Is there an age limit on when we are ready for leadership positions? Are there factors that mean we are ready or not ready? Do we need a set number of years experience before we put ourselves forward?
The flight controllers at NASA that put Apollo 11 on the moon had an average age of these people was just 27. They were referred to as the kids. This wasn’t an accident, it was by design. They were seen as fearless, not worried about going into the unknown because they had known no different. They knew the stakes and they knew they had to work hard to get it right. They found that older staff were too cautious, too happy to say that things couldn’t be done, too defeatist. Surely the former is a great attitude to have as a head? The idea that things can be done, the cynicism that sometimes comes with more years in teaching? A fresh approach, no fear of what might happen if? Of course, I don’t mean recklessness but ignorance is bliss sometimes isn’t it? The are plenty of examples of successful young CEOs in industry, running very successful companies. Does that translate to teaching and leadership roles in education though?
I was appointed head at 31, after a decade in teaching. I felt ready. Was I? In some parts yes, on others definitely not. If you’re ‘good’ enough are you old enough though? Does age matter?
Whatever stage of your career you are at, here’s what I think you need to consider before taking the plunge:
You Need to Know Your Stuff
Do you need to be the best teacher in the school? No. Do you need to know everything? No. But you do need to know enough about life in different areas of the school to be able to appreciate what it is like to work in those settings. I taught exclusively in Key Stage 2, but made sure I went to see lessons in KS1 and EYFS when I could, talked to teachers, understood how they assessed in those year groups so I could have professional conversations with those teachers. You don’t need to be an expert in everything, but you will need to be able to have an overview of what is going on and why. I have huge respect for EYFS staff, it’s definitely not for me, but I tried my best to make sure I understood how it worked, so I knew that if they came to me asking for something I would know why they were asking and whether it was reasonable.
I went to training by John West-Burnham many years ago where he explained that trust is made of consistency, credibility and competency. You need to have a confidence in your competency to build the trust of your staff in you. As I have said, you don’t need to know everything, you need to know when to use the expertise around you, but you’ve got to be able to articulate your understanding in a whole host of areas. A new staff will be watching you closely, whether as a head or a new deputy – I remember feeling it hugely. Being able to be confident in my knowledge helped me hugely. Of course, I thought I knew a lot of stuff, turns out there was a lot more to learn!
So, give yourself a self check before you think about leadership – are there any areas you might need to get a bit more experience in or gen up on?
Be Humble Enough to Still Learn
You might think you are ready, but you are not. There is so much to learn, even the most prepared of people will find new things. Be flexible, be ready to adapt, be ready to say that you were wrong. Above all be humble. There are people that know more than you, have been doing things for longer than you and know the school better than you, if your ready for leadership you’ll be ready to listen, even if it means postponing or chaning that flagship policy you have been waiting to implement. The best teachers carry on learning, and the best leaders do the same. We expect the same from the children in our class, so be ready to expect the same from yourself as well.
Build Your Range of Experiences
This applies to all people moving to leadership not just younger people. I was governor and this really opened my eyes to the world of school strategy. You might have a great handle on teaching and learning, behaviour or assessment but what about the other areas? Do you know about school finance, health and safety, personnel and HR? These will come at you think and fast and you’ll need to make decisions based on them. Have you given yourself enough chance to look into and expereince these things? Governance is such a great way to do this, but so is offering to shadow and help other people. Give yourself as much chance to do this as you have capacity to do. Speak to the head and the bursar, be professionally curious about these areas of school life. As much as we would like headship to be about teaching and learning and giving the kids great outcomes (and of course this is huge) you have to make time for the othr stuff as well.
Ask Others What They Think
You might think you are ready, but to be honest, you might be a little bit biased. Conversely, you might lack confidence in yourself but others think you are totally ready to give it a shot. I felt ready, I got to the point where I was more interested in strategic management and felt I wanted to spend time doing that than I did marking books and writing reports. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVED working with the kids and still do, but away from that I wanted to be getting on with trying to help shape the direction of the school. Your line manager should be a good person to have that conversation with, but you need someone who will be honest with you about it, to tell you your strengths and weaknesses honestly, truthfully and in a way that will help you improve. My headteacher when I was a deputy gave me great advice – she told me I was too focussed on small things and needed to step back and see how they fit into the big picture more to have a greater oversight and impact. It hurt a bit at the time, but it was great advice. If you go to an interview and aren’t successful, take the time to engage in meaningful and detailed feedback, use that to help you develop to the point where you feel you have improved your skills. It’s so important to carry that on when you are in post too – listen to your SLT, your collegues. They will see things you don’t.
Think About the Leader You Want to Be
What are your key values and how are you going to apply them? I decided early on – my office door is almost always open (literally) and people can come and talk to me about anything. Consistency was key to me. I worked for a head where you didn’t know whether you were going to be welcomed in or told to go away because she was busy – that made things really hard. Now, if someone comes to see me I drop what I am doing. They’ve come to see me because it is important to them. It might not seem it to me, but it is to them so I’ll give them the time they deserve. I put honesty and transparancy above all else. How can you bring people along with you if they don’t know they can trust you or why you are doing things? So what do you stand for and have you thought about how you are going to model that to the staff around you? How can you communicate it and get the other leaders in the school working from the same principles? Having high standards is not a crime. Being a nice person and having high expecations are not mutually exclusive.
Have Done the Difficult Stuff
Leadership is hard. A great job, but hard. Some stuff you won’t have come across but some you will. Have you give difficult feedback? Do you know what to do when someone breaks down in tears in front of you because it’s all too much? Have you given it consideration? No-one knows how to do it all when they are first in post, but I found this the most challenging part and I think this is where time and experince really helps. The more you do it, the easier it gets and the better you become at it. At the beginning I was too nice trying not to cause offence, trying to be supportive to the point of not being helpful int he long run. Now my staff know theat there is a difference between the personal and the professional. I can give you some feedback and help you improve, or tell you that there are certain things that need to be done differently, but think absolutely nothing less of you as a person. It doesn’t change how I will interact with you in the staffroom or when I pop into your classoom to ask you something or see how you’re getting on. This is where maturity is key. Have you been in that situation yourself? How did you react? What did you want or need?Was it for the best in the long run, even thought it might have been tough? It always hard dealing with people, but at the end of the day the kids have to come first and most teachers will see it from that point of view. All you want is for them to do as well as they can, and be extension you want the teachers to do as well as they can to help this to happen. Dealing with children’s emotions and needs in the classroom is one thing, but the shift to leadership means delaing with adult emotions and needs and this can be a completely different ball game.
Be Prepared for Challenge
People will challenge you on almost anything and often on the things you expected challenge the least. At times you’ll need a think skin. Whilst being flexible and honest is a skill and a strength, so is knowing when you are right and whn to push through with things. This is where a great leadership team is key, where everyone backs each other up. It can take great courage to stick to your guns on something where there is uncertainty. This can be especially true when dealing with parents. Make sure you’ve got a good reason for doing it, and back it up with facts and be prepared to fight for it.
Prepare Yourself to Get it Wrong
No-one likes to be told they’ve made a bad call, or to realise it themselves with hindsight. It will happen and it will feel rubbish. The difference with leadership is that the consequences can feel worse. Its ok to feel bad about it, it means you care, but don’t wallow. It’s like we say to the kids – every mistake is an opportunity to do it better. Saying “We got it wrong, sorry, we’ll do better next time” is so powerful to staff and parents alike. It stops people in their tracks, and as long as you follow through and make the changes then works wonders for building relationships.
So, is it for you?
No-one will ever have a handle on all of this. I certainly haven’t yet, and I doubt I will by the time I retire. However, thinking about where you stand on these might just give you a little bit of insight onto whether your ready. Are you old enough? I’m not sure that matters as much as people think, but have you considered it and reflected on yourself enough? That’s a different matter. Only you’ll know if it’s the right time. If not, reflect and work on it. If you think it is, have confidence in yourself, be brave and go for it, you’ll be great.