On internal promotion to headship

I was externally promoted to my headship, and, when I completed my doctorate in which I researched the transition from deputy to head, I deliberately chose six participants who were all externally appointed, so that they would all be on the same page with respect to establishing themselves in their new school communities.  Anyone who has read ‘Making the Leap – Moving from Deputy to Head’ (Crown House, 2016) will recognise that, although I do touch on the subject of internal promotion to the school leader role, my focus is much more on those who move to become head of another school. However, I have known a significant number of heads who did move from deputy to head in the same school, and I have worked with several of them in recent years. 

I do, I hope, have some understanding of the nature of that challenge.  I am keen to support any new head making the transition into the role, and have mentored and coached some who make the leap internally.  So I was interested to read the recent piece in tes by Geraint Jones: ‘From deputy to headteacher – 3 ways to set out your stall’.  It begins: “An internal promotion from deputy head to headteacher means establishing new boundaries with staff members who were formerly close colleagues – which is a delicate art. Here’s how to get it right.”

Geraint’s advice focusses on recalibrating relationships and navigating the new dynamic between you and your colleagues as you step up to the headteacher role.  He advises one-to-one chats with those to whom you’re closest, explaining that there may be the need for change; that you explain publicly to all staff what will need to be different as you assume your headteacher persona; and that you use your knowledge of the school to achieve a quick win and make a change which shows at an early stage that you mean business and that your understanding of the school context will help you to have a positive impact in your new role.

I remembered as I read the piece that the head who appointed me to my Head of Department post had been the deputy prior to her appointment and had close friends on the staff.  Following her promotion, she took the Head of PE aside to explain clearly that they could no longer be friends.  The Head of PE was first crushed and hurt, and then quite angry and vocal, and her bitterness was clearly communicated within the staffroom, which did the new head no favours.  I do accept that if you move internally to a leadership role, some accommodation is necessary, and it would be disingenuous to behave as if nothing will change – I have written about this here: Internally promoted? – but a significant amount of sensitivity and empathy is required if you decide to embark on the frank one-to-one conversations Geraint suggests.

And this led me to thinking about what my three pieces of advice for internally appointed heads might be.  I’d say the following:

1. Relationships certainly will change, but you have to enact every role you undertake in a way that is true to you – you still have to be yourself, so beware of feeling that you now need to adopt a persona/wear a mask which is a distortion of who you are.  If you are warm and friendly as a deputy, you will be warm and friendly as a head.  But being friendly is not the same as being close friends who share everything indiscriminately.  I think you can navigate some professional distance without hurting the feelings of those to whom you have been close, and without giving them the impression that you are perhaps now ‘too important’ to maintain the same relationship you’ve had in the past.  I think you can take it more slowly rather than confronting this head on in your first days as a head.

2. It may be that your social life does change, and that you nurture friendships beyond the school – perhaps including your connection with other heads, who should provide a supportive network for each other.  During my headship I would go to staff social events, but I wouldn’t stay too long.  I might accept a dinner invitation, but we would never discuss anything school-related at such an event.  In fact, even as a deputy I think that was important to me, particularly if the conversation about work drifted towards the critical.  So being friendly, approachable, personable was a given, but I was fully aware of where the boundaries were and, in my experience, so were others within the wider school community.  People will watch how you enact the role.  If you are clear about the parameters, others will see and respect that.

3. I do agree with Geraint that as an internal appointment you have so much knowledge and understanding of the context that you may be able to hit the ground running with respect to the contribution you make – you could well have been reflecting for years on what YOU would hope to achieve as the head.  You will want to make your mark, to ‘inhabit’ the role rather than simply to ‘inherit’ it (something I explored in my doctoral thesis and in ‘Making the Leap’).  You will want to leave the school stronger than you found it.  In this, you will make use of what you already know, the relationships you have established, and the depth of your appreciation of the school’s vision and values, ethos and culture.  But you also need to show that you can see the school through fresh eyes, that you are keen to find out from others across the community about where it perhaps needs to develop and strengthen its provision – without in any way being openly critical of what has gone before. 

So my advice is, even as an internally appointed head, you spend time asking questions, listening, reflecting, being receptive and responsive to what you hear.  You must never give the impression that because you were the deputy in that school you already know it all. If you are newly appointed to your headship from the position of Senior Leader within the same school, you have opportunities/advantages, and some specific challenges.  Embrace the former, and be aware of and committed to navigating the latter.  And enjoy the experience.  Being a head is still the BEST job.

Photo credit: John Berry

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