Selecting the right principal

Mal Lee and Roger Broadie

In general terms the choice of principal will make or break your school’s immediate digital evolution and possibly its long-term viability.

An astute principal, with the appropriate skill and mindset (Lee and Broadie, 2016   ) who is willing to lead a digitally evolved school can move the school at relative pace along the evolutionary continuum and markedly enhance its performance and attractiveness.

A principal, lacking the vision, drive and acumen unwilling or unable to lead the digital evolution will at best place the school in a holding pattern and might well take the school backwards – all the while diminishing its client attraction.

Some make the fatuous suggestion that when a culture of change is embedded the school can withstand the appointment of an ineffectual head. While that culture might well help, globally the authors have witnessed the deleterious impact of principals unwilling or unable to evolve the school digitally and to create the desired change. Decades of astute effort by a school and its community can be soon dismantled by the poor choice of head.

Improved learning in a digitally evolved school stems from all enhancing how they interact to help other learners learn and teachers teach. If the principal does not understand the importance of this and continuously promote it pupils and teachers can quite quickly start putting their own needs ahead of the needs of the team. A principal who does not understand a socially networked way of working can easily destroy the culture.

It is thus critical that every effort be made to select the right leader.

While it is appreciated that no selection process is infallible and that many ‘state’ schools use processes where the school and its community have little say, do all you can – formally and informally – to get the right person.

Don’t leave the appointment to chance.

Put in place the thoughtfully crafted selection criteria and questions that will bring the desired leaders to the fore. Look at the skill set fleshed out in ‘Leading a Digital School’ (Lee and Broadie, 2016 ….). Specify if you can, demonstrated performance.

Ensure the actual selection processes identify those able and willing to lead, and if needs be weight certain criteria.

If the opportunity exists opt for a fixed term renewable contract, and the capacity to terminate the contract even earlier if the person selected fails to demonstrate the desired leadership. That said also be realistic about your situation, the challenges to be addressed and the time it will take the new principal to shape the desired school ecosystem.

If you have the facility be prepared to pay above the norm.

Use your personal networks to ensure the right kind of people apply, and if needs be assist folk with their applications.   Do your homework.

From the publication of the initial advertisement stress the applicants will be expected to indicate how they will lead the school’s continued digital evolution, shape the desired culture and strengthen its ecosystem. Set the bar high, and expect the applicants to have done their homework on the school’s current situation.

Ensure the panel selection processes do address the demonstrated capability of the applicants to lead a digital school and are not preoccupied with the lower level mechanics that can beset public sector interview processes.

Do your utmost throughout to ensure you look only for those who have demonstrated they can perform at the higher level and genuinely lead. All too often ineffectual people are ‘refereed’ up and out of a school to clear another school of its problem.

If the opportunity exists and the concerns remain be willing to interview non- specified referees. It is the right principal that is the key. View the processes simply as a means to selecting an apt principal.

If the field of applicants is found wanting be prepared to re advertise. Better to wait than to be sorry.

The ramifications of a poor choice are too great.

Conscious of the likely shortage of quality applicants, particularly those able to take over the reins of a rapidly evolving school be willing to grow a person, even in a temporary role before re-advertising the position.

In your planning for the appointment identify the support processes the school will use to assist the new principal get up to speed as soon as feasible. Even the best of principals find new appointments challenging and lonely. All too often good people fail from the want of support.

Understand the critical importance of the principal’s position in a digitally evolving school and do everything to choose and to appropriately support the right person.

Earlier we made mention of the vital role of the principal in fostering a culture where all the ‘teachers’ within the school’s community collaborate and support each other, challenging all to reach greater heights and grow the thirst for learning and teaching across the whole school. The importance of that capability cannot be over emphasised. Though we are in some ways still short of the vocabulary for this conversation, it can be incorporated into the central mission of the school. For example in the way Showk Badat, Principal of Essa Academy (UK) describes his school’s mission as “All children will succeed”, adding “And that’s ALL not most and WILL not might.” Or in the motto of Trondheim School (Norway), that is drilled into the children from the day they arrive, that “Nobody is perfect but a team can be”, reinforced by the way the teachers found ways to ‘reach’ all children and give them success as the basis on which to build challenge (their key way of ‘reaching’ the children being music – 98% played a musical instrument). Note that these ways of talking about the impact of digital evolution focus not on the digital but on the human reasons why digitally evolved schools achieve more.