Is there a lack of leadership initiative in your governing body? David Marriott looks at the importance of leadership development for governors

According to the National College for School Leadership (NCSL), 2009 looks like being the crunch year when an impending national crisis in the recruitment and retention of school leaders will strike.

The college is being very proactive in publishing all kinds of useful guidance, resources and documents to help schools avoid the crisis. Search the NCSL website for examples, including Leadership Succession – Securing the Next Generation of School Leaders and Recruiting Headteachers and Senior Leaders – Seven Steps to Success. The Hay Group’s Rush to the Top – accelerating the development of leaders in public services (May 2007) also contains a lot of helpful detail.

There are many reasons for this crisis, including the 20-year ‘apprenticeship’ that most teachers undergo before becoming heads. In particular, the retirement of a generation of headteachers with no obvious successors will create a significant vacuum. One of the longer term solutions – or rather, preventative strategies – identified by the college is effective succession planning (or, as it’s sometimes known, succession management). Putting this in place might involve:

  • Expanding opportunities – providing more openings for teachers to practice leadership skills.
  • Widening the talent pool – encouraging more women and ethnic minorities to take on leadership.
  • Talent spotting – actively identifying and encouraging leadership talent in the school.
  • Leading beyond the school – opportunities in other schools and industries for leadership practice.
  • New models of leadership – federation, co-headship and executive headship.

Regrettably, the NCSL’s brief does not include governance, despite the assertion by the DfES (as it then was) that ‘governing bodies have become the strategic leaders of schools. Governing bodies are equal partners in leadership with the headteacher and senior management team. The governing body, headteacher and senior management team together constitute the leadership team of the school.’ (Governing the School of the Future: DfES 2004)

Has your governing body ever found itself in any of these situations?

  • Nobody was prepared to stand as chair
  • The existing chair stayed on but didn’t really want to
  • The vice-chair has no clearly defined role
  • Committees are simply ‘talking shops’
  • It’s usually the same governor(s) who volunteer to take on a task
  • It takes too long for new governors to feel they can contribute
  • There are too many vacancies or ‘we grab anyone willing to do the job’

Learning by doing

Yet governing bodies are essential players in the solutions to the school leadership crisis, as the college is beginning to realise. ‘Learning by doing’ is the age-old teaching maxim. If we’re serious about engaging governors actively in the process, there is no better starting point than helping them to reflect upon the possibilities for and benefits of succession planning within the governing body itself. If governors consciously work towards avoiding crises of leadership in the context of their own team, they are much more likely to encourage succession planning within the school staffing structure. Traditionally, we tend to think of the leadership of the governing body as being vested in the chair (and perhaps the vice chair). However, for a governing body to be truly effective and guard against the impact of rapid change, it too needs to distribute leadership. For this to work, we need to grow leaders within the governing body. Effective leadership of the governing body involves working towards a shared vision for school improvement which all governors help to achieve, working together to share responsibility, workload and the adoption of effective working practices which enable everyone to participate and develop leadership skills.

What if…?
If you think this all sounds a little too trendy or idealistic, ask yourself the question: what would happen if your chair resigned tomorrow?

Would the vice-chair take over – and do a good job? Would anyone know what to do if no one was prepared to stand? Would you stagger from meeting to meeting, swapping the chair each time until you ran out of people? Or maybe you have realised that more than one potential chair is waiting in the wings? Electing your next chair must be a democratic process, yet there is nothing to stop you from encouraging more than one of the current governors to develop the necessary skills and attitudes. As we’ll see later on, the vice chair could and maybe should be the obvious successor – but there’s no guarantee. One school I know has managed to avoid any problems with the choice of chair for years by selecting the next chair a year in advance. The chair designate then works alongside the current chair, who becomes a mentor to his/her successor for that year, then takes over for two years. After his/her first year in office, the next successor is chosen and similarly groomed for succession – and so on. Our committees are scaled-down versions of the full governing body, so committee chairs are potential board chairs. Do we give them positive feedback on how they do the job? The governing body can do so much to encourage ‘promotion from within’ but more often than not it’s a missed opportunity. We’re so relieved some other sucker has volunteered we don’t give any thought to how we might help them to develop in the role. Everyone’s just too busy.

How do you spot a potential leader?
In Rush to the Top, the writers of the Hay Group publication list these indicators of someone with leadership potential:

  • Confidence and credibility.
  • The ability to see the big picture, to make connections and think of the whole organisation.
  • Mastering the basics of their role quickly and looking for more.
  • Getting involved (doesn’t look the other way).
  • Initiative and self motivation (the sort of people you can’t stop from leading).
  • Intellectual curiosity and capacity (sees the common threads).
  • Resilience and empathy (to survive the pace of acceleration and learn from others).

Whilst some people seem to be natural leaders, showing most or all of these characteristics, those to whom it doesn’t come naturally can be helped to develop some of them, at least. Think about the members of your governing body. Can you spot the natural leaders? Are they already taking the lead in different ways? Who has the potential to develop? What are we doing to help?

Phases of leadership development

  • Attracting new governors
  • Developing the new governor
  • Taking additional responsibility
  • Growing as a team leader
  • Developing the role of the vice chair(s)
  • Being an effective chair of governors

Succession breeds success

A new publication, Succession breeds success – how to grow leaders in your governing body, sets out to encourage governors to reflect on and improve their own practice.

Published by National Co-ordinators of Governor Services (NCOGS) in autumn 2007, a copy has been sent to the chair of every governing body in England and it can be downloaded from; and The guidance was put together by a small team of co-ordinators of governor services (COGS) from the south west and south east, with funding from NCOGS and the School Governors One-Stop Shop (SGOSS).

The writing team identified the different phases of development through which a governor may pass (see box above) and, for each phase, listed a series of unapologetically high expectations and practical actions that the governor and governing body could take. One particularly fruitful area for development that caught the group’s attention was the role of the vice chair. It was agreed that often this role is limited to standing in for the chair in his/her absence but it has the potential to develop into a co-chairing arrangement. In this case, then, the expectations are listed as:

  • The governing body defines the role of vice chair.
  • The vice chair actively develops knowledge, skills and understanding to share the workload with the chair and governing body.
  • The vice chair shares the workload with the chair. The chair delegates tasks and responsibilities to the governing body.
  • The vice chair has a positive impact on the effectiveness of the governing body.

In practical terms, this means that the governing body:

  • Agree and publish the vice-chair’s job description.
  • Include the definition in relevant documents.

If you are a vice chair, you are encouraged to:

  • Review the chair’s workload to establish which tasks you could take on.
  • Attend relevant training/briefings, eg Taking the Chair.
  • Join meetings with chair/head.
  • Link with vice chairs of other governing bodies.
  • Ensure you keep abreast of school issues.
  • Maximise the effectiveness of communication between you and the chair.
  • Take on specific responsibility, eg mentor for new governors, committee chair or development of governors.
  • Chair particular agenda items.
  • Chair some full governing body meetings.
  • Hand over role to well-prepared successor(s).
  • If still a governor after handover, serve as mentor to other governors.
  • Through discussions with one or more other governors, including the chair, identify what has gone well and what could be improved.
Succession planning is about:

  • Attracting and retaining good governors
  • Spotting leadership talent early
  • Supporting and developing leadership skills throughout the governing body
  • Creating opportunities to practise leadership skills
  • Giving and receiving feedback
  • Coaching and mentoring
  • Developing the governing body as a team
  • Delegating fairly and effectively
  • Encouraging others to take up opportunities

How can a governing body make best use of the guidance?

  • The first thing is to make sure everyone’s aware of it. Although there’s only one hard copy per governing body, it can be circulated and additional copies downloaded from the websites mentioned above.
  • Include discussion of the booklet as an agenda item in a governing body meeting.
  • Use the expectations and actions as a self-evaluation checklist, to identify where you’re strong and where you’re in need of development.
  • Choose one table from the booklet you want to work on and focus on that.
  • Ask your local COG for help where you need it.

Succession planning deserves to be high on your agenda. It’s an investment in the smooth continuity of the governing body, eliminating the lurches and bumps as members come and go. We’re constantly told we must be more strategic – it’s what succession planning is all about.

David Marriott is currently Head of Governor Services at Wiltshire County Council. His background is in secondary education, having taught for 21 years in five different schools, including deputy headship.

He is an Associate Member of a governing body at an Oxford primary school and represents the South West region on the national committee of Co-ordinators of Governor Services (NCOGS), of which he is Vice Chair. He is the author of three books on governance (The Effective School Governor, 1998; Monitoring and Evaluation, 2004 and Being Strategic, 2006).