School Leadership

Six key principles for successfully onboarding new leaders

Now is the time to ensure all your new ingredients for success are combining successfully to bake in next year’s improvements, writes Tom Campbell

Now is the time to ensure all your new ingredients for success are combining successfully to bake in next year’s improvements, writes Tom Campbell

30 Jun 2022, 5:00

CEOs, headteachers, senior and middle leaders across the country will (hopefully) by now have completed their leadership line-ups for next year and will be thinking a lot about onboarding. Getting this process right is fundamental for leading successfully.

Bringing people together around a cause is also a massive privilege, and one worth investing a great deal of time in. So whether you’re leading a small school or a large trust, I have found that these six key principles will set you and your team well on your way to transformative collaboration:

1. Cultural assimilation

Bringing in new leadership talent is similar to bringing a new school into a trust – expect, and embrace, some cultural assimilation as they bring in ideas and strategies that worked for them elsewhere, adapt them to your context and emerge with new, organically-evolved best practice.

The capacity of the new team should be greater than the sum of the parts and the new member of the team should have a multiplier effect on the capacity and impact of existing members.  Getting this right means a new leadership appointment generates energy and momentum across the organisation.

2. Find your sourdough starter

Great bread comes from using the yeast from old bread as the activating agent.  Combine old with new ingredients to spark life in a fantastic new loaf!  Apply this thinking to building teams.

By bringing an old team member to join my new team, I bring along some of the culture that led to prior success, but combine it with new opportunities, new dynamics and new team members to create something even more exciting.  Leaders often balance teams with a mixture of new, internal and familiar talent.

3. Diversity of every kind

A myriad of benefits come from having a diverse and inclusive workforce. Align your people strategies with your values to help you seek out diverse talent and nurture it through training, mentoring and internship opportunities, to help people of all backgrounds and abilities pursue career pathways in education.

Like many, this is something we are looking to build upon in our trust. Much has also been written about cognitive diversity to avoid ‘group think’.  In Rebel Ideas, Matthew Syed describes examples where diversity of experience and perspective provided revelatory insight.  This diversity of opinion is essential in building teams and can often lead to the next crucial innovation.

4. Team of rivals

Abraham Lincoln famously filled his Cabinet with rivals, including three who ran against him. Capitalising on this dynamic and creating competition within the team worked because creating a culture of robust peer challenge can raise the standard of leadership considerably.  It clearly comes with risks, but if managed well, the team can fly.

5. Complementary skills

People talk about ‘team fit’ as if it were a personality fit.  To me, ‘team fit’ is about bringing in skills that compensate for deficiency or enhance existing strengths.  Good leaders are self-aware and know their limitations. Recruitment is a tool to plug key skills gaps to improve overall team capacity.

6. Peak performance environment

Once you have the team, fostering the right working culture is critical.  I use a psychometric tool called ‘Management Drives’ which looks at preferences and styles of working, identifying system people from instinctive, orators from bureaucrats, midwives from hospice workers.

Good leaders can work out these dynamics quickly and create a structure that enables all to thrive. There is no need to leave this to chance – an array of tools can pre-emptively identify bottlenecks and ensure all ‘types’ enjoy the new team dynamic.

If you are a team builder optimistically looking toward the new school year, or if you are nervously excited to join a new team next term, I wish you the best of luck. Each school and trust is unique, but we are inevitably bound by moral purpose.  And with our vocation at heart, we can pretty much get along with anyone.

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