As you prepare to step down and let your successor take the reins, there’s a whole school community, numerous parents and a larger community beyond that who’ll need the reassurance of an orderly transition.
Here’s what you should be planning for, the things most likely to go wrong, and where you want to be once the process has concluded.
When a head decides they are ready to step down – either because they reach retirement, or wish to pursue a new professional opportunity – they inevitably find themselves giving thought to their legacy.
Have they left the school in a stronger position than they found it? Will the next head be able to build on prior achievements and make the school stronger still?
Arguably a great leader ensures the team they leave continue to develop and improve; if a team is overly reliant on a leader who has, in effect, encouraged a culture of dependence, this is short-sighted and unsustainable.
Committed leaders hope that those they led go on to even greater heights in the future.
How can those involved manage the process of communication and transition positively, so that the school is energised, rather than overly disrupted, by the change at the top?
A new head can be refreshing for the whole-school community, but the outgoing head, the governing body and the new incumbent need to navigate this process thoughtfully.
The head who is leaving should see that helping their successor to make the most positive beginning is, in fact, the last service they will perform for the school.
If they lose sight of this, perhaps because they are focusing too much on their own feelings about stepping down, this can be damaging for the school.
All need to remember that this is not about the outgoing head, or about the incoming head. It is about the school and its continuing success.
If the departing head, or their successor, are not managing the situation well - perhaps because there is tension between them – the governing body needs to be aware and to take steps to resolve the conflict.
- Give careful thought to the release of the news about the head’s departure and, in due course, about who has been appointed to succeed them. This may also involve close liaison with the release of information at the incoming head’s current school. Ideally, pupils and staff, current parents and the wider community within which the school sits need to receive the information from the Chair of Governors, or the overarching Trust, on the same day to reduce the likelihood of anyone who is invested in the school hearing the news second-hand.
- At an early stage, arrange a meeting of the Chair of Governors with the departing and incoming heads to consider a transition plan. How much involvement in the school is appropriate, helpful and reasonable for the new head (who will, of course be carrying out a demanding job in their current school)? What does the next head need from the current head and the governors? What do they need from him/her? Plan ahead and reach agreement.
- At every opportunity, the departing head and governors should be constructive, supportive and committed to doing all they can to make the process smooth and to calm any anxieties about the change. The successor also needs to be sensitive and empathetic about the perspective of the head who is leaving. Mutual respect and understanding are key, here.
Manage the situation well, and the school should thrive, the new head should make a successful transition into the role, and the outgoing head should move on knowing that they have left the most positive legacy they could.
Jill Berry is a leadership consultant, author and former headteacher.