The seven deadly sins of executive headship

Taking on the role requires a new set of skills. It’s easy to lose the personal touch you had before, but to move on you need to abandon what you previously held on to in order to grow and develop. Toby and Russell look at the perks and pitfalls of the role and how to traverse the learning curve.

The executive headteacher role has been around for a while now but still lacks definition. The biggest risk is assuming it is a natural extension of stand-alone headship, only bigger. It isn’t. Operating on the basis that what made you a great headteacher will make you a great executive headteacher is a fundamental mistake. It needs a different approach.

There are many inspiring and talented people performing the role and they have had to travel a steep learning curve. Let’s look at some of the things they’ve learned to avoid. As so often in leadership, what is a virtue in one context can become a vice in another.

1. If confidence becomes control – Toby

You usually become an executive headteacher because you’re successful. This gives a certain confidence in your judgment and expertise. Rightly so: you know what works and you’re firmly in control of your own school. You may even be expert in turnaround situations requiring an especially strong lead. As an executive headteacher you are now managing other headteachers. It can demand a different style to make the most of the capacity you have: coaching, facilitating and influencing. The dreaded phrase “In my school we do it this way” sets alarm bells ringing when other headteachers hear it. There may be times when a direct style is still necessary but others when it becomes a drag on the capacity you need or your ability to persuade talented people to take part. You will need to calibrate the approach to the situation.

2. If collaboration becomes conversation – Russell

Unhelpfully for clear prescription, however, the reverse is also true. You may be used to seeing fellow headteachers as your peers not direct reports. There is a camaraderie and shared experience that can be painful to break. But this is no longer the case inside your trust. There does need to be accountability; the debate has to end at some point with a decision and there will be conflicts that require resolution. Rethinking yourself as a “leader of leaders” and holding people accountable for results and values while delegating freedom on methods will be a constant balancing act.

3. If mission becomes ambition – Toby

You recognise your responsibilities extend beyond a single school. There is no credit or glory on improving one school while harming others. That’s what has got you involved in system leadership in the first place and there can be an urgency to spreading the word. It is painful to observe underperformance and do nothing. This leads to growth of the trust, but remember the moral imperative that triggers the outreach. There are few greater dangers for a trust than growth for growth’s sake. There must be a reason why someone would be better off with you and a boundary to who you’ll work with. Just adding the numbers can too easily become empire building.

Operating as if you were still under the radar is not an option. You are a senior public servant and that brings its own challenges

Robert Hill has done some great work and the Department for Education and new national schools commissioner, Sir David Carter, have useful tools and insights. What they all say is regionalise, never grow beyond the capacity – particularly the leadership capacity – that you have. You will be tempted, you may even be offered funding, praise and national recognition, but you need to resist temptation and grow at the pace that is sustainable. I don’t think there is an optimum size of multi-academy trusts (MAT), rather there is a need for any MAT to have the right capacity at the right time to turn each school around that needs it. Get the capacity to demand ratio right and ensure you have the best people and best systems in place to deliver and you will succeed. Don’t get greedy and rush, which could lead to painful indigestion.

4. If momentum becomes inertia – Russell

It is often sheer strength of will that gets a trust going and the group can come to depend on the energy and vision of the founder. This works up to a point in size but after that you need structure, policy and shared culture. It is similar to the transition private companies go through when they convert from entrepreneurial, founder-led businesses to formal organisations. Indeed your trust may go through several phases of growth where it needs to reinvent the way it works. These shifts can be surprisingly wrenching as it is easy to miss the flexibility and informality of the early days. Yet holding on to it too long can create serious strains. You are building a wider and sustainable organisation, not just a collection of schools bound by their connection to a single person.

5. If reward becomes entitlement – Toby

Bigger jobs should be paid more. High performance under conditions of risk deserves its fair reward. With the greater responsibility and impact comes greater scrutiny – even national papers are interested in what you earn. Good governance, good procedure and transparency are your armour here. It is not how much you are paid but how the decisions are made that matters. Operating as if you were still under the radar is not an option. You are a senior public servant and that brings its own challenges.

6. If focus becomes isolation – Russell

It is tempting to see the trust as the vehicle for all activity. It has a common ethos and shared ways of working. It has capacity to do many things. You look after your initial teacher training, run a teaching school alliance, conduct your own continued professional development, develop your own programmes of study and run your own conferences. But if lots of trusts come to do this we risk a balkanised education system, where knowledge and best practice are difficult to spread. A trust should not be an island in itself. Schools should participate in overlapping and interconnected networks with other trusts and standalone schools.

7. If distance becomes severity – Toby

Many successful headteachers use a blend of strong challenge and strong support. They are demanding and caring. It is the support that makes the challenge bearable, inspiring rather than undermining. The trouble is that support erodes easily with distance while challenge does not. You can issue instructions, set standards and levy accountability without really knowing someone. You can do it by email. Our government does it via press releases.

Making people feel valued, coaching them to solve problems, spotting someone in crisis or tempering the tough messages with explanation and insight requires a personal touch. Creating a trust, especially a large one, adds distance between an executive headteacher and their staff; pretty soon people can hear your challenge loud and clear but the care and support get drowned out. You need to overcompensate – build leaders at every level of the system who can offer that direct support to their teams that you used to provide yourself. You are there to absorb the stress and pressures and the multiple strands of accountability (let’s not start on that topic) and tough conversations are always best face to face and after a break.

Leadership is a journey and you don’t stop learning. One of the great things about executive headship is that it adds another layer of growth: new horizons to stretch our most talented leaders. But together with learning new skills and habits, we sometimes have to unlearn old ones. This is much harder because they are part of our identity, part of the secret of success.

What a risk to abandon the things that have served us so well. It is a risk worth taking; it is a risk that needs taking. You have done it before. When you stepped up from classroom teacher to head of department, the things that made you a great teacher did not necessarily help in your new role. It was no longer about how good you were but about how good you helped other people become. The good news is that there is always growth and development as a leader still to come for the reflective, self-critical and passionate practitioner.

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