Why leadership development is crucial at executive level

May 4, 2018
Kevin Hitchmough

Kevin Hitchmough

Executive Director of Leadership Programmes at Ambition School Leadership

Development is never over, no matter where you are on the ladder.

Every Friday night at our veteran’s football training session we begin with our team poem.

It was established as a symbolic, communal moment, but there’s always one line that troubles me… “We’re old, our bodies are not what they used to be, the spectre of sickness and death hangs over us...”.   

To me, it means we’ll never get any better and that our development is over. Of course, the line of the poem is tongue in cheek, but after 24 years developing leaders (14 of those with executive leaders), I have often seen the same assumption in their own and their colleagues’ minds – development is over.   

As education professionals, we’re tempted to treat executive leaders - these powerful, under pressure and time-poor people - differently. It’s true that they operate in a different context to other school leaders, but for me the key principles still apply to them:

  • Are they motivated to change?
  • Are they capable of changing? 

2013.10.1 Jo Riley Randal Cremer IMG_2976.jpg

It’s true that behaviours and mindsets of executive leaders have had more time to become entrenched, so what would could trigger a period of development? Through culture and processes, organisations work like a reward system in that they incentivise some behaviours and discourage others. At any time a change in this environment around an executive may trigger a growth spurt and at this point Executive Coaching is a strong support option.

Another important trigger is role change, specifically moving to one of greater complexity. Even at senior levels, there are new roles which provoke self-reevaluation. 

My own experience is that this is often given less attention than the more obvious transitions further down the organisation, such as the first time someone manages people or the first time someone has to manage areas outside of their own experience. 

With the rapid growth of diverse and important senior roles in the sector, we can’t afford to ignore the development of leaders entering relatively uncharted territory.

"Even at senior levels, there are new roles which provoke self-evaluation. "

At Ambition, as we learn more and more about the relatively new executive headteacher role, we’re finding a transition point where leaders are challenged to both master key capabilities and examine their sense of self.

Unless they can leave behind the identity of headteacher, executives may never invest in the new skills and behaviours that would help to be successful and avoid burn out. Executive leaders can benefit from going through a new development journey, as we do with our cohorts on our Executive Educators: Leading Several Schools programme.

So back at my veteran football team, despite conceding that our bodies are older, we still develop through coaching and practice every week. Although most of us are in our 40s and 50s, there’s been remarkable improvement and now we lose 5-3 instead of 11-1.

Sometimes old dogs need new tricks.

This article originally appeared on the website of Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019, the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.

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