Anyone who has taken over a new leadership position will know that feeling of nervous excitement as you contemplate what you are able to do now that you finally have the opportunity. In most cases, you will have learnt from the work of others, and have developed your own ideas of what to do and what not to do. Finally, you will have the opportunity to put your ideas into action, and to really make a difference. Given that most Heads are appointed months in advance of taking up post, by the time the day dawns, you are likely to be straining at the leash, desperate to repay the faith placed in you, to ‘hit the ground running’.
It’s very easy, however, to get things wrong in those early days and weeks, and examples are legion. When Brian Clough took over at Leeds United in the 1970s, he famously announced to the hugely successful and experienced squad of players ‘The first thing you can do for me is throw your medals in the bin because you’ve never won anything fairly; you’ve done it by cheating.’ He was sacked 44 days later.
If you want an even more dramatic example of the dangers of plunging into action without taking the time to really understand how and what you need to do, then the 45 days of Liz Truss’ Premiership provides a salutary lesson. As she took over the role, it was almost an article of faith that she was not going to listen to others, or be deflected from the plan she had decided upon. Whether by consciously choosing to draw up economic plans without asking the experts in the Office for Budget Responsibility for their considered view, or by dismissing respected senior civil servants on the grounds that they may have a different view, she made sure that her plans would not be derailed by inconvenient facts, or critical expert advice. As we know, it didn’t end well.
There are plenty of similar examples from the world of education. I know of one new Headteacher, taking over a successful and stable school after her much-loved predecessor had gone on to a Local Authority adviser role, who announced in her first staff meeting ‘I’m here to improve the school, not to be popular’, which is just as well, as it turned out, since popularity was in short supply after that introduction.
Another Headteacher used their first few days to put up an eye-catching display in the school entrance, with the display board divided into two, one side labelled ‘Before’ and the other ‘After’. He then proceeded to take lots of photos of the most unsightly areas of the school, and display them on the ‘Before’ side. The not so subtle message was perfectly clear, and it’s fair to say that it didn’t go down well.
I’m not underestimating the importance of the Headteacher, or the impact that new ideas can have, but a school is so much more than an extension of the image of its leader. It is a living, breathing community, with traditions, nuances, and unique characteristics, many of which are all but invisible to the casual observer.
If there is one thing above all else that every new leader should do when first taking over a new post, it is to listen. By listening, they will do two things – firstly, they will be giving a strong message to their new team: what you think is important to me and it will form part of what we do, and secondly, they will be gathering vital intelligence to inform the next steps.
Unless a new Head takes time to understand the school and the staff, seeking out the areas of strength and vulnerability, then any new initiatives run the risk of failing, not necessarily because the idea is not a good one, but because the wrong people were expected to lead, or the people who could have made a difference have not been consulted.
Every school will have some key people who keep the whole place running seamlessly, but whose impact is almost invisible at first glance. They are very often members of the support staff, and they provide the glue that holds the place together. ‘The way we do things here’ is often seen as a negative force, but if it can be harnessed to support improvement, it can make all the difference.
Sometimes, it’s a question of tone or terminology. Of course, a new leader will want to get into classrooms to get a feel for their new school, but do they say ‘I’d love to come and see the great things that are happening in your class – please suggest a good time for me to visit’, or do they hand out a lesson observation timetable? Apart from the way it makes people feel, I’d suggest that you would probably find out more from the former approach.
There are always some quick wins, those things that people bring from their last role that make everyone’s lives a little easier or more efficient, without being seen as a commentary on the existing practice. But all the time, wise leaders are building trust, making sure that as people get to know them in those first few weeks, they are focussing not so much on what their new leader plans to do, but who they are – their values and ethos. In the months and years to come, this effort will pay dividends many times over.
Soon enough, it’s time for action!