Welcome to the Curriculum & Leadership Journal website.
To receive our fortnightly Email Alert,
please click on the blue menu item below.
Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
Follow us on twitter

School governance and succession planning: planning for the leader you need

Association of Independent Schools of Queensland

Selecting a School Principal/CEO is an important role of School Boards and can have an enormous impact on a school's future performance. No matter how good the incumbent, a board will eventually be required to appoint a successor.

To do this, the board needs to determine what the school needs in its principal if the organisation is going to succeed. Some key attributes and competencies for a principal include:

  • education leadership skills
  • strategic thinking
  • sound ethics and values
  • capacity for decision making
  • knowledge of the education 'industry'
  • sound communication skills
  • energy
  • intelligence
  • relevant experience
  • leadership qualities
  • team building skills
  • personal chemistry between the individual and the board.
    (CPA Australia, 2002)
In 2002 the Australian Principals' Association Professional Development Council (APAPDC) reported that 'fewer and fewer people (were) keen to become school principals, and, in response to the concern about a future principal shortage, it undertook to investigate succession planning in Phase Two of its Leaders Lead project.

For many schools, the first place to look for a successor to the principal is within the school itself. Identifying potential candidates and nurturing them are part of a successful succession plan. This may include having an executive development program which establishes clear career paths, is comprehensive, robust, and addresses the developmental needs of individuals. It may also mean providing opportunities for leadership aspirants to spend time in front of the board, be it formally, through presentations at board meetings, or informally, to allow the board to gauge an individual's capabilities and potential.

Schools need to answer the questions: 'Who are the future leaders of the organisation?'; and 'What is being done to retain them in the school and to develop their leadership capabilities?'. One responsibility of incumbent leaders should be to develop the leadership skills of other people in the organisation (Lacey, 2003). This responsibility should be written into the duty statements of all incumbent leaders, and they should be expected to act as a coach, counsellor and mentor to staff, as well as perform the following functions:

  • provide feedback on individual performance;
  • provide information on future opportunities in the school;
  • support individuals who are examining career goals;
  • be a resource and source of ideas for development options;
  • act as a sounding board; and
  • set realistic expectations.
Lacey (2003) sees succession planning as proactive and long-term. Organisations, she asserts, must ensure that their practices support the recruitment, development and retention of appropriate leadership personnel. Succession planning must, furthermore, be based on agreed principles to ensure that the selection is based on future organisational needs. When this process is left to incumbents, they tend to groom successors who resemble themselves in appearance, background and values (Loughlin 2000, quoted in Lacey 2003). This obviously discriminates against certain groups, and may cause the organisation to stagnate.

Liebman et al (1996) identify the following elements of a good succession plan:
1. It identifies future needs of the organisation
2. It identifies potential future leaders
3. It inspires leadership aspirations
4. Selection processes and program designs are based on future leadership capabilities
5. A pool of talent is created
6. Multiple paths to leadership are recognised
7. It provides for the development of future leaders and the retention of current leaders

Best practice succession planning begins with identifying and monitoring the various competencies available in the organisation and matching them to the school's future needs. To do this a talent assessment program is instituted to match the skills and talents of current personnel with future positions. Usually 'best practice' organisations do not tell potential leaders of their identification in order to avoid raising expectations, but they do offer these candidates opportunities to display their leadership skills and to access appropriate professional development. These organisations also usually have appraisal systems which allow formal identification of areas for development of staff.

Ensuring that the position of principal is appealing, and that good candidates are not lost because of deficiencies in the school's personnel policies, are important to your school finding the leader it needs. The principal's duty statement should be carefully crafted so that expectations are clear. School advertising should be targeted to attract the candidate who most meets the school's needs; and procedures for handling prospective candidates (both successful and unsuccessful) should make the recruitment process as enjoyable as possible.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs theory suggested that the highest human need, once basic needs for necessities such as food and clothing had been met, was self-actualisation. This suggests that people are looking for meaning in their work. Beyond work with a sense of vision and purpose, employees also highly value recognition, appreciation and a sense of ownership (Corban, 2002). Recognition and appreciation are values that need to be woven into the fabric of a school's culture. Ownership is connected to identification with the school vision and purpose; it can also be identified with financial benefits.

The challenge of preparing a financial package for the principal is significant. Financial benefits need to be affordable and sustainable, aligned with the school's plans, goals and objectives, and focused on the school's prosperity as well as its productivity (Corban, 2002).

Research has shown that shared ownership by employees can reduce turnover and dramatically increase organisational productivity and profitability. While in most cases employees cannot share ownership of a school, strategies that align the school's prosperity with financial benefit may be worthy of consideration. These strategies might include:

  • rewarding employees for performance;
  • enabling employees to work like 'owners';
  • assisting in the achievement of long-term performance objectives;
  • aligning the goals of employees with the school's vision and goals;
  • focusing attention on school viability and overall prosperity; and
  • facilitating succession whilst preserving school values.
Boards may also need to look at those things which may be stopping good candidates from accepting leadership positions:
  • Relocation: schools away from major centres often have difficulties in attracting staff for leadership positions. Boards need to look at ways they might attract the candidate they want to a position (eg by offering fee relief to the children of staff, providing an annual airfare to the nearest capital centre) and put procedures in place to support relocation. This might involve paying a relocation allowance and ensuring that the school provides information about services available in the local area, such as assisting with information about accommodation, providing advice about positions that may be available to spouses of new staff, and establishing a contact person for the new appointee and his/her family.
  • Gender: good female candidates often do not volunteer for leadership roles, because of their role as primary care-giver to young children or to elderly family members. Women need to be encouraged to accept principal positions if the shortage in leadership positions is to be addressed. Schools need, therefore, to look at the ways they provide for balance in the lives of their leaders, and offer support for women to accept positions of added responsibility. Positions of shared-leadership should be considered.
  • Limited knowledge of leadership: most school leaders begin their careers as teachers and have limited understanding of what leadership roles entail. Demystifying the role of principal may encourage leadership aspirations in others in the organisation. Schools can increase the opportunities for teachers to understand leadership roles by providing information sessions on the position, offering acting principal experience while the principal is away, and encouraging professional development in leadership.
  • Selection processes: many qualified candidates, particularly women, do not even apply for leadership roles because the selection process is such a strong disincentive. Potential candidates for leadership roles perceive the selection process as complex and intrusive (d'Arbon, 2001), and there is concern that merit and equity are not given fair consideration. Clearly, selection panels for the principal's appointment should be trained to consider principles of equity and merit, and be encouraged to consider non-traditional career paths.
  • Lack of support after appointment: appointment of a principal represents a considerable investment of time and money. Retention of effective principals, and development of new principals who may need assistance in the early years, are part of the board's role. When a new principal is appointed, the board has a responsibility to ensure that he/she is supported through a comprehensive induction program and ongoing professional development.
  • Lack of balance: A survey, conducted in Catholic Schools in New South Wales(d'Arbon, et al, 2001), on factors preventing educators from applying for the principalship, showed that 56% of respondents had dependent children, and, furthermore, the most highly rated factor seen as an inhibitor to applying for a principalship was that of personal and family impact.
School Boards are very much aware that good schools need good leaders. The challenge is to create within their schools a climate which encourages leadership aspirations from within the organisation, and offers the necessary support for development. Attracting better quality applicants from outside will also ensure that there is a vast range of leadership capacities from which to choose the best principal.

Educational leadership dimensions

Core elements of educational leadership dimensions
Curriculum and Pedagogical

  • provides optimal learning and teaching environment
  • responds to national and global trends and issues
  • matches with current trends
  • constantly evaluates

    Political and community
  • able to negotiate with systems and sectors
  • able to negotiate with parents, teachers and community members
  • understands and acknowledges community cultural values
  • acts ethically
  • reflects on beliefs, practice and behaviour
  • involves compassion, clarity and courage

    Organisational and management
  • has vision
  • able to develop cooperatively a common pursuit and future directions
  • is creative and inspiring in interactions with others
  • ensures smooth running
  • ensures achievement of common goals and purposes.

  • APAPDC (2002) Leaders Lead - Succession Planning: Building Leadership Capacity, Discussion Paper, November.


    APAPDC (2002) Leaders Lead Succession Planning: Building Leadership Capacity, Discussion Paper, November.

    Artesinger, A. (2000) 'Vacancies Predicted in Principal's Office', Washington Post, June 21.

    Corban, J. (2002) Succession Planning, Inspired Business Solutions.

    CPA Australia (2002) Succession Planning, Corporate Governance Toolkit

    d'Arbon, T., Duignan, D.J. et al (2001) 'Planning for the Future Leadership of Catholic Schools in New South Wales', a paper presented at the BERA 2001 Annual Conference.

    Lacey, K. (2003) Succession Planning in Education, Melbourne: Right Angles Consulting Pty Ltd.

    Liebman, M., Bruer, R. & Maki, B. (1996) 'Succession Management: The Next Generation of Succession Planning', Human Resource Planning, 19(3).

    Loughlin, S. (2000) Working Paper No.6 - Barriers to Women's Career Progression: A Review of the Literature, New Zealand: State Services Commission.

    This article originally appeared in AISQ Briefings, May 2003. Republished with permission.


    Subject Headings

    Educational planning
    School culture
    School principals