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Succession planning: what you can do to avoid a loss of momentum

Sue Williamson, Chief Executive, SSAT, writes…

Following my presentation at SSAT’s National Conference in December, I was asked if Sir Alex Ferguson could really be called a great leader, as he had got it wrong with the appointment of a successor. Most people would agree that Manchester United have not been so successful, or entertaining, as they were under Sir Alex, but is this his fault?

Sir Alex recommended David Moyes, but it was the Board’s decision as to whom they appointed. They decided on Moyes, a man with a similar profile to his predecessor – a Scot; a manager who had learnt his trade in a lower division and gone on to build a consistently well performing team at Everton; and with a reputation for strong discipline. He was deemed to be a successful manager and was judged to have done a great job at Everton with limited resources. David Moyes was welcomed to Old Trafford with the banner, The Chosen One – but as we know he lasted less than a year.

Is it fair to blame Sir Alex or anyone for the success, or otherwise, of their successor?

Just after the conference, I heard that my old school had been judged inadequate in every Ofsted category. I read the report and was deeply saddened. When I left the school in 2002, there were over 1100 students on roll – now there are 442. The sixth form has shrunk to 50 students. In 2002, the school was judged to be on a trajectory to outstanding. I was pleased that one of my deputy headteachers was appointed to the post and his first Ofsted was on the right lines. However, an amalgamation with a failing school and the loss of some outstanding teachers are two important factors in their current situation.

Reflecting on this, my first conclusions were:

  • The best you can do is to leave behind an organisation in good order with a great staff team. I left behind seven advanced skills teachers and a highly skilled staff team. Sir Alex left behind a team that had won the Premier League.
  • The appointment of your successor is not in your gift, but that of the governing body or board. In the school situation you can develop a high-quality team that provides one or more candidates for the post, who can compete with good candidates from outside the school. The board will often want to replace with a similar personality. This may or may not be the right decision. The way to ensure the right appointment is to be clear on the strategic direction of the organisation and the skills and attributes needed by the new leader.
  • Another contribution that you can make is to contribute to the system and help develop the pool of leadership talent.
  • The new leader has to have the freedom to do things their way. This will involve change – the culture of the school or organisation should be strong enough to withstand errors, but if a new leader wants to implement radical change this can weaken the organisation if it is the wrong change or implemented badly. The governing body/board has an important role in challenging and testing the new ideas. The board also has a role in spotting decline and working with the leader to rectify matters.
  • Good leaders in one environment are not necessarily going to be successful in a different context. The selection process and the support structures for a new leader are important.

The new leader has to have the freedom to do things their way. This will involve change – the culture of the school or organisation should be strong enough to withstand errors, but if a new leader wants to implement radical change this can weaken the organisation if it is the wrong change or implemented badly.

On reflection I think that the third point, developing your pool of leadership talent, is vital, and can to some extent ‘future-proof’ your school, In the 1970s/80s, Liverpool FC had the ‘boot room’ which supplied a succession of managers, and Bob Paisley was even more successful than Bill Shankley. This is a rarity. School leaders do have the opportunity to develop and train the next generation of leaders.

Succession planning relies on devolving power, where appropriate, at relatively early stages. Yes, a school leader can make or break a school, but in a school where the middle leadership is highly effective, this legacy that will go beyond the immediate head. Succession planning is about more than one individual. However, at what point does a middle leader become a blocker rather than the guardian of the culture?

A contribution to your succession planning?

At SSAT we have helped over 12,000 teachers with their leadership journey, and this year we are offering 100 teachers in their first three years of teaching the opportunity to experience some outstanding leadership experiences. We want to encourage and support their leadership journey. If we want a school-led system, we need a large pool of outstanding leaders. I hope your school is nominating someone – this is such an important part of succession planning. Find out more here.


Sue recently authored a pamphlet of considerations on what leadership qualities are needed for a school-led system. SSAT members can download the full version here. Read an excerpt here.

Follow Sue on Twitter.

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