From education to employment

How to prepare for senior leadership: Read books or do the job?

Dr Stephen Corbett

While senior leadership roles may not be for everyone, for those who are seeking the step up from middle management, the next big promotion can and should be an exciting prospect. The opportunity for your accumulated skills, knowledge and capabilities to be recognised is uplifting.

The current limited pool of senior leaders within education also means a person in possession of the right blend of technical knowledge, strategic insights and positive leadership values is highly sought after. However, we need to be mindful that while progressing into your first senior leadership role is a key milestone within your career, it can be the beginning of the next learning curve. After all, middle and senior leadership are two very different roles.

As James Morton-Thomas, Head of Talent and Development at Chichester College Group, observes: “It is not uncommon for those moving into management roles to encounter experiences that are new to them … I remember when doing this for the first time I felt quite unprepared for certain activities as I had never experienced them before. It is for this reason I ensure that those I lead now have the opportunity to develop the skills and confidence to progress.”

As James indicates, it is vitally important we provide our managers and leaders with support and training to enable them to navigate their new role. The need for support and training is at all levels of leadership. If done well, it can create an effective pipeline of talent that flows through institutions and the wider education sector.

The challenge can often be determining what training should include, as my University of Portsmouth colleague, Senior Lecturer in FE Richard Poole, explains: “During my career in Further Education I was part of a senior leadership team that often reflected upon which approach was best: an on-the-job approach or qualification-based programmes; one providing valuable practical skills development and the other introducing us to leadership theory.” The simple answer is of course that training should incorporate elements of both.

As Richard’s experience highlights, training and development can come in differing modes, structures and contexts. Courses that provide underpinning theoretical frameworks and build technical understanding have the benefit of helping us to see why processes, policies and practices develop. Whereas experiential and peer learning give us the opportunity to see how the theory relates to our workplace context. Bringing both approaches together can help us to engage in research-informed leadership. It is interesting to see this approach being adopted by the ETF’s New to Senior Leadership programme, which will be delivered from 2023 onwards.

The programme is seeking to blend underpinning theory, contextual learning and communities of practice to create a new approach to leadership development for Senior Leaders in the Further Education sector. Research highlights training that draws on a contextualised theoretical approach coupled with practical application can be highly effective professional development. Principally I am pleased to see this programme adding to the increasing set of opportunities for those working in leadership roles to engage in training and development so they are supported within their roles.

Dr Stephen Corbett, Reader in Professional Development and Learning, University of Portsmouth

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