up to the next level of leadership. The webinar took place on the evening of Wednesday 3rd March, 2021.

I began this session by going through a number of questions relating to the journey from deciding to apply for a post, to getting to the stage where you felt ready to move on from that role, so for the first half an hour I talked about the following:

How do you know when you’re ready?

How do you know if this is the right job for you?

How can you give yourself the best chance of writing a compelling, persuasive application/statement/letter?

How do you prepare for interview, and ensure you do justice to yourself on the interview day?

Do internal or external candidates have an advantage?

How do you cope with failure and disappointment?

How do you cope with success?

How can you best manage the ‘lead-in’ period between being successful in the selection process and formally stepping into the role?

How can you make the best possible transition into the role?

What should be your priorities in the first few days/weeks/months?

How do you sustain your energy and effectiveness over time?

When do you know you’re ready to move on?

At different stages I asked the webinar participants to reflect on their own experiences and views. I suggested that before their next application/interview, they prepared and practised a strong answer to this question:

‘Why do you want this particular role in this particular school at this time, and what makes you believe you would be a good fit for what the school needs?’

and I asked them to consider how ready they felt with respect to taking the next step, and what they might perhaps do in addition, or differently, as a result of their reflections during this first part of the session. Then we moved to open questions.

The subjects Mary and I covered in the next hour included:

Moving between the state and independent sectors, and between the UK and international sectors

The value of further training and qualifications as a preparation for promotion, including the NPQs, or further degrees, such as Masters degrees

Dealing with Imposter Syndrome

Asking for further information about the role prior to application or interview

Tips for working out whether a school’s values match your own

The support you might expect from your current school if you apply for a post and are unsuccessful

Views on secondments to SLT

Being in a small school where there are few opportunities for progression

Asking for feedback if you are unsuccessful

Applying to a school where you’ve been unsuccessful if another job comes up, especially if you really liked the ethos

Going for headship when you’ve only been in one or perhaps two schools

Interviews on Zoom

The recording contains my and Mary’s thoughts about all these aspects of the application and transition process. This is the link. All those who registered for the session (700+ of them!) will receive a copy of the recording directly from Myatt & Co.

Yesterday I went through all the chat comments to pick up the questions I don’t think we covered, and I’ll run through some answers below. This is going to shape up to be a LONG post! But I recognise that readers can simply skim through it and focus on any questions which are of particular interest to them. Some of the questions below are composite questions, as different people asked similar things.

“Why are some schools poor at succession planning?”

It varies, clearly. It was something we took seriously, and I gave my governing body/trustees plenty of support when they were appointing my successor. I felt invested in ensuring a good choice was made – and it was! I suspect sometimes schools are so busy reacting to the challenges of the present (especially in the current context) that they don’t feel they have sufficient time and energy to think about planning for the future. The best leaders I’ve known at all levels have been committed to working alongside upcoming leaders and helping them to develop their skills, eg an outstanding pastoral leader who would always conduct tricky questions with parents in the company of the tutor so that, in addition to working to resolve the issues, she was also helping to build the tutor’s confidence and expertise. She would, increasingly, give these tutors a voice in such conversations. I think we all recognise succession planning is important.

“Do you have any advice about the length of the personal statement?”

Sometimes the school will specify a maximum length – and, if so, you must stick to it. (Similarly if you have a presentation to make at interview and they give you a time limit, plan and practise carefully so that you fall within the time limit. I have worked with governing bodies on headship selection who have stopped the speaker when that time limit is up, which really throws you if you haven’t quite finished). If they don’t give you a word/space limit, my advice is to stick to two sides of A4 (and not in a tiny font with no margins! Ensure it’s easy to read!) That should be enough. You don’t have to include everything, remember, and you must be discriminating about what you focus on – decide what’s most relevant. This means leaving out some things you are proud of, which takes considerable self-discipline! On the form, when you’re asked about CPD, I favour the phrase ‘Recent and relevant professional development includes…’ It stops you writing out EVERYTHING you’ve ever done on the CPD front! And remember CPD isn’t just ‘going on a course’…

“I read one job description which was four pages long. How can you keep to two sides if you’re addressing that?”

First of all, check that the job in question is manageable and realistic! But try to group the different tasks into broad areas of responsibility, and just make sure you address each area somewhere in your application form/statement/letter. If you struggle to structure your writing, use these areas of responsibility as sub-headings so you ensure your statement or letter is logically organised. You can always take the sub-headings out afterwards if you wish. And don’t repeat yourself – if information is on the form, it doesn’t need to be in the statement. Similarly, if you’re asked for a covering letter too, that can be quite short, just a final opportunity to show your enthusiasm for the role and your conviction that you would make a valuable contribution to the school, given the scope the role would give you.

“Is the pandemic making any difference to people’s interest in stepping up?”

You might think it would, but I’m aware of a fair amount of movement going on at the moment. I do wonder whether there are more internal applications/appointments just now, though, as there may be people who want to progress but are unsure about changing schools at this time.

“I love my current school and its community. There aren’t necessarily opportunities for promotion coming up here, and I’m nervous about making the leap to another school and it turning out to be the wrong leap.”

This is a fairly common quandary, I think. Interestingly, I worked in six good schools – all different, but all good. In each of those schools there were staff who said something along the lines of, “I love it here. Other schools might not be such great places to work…” and so they stayed, and often missed opportunities to challenge themselves and achieve different things in new roles/places. (This was one of the things I was thinking of when I wrote this post about ‘Lost Leaders’.) I suppose it’s about how willing you are to take a risk and a leap of faith. But you will do your research carefully, and, as I said on Wednesday night, you must withdraw if you have reservations at any stage of the process. I have to say I think I was a better head for having experience of six different schools.

“I have the opportunity to ‘act up’ as head. Do you have any suggestions of things I should do in order to get the most out of this opportunity?”

It is a GREAT opportunity, and I really hope you enjoy it. It’s a ‘safe’ way to try out headship and see how it feels to you – you’re likely to be protected from most of the really difficult stuff if the head is still around/coming back – though, by the same token, you might not be able to introduce significant change, as you would in a substantive headship. But make the most of any chances the role gives you to do new things/develop relationships – eg with governors, and across the wider community within which the school sits. There may be new public speaking challenges/the opportunity to represent the school, and the dynamic between you and the staff, parents (and perhaps the pupils) will shift subtly. Think about what you’re learning, and how you’re building your skills and confidence. And I hope it inspires you to go on to apply for headship afterwards!

“What is the shelf life for a head?”

It’s a bit ‘how long is a piece of string?’ really. As I said on Wednesday, I think under five years in headship isn’t quite fair to the school/governors, and, for me, ten years as head in one school felt like enough. I’ve known heads who’ve stayed longer and continued to be successful (though I always remember Tim Brighouse and David Woods writing: ‘We haven’t known many heads whose second decade has been as successful as their first…’) And heads do need to be careful that they’re not staying in post just for themselves (they can’t imagine not having the role/the status/power?) when, actually, the school is ready for a leader with a slightly different skill set from the one it needed when they were appointed. (But please don’t contact your own head and say, ‘Jill Berry thinks your sell-by date may have expired…’)

“I think I’m ready to step up, but my Headteacher does not. How do I deal with this so I get where I want to go?”

You need a positive reference from your current head, so I think you need to have a frank (but polite, respectful, calm, professional) conversation with your head about what their reservations are. What additional experience would help you to prepare yourself, do they think? How can they support you? Is it simply that you haven’t done your current role for long enough? If so, how can you ensure that you continue to build your leadership skills and your learning in your current post (remember every teacher leads learning in their classroom, so we are all developing leadership strengths and strategies even before we have responsibility for leading colleagues). And think carefully about whether your head might actually be right and might you be too impatient? Consider the entirety of your professional journey and pacing yourself through it.

“Do you need to be an AH before you can be a DH, and a DH before you can be a head?”

I have known strong Middle Leaders go straight to DH and miss out AH (it depends on the structure in a particular school), and someone pointed out how the same title (eg AH) can actually involve quite different roles/levels of responsibility. MLs have to demonstrate how they have achieved leadership success in their ML domain and how they are now capable of rolling out their skills and achieving impact on a whole-school canvas – that could be as DH rather than AH. As I said on Wednesday, I do think having been a deputy can make you a stronger head. See what I say about that in ‘Making the Leap’.

“My new ML role involves line managing a person who has previously been in the role. How do I manage that?”

You need to win their respect by showing that you are capable of doing the job very well – by working hard, showing energy and commitment, being prepared to listen and learn, and to lead others effectively. It’s the same if you get a post above disappointed internal candidates and then you have to lead them. Prove to everyone, including yourself, that you are a good appointment! And never say anything which is openly disrespectful of your predecessor(s).

“I know I’m effective in my current role, but I’m not loud and outgoing. If you could see me in my role you would know I am right for the job, but how can I show this at interview?”

Remember your references, written by people who have worked closely with you and know you, and your strengths, are all part of the package. Introverts can make exceptional leaders – they can be thoughtful, with great insight and strong judgement. Not all selection panels want to be ‘blown away’ by extroverts (who can sometimes have superficial charisma but who can lack substance, in my experience – and I know I’m an extrovert!) Do read Iesha Small’s ‘The Unexpected Leader’, if you haven’t already – she’s great on the strengths and qualities of the introvert, and also good on how to manage the situation when you find yourself catapulted into a leadership role you weren’t expecting! And remember not to let the barriers in your own head hold you back…

“Will the fact that I haven’t been a HoD prevent me from securing a Senior Leader role?”

Not necessarily – it depends on the specific responsibilities you will have as an SL. You might just be unlikely to secure an academic SL post without having had the experience of leading an academic department. I do recommend that you try out both academic and pastoral leadership roles if you want to be a head in due course, though – I think it builds your understanding and gives you increased credibility. When I started teaching people talked about choosing either the curricular or the pastoral ‘ladder’. I don’t think that’s ever been helpful. I learnt a huge amount from my first pastoral leadership role as a relatively young teacher. I went on from there to be second in English, and then Head of English. All my leadership roles taught me different things.

“I stepped down from a leadership post and now feel ready to take up the reins again. Will stepping back disadvantage me?”

It really shouldn’t! There are all kinds of reasons for people following convoluted professional paths – often we want different things at different times in our lives, and as long as we have a narrative to explain our choices, and changing priorities, that shouldn’t go against you. For women having time out for their families, especially, your career may resemble a jungle gym more than a ladder – I think Sheryl Sandberg said that in ‘Lean In’ – great book! I also recommend #WomenEd’s new book ‘Being 10% Braver’ which is great on career flexibility (for men and women).

Should you ask questions at the end of the formal panel interview?”

Yes – if you have one or two good questions which haven’t already been answered – but no more than that. The panel is gearing up for the next candidate now. (My heart always sank when a candidate said, ‘Yes! I made a list!’ and pulled it out of their pocket/bag…) And don’t ask a question for the sake of it. There’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘I did have questions at the start of the day, but they’ve all been addressed – thank you very much.’ This sounds better than a limp, ‘No…’ when they offer to address any final questions you have.

“I find job descriptions daunting. I feel I can do it but I don’t have a lot of evidence…”

You do need to find the evidence! Consider where you’ve had impact. Where have you made a difference? What does this show about you – your developing skills, your temperament, your commitment? What do your prior achievements suggest about your future potential? How do they connect with the job applied for? And your references should support and substantiate this.

“Sometimes schools suggest you may contact them prior to putting in an application. Should you take up the offer?”

Yes – if they offer you should. Find out as much as you can, and use that to strengthen your application. If they offer a visit, see it as a chance to begin building the most positive relationships and making an impression. If they offer, and you don’t take them up on it, it might suggest lack of commitment. And if you feel you’re too busy to take time out of your current school, that might also suggest you don’t want the new job badly enough! Good luck.

Finally, Mary recommended this book and this TEDx talk, by Caroline Goyder.

Thank you all! I really hope this is useful.

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