Much has been written about how a Head of School must fight to retain their most talented leaders who are eager to move on to headships themselves. Some suggest incentivising these individuals to stay by offering financial rewards or presenting them with new challenges to keep them both engaged and, most importantly, rooted in place. Let me offer a contrarian view: let them go. In fact, wish them bon voyage with fanfare and your sincere blessing, knowing that the departure of these gifted individuals is good news to be celebrated. This has become a cornerstone of leadership development at Frankfurt International School (FIS).
The leadership classroom
How would you respond if a teacher came to you and said, ‘I want to keep Katya in my Grade 5 class again next school year, She is my top student and has been an incredible catalyst for other children’s learning. I can’t afford to lose her!’.
We know schools are learning environments for both children and adults. Just as we expect teachers to be student-centred and support individualised growth, at FIS we work on the same approach with our ‘classroom’ of leaders. If a fit is right for an individual in an organisation, a tenure can last for decades, with both parties continuing to grow and benefit from the partnership. However, it can often be the case that the ‘nest’ has become too small, and it is time for that exceptional leader to take flight to the next level of leadership.
Lead locally but think globally
There has been much recent criticism regarding the self-serving nationalism that is sweeping across the world. More than ever, countries are looking inward to protect their interests over the global good. Are schools acting much differently when we fight to keep an exemplary principal whom we know is able, willing and ready to be a transformative Head of School herself? It’s not only our students that are called upon to think globally to have an impact on the future; at FIS, we are modelling similar behaviour in our support of teachers and their professional growth.
The not-so-hidden message
In the past year, three of my highly capable principals moved on to lead schools across the globe. I approached this change for the school not as a loss, but instead as a reason to applaud these teachers and ‘send them forth’. In their place have come others who are also highly capable, and I believe one of the reasons they chose our school is because of our commitment to develop professionals in support of their long-term goals. These incoming principals might retire at FIS, but I would guess the more likely outcome is that they will depart in the coming years to lead schools of their own because they all have that potential. In fact, it is why they were hired. Over time, I believe our school has earned its reputation as a place where talented teachers and leaders become even better.
A model to follow
My experience tells me that when principals learn that the Head is less concerned with ‘keeping’ them, as one would a valuable commodity, and more on supporting their development and trajectory, they model this alternative mindset with their teachers. It is far easier for a teacher to see themselves as a learner when they are continually being asked, ‘How can I help you develop to the next level you want to achieve as a professional?’. This doesn’t have to mean a departure from the school, but it often means a departure from a static status quo. When we see that part of our school’s mission is to send forth both student and adult leaders, we become focused on promoting talent instead of possessing talent.
Leaving a legacy
While many school heads look to the growth of their own campuses when judging their impact over time, wouldn’t their legacy be even greater by pointing to schools throughout the world that are now led by those they were fortunate to mentor? To borrow from the fishing metaphor: give a person a position, and you help your institution; but teach them to lead a school of their own, and you exponentially help children the world over.
How to launch your leaders
- Starting with the interview process, make it clear that your focus is to help your top performers achieve their loftiest goals.
- As part of goal setting, challenge your principals to consider whether they have ambitions to lead their own school.
- Provide the professional development that will help your leaders gain the skills to move to the next level of leadership.
- Share case studies from your own experience, particularly in areas such as board governance, to give principals an insider’s view of your responsibilities.
- Celebrate as a school when a leader moves to the next level. Make it a source of school pride.
By Dr. Paul Fochtman is Head of School at Frankfurt International School. Connect with Paul on LinkedIn
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