Changing Principal? Do it right.

One of the most crucial times in a school is when a change of Principal occurs. Irrespective of the circumstances behind the change, the event may cause a level of anxiety which can potentially be a destabilizing influence on a school.

Regrettably, there are many examples within the broad independent school movement, where the change is necessitated by events and circumstances that are far from the ideal.

Personal illness or even the breakdown by the leader is not an uncommon scenario but the most common being the breakdown in the relationship between Principal and Board and/or Principal and staff. If it is obvious, that this is the path that all parties are heading towards, then some sort of negotiated settlement such as agreeing to see out the contract rather than the ‘clear your desk by 5pm Friday approach’ is desirable in order to maintain stability within the school.

Such a parting of the ways in many cases can be desirable but it is incumbent upon all parties to carry this out in a manner minimizes the risk of destabilizing the school community. Of course, the ideal transition is where a leadership change can be done from within the school. This person is known to the Board and the community and they, in turn, know the culture of the school. Certainly, this should not occur just because the board does not wish to go to the trouble and expense of searching for a new principal. However, it is the best way forward if there is a certainty that it is the correct move.

If a board even in the scenario above wants to advertise, then a number of procedures can be followed to ensure that the best decision can be made so that the growth and stability of the school is maintained.

The Board must be clear on the sort of applicant they are looking for.

This, of course, will be determined by the values and ethos of the College. If for instance, the school has overtly Christian values in its ethos, then the applicant will need to be an active adherent to the Christian faith.

Create a macro and micro level of the selection criteria. At a ‘macro’ level, a good idea is for the Board, maybe in consultation with the current Principal, to outline those qualities that are non-negotiable for the school. Others qualities may be out-sourced to a current executive staff member e.g. Finance, but these essential qualities will be non-negotiable.

It is highly advisable to use an outside consultant but the Board should not ‘subcontract the choice’ to this person and/or organization.

This advisor should be on the same wavelength as the Board in regard to the vision and values of the school. Ideally, this person would themselves have some experience as a school leader. They can be useful in also helping the Board with selection criteria, especially at the micro level. However, the final decision is with the Board.

If possible, involve the current principal in the process if not the final decision making

Obviously, if the circumstances of the Principal’s parting are not ideal this may not be possible or advisable. However, if this is not the case, a long-serving successful Principal of the school will be well informed as to the qualities required of the new Principal in order to facilitate the ongoing growth and development of the school. Ultimately the decision is for the Board but the existing Principal’s input into the process could be invaluable.

When it comes to shortlisting, the selection panel should seek to investigate outside of the nominated referees.

Nobody who applies for any position nominates referees who will not be complimentary.

Therefore it is advisable, if possible to look outside these nominated referees to seek another view on the candidate. This could be a former colleague of the applicant and/or one who had worked under the applicant. A good idea is for a member of the selection group to visit the school at which the applicant may be the current Principal to get a ‘feel’ for the school and to observe such things as the applicant’s interactions with other staff.

Finally, if possible the process should take as much time as can be accommodated within the circumstances of the leadership change.

For instance, if a retirement is known well in advance, then a period of perhaps even 9 to 12 months can be mapped out with milestones outlined for various stages in the process. Even though it is sometimes unavoidable a hasty leadership transition can have long-term consequences for a school if the wrong decision is made. It may be better to look at an ‘acting’ role then for such a hasty decision to be made.