Appointing a new Principal is one of the key decisions any Corporation Board will make. How they approach this and the type of Principal they appoint will set the strategic direction of the college for what could be many years.

I have worked in and with the FE sector for over 20 years and have been appointing Principals and senior post holders for the last 13 years. During this period, it is fair to suggest that there has been a reduction in the number of applicants but, more importantly, the type of applicant has changed.

At Protocol we have found a number of key changes in the market place;

The importance of search has increased dramatically over the last ten years. Historically, individuals would see an advert in a publication and make an application based upon this. These types of applications have dropped significantly and we have evidence to suggest that this is due in part to the following:

  1. The economic climate and the added pressures in FE (funding and Ofsted) means that candidates are staying in their existing posts, where they feel ‘safe’.

    Speaking to our candidates on a daily basis, we can see that a significant number of potential candidates, at this point in time, feel it would not be in their best interests to accept a new position with increased levels of pressure and responsibility to have to go through a probation period all over again. This has been heightened even more over the last 12 months, with the apparent shift in the approach that Ofsted is taking when examining colleges.

  2. Candidates are doing far greater amounts of due diligence prior to submitting an application. Historically, people would apply more openly and then undertake their due diligence. This has most definitely shifted to an earlier stage in the process. Therefore, it is now essential that colleges seeking to appoint a new Principal ensure that the information they provide is sufficiently detailed, accurate, up-to-date and paints a very real, open and honest picture of the current state of the college. Candidates will also investigate the Governing body, especially the Chair, in order to identify whether a strong working relationship may be formed. This is now a two-way process even more than ever.

  3. There are now a far greater number of candidates who are being selective about the geographical locations that they will consider. It is our experience that the age of candidates is becoming lower and many cite family reasons for maintaining a certain geographical area. However, I must add that we are not seeing age as a factor in the appointment process or the decisions made by Corporations.

  4. Finally, there are those candidates who now see the role of Principal as being a far more complex proposition than it was fifteen years ago and are therefore choosing to stay at VP or DP level. Does this show a lack of ambition or is it symptomatic of point one above?

Whilst all of the above is true, as always Protocol has stayed one step ahead which has allowed us to continue our successful track record, still having never had to re-advertise a Principal vacancy. We do get strong fields of candidates with good numbers. However, this is increasingly hard work with strong dependency on a very tailored and specific search.

Getting the field of candidates is one thing but getting them to perform is a completely different story. There are some poor candidates who write great application forms or perform well at interviews;, then there are some great candidates who sometimes do not get through the short-listing stage or, even if they do, they believe their reputation will see them through and this is simply not the case.

In summary, as long as these ‘changes’ in the candidate landscape are accounted for, when looking to recruit a Principal or senior leader there is no reason why providers shouldn’t be able to make the perfect long term appointment. And of course, engaging the right agency to help you, one that understands the sector and its candidates will go a long way in gaining that success (but I would say that wouldn’t I?).

Simon Graham, a Director at Protocol, has over 20 years experience in the sector with a highly successful track record of working with Boards in appointing their senior leaders.

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