I was intrigued at the national furore a few weeks ago when our Prime Minister announced very publically that in approximately 5+ year’s time he plans to step down. Only in an election year could a senior leader be criticised for drawing attention to the fact (a fact that besieges every organisation) that at some point his employer will need to find a successor to ‘fill his shoes’.

This got me thinking. How good is the FE sector at planning for succession?

To kick us off, this much overly used and under-practised terminology [Succession Planning] suggests one seamless activity when indeed the reality is that it is inherent of two definitions. [1] Succession; is the action, process, or right of inheriting a position or title whilst [2] Planning; is the preparatory intention of doing something in the future. Incidentally, what is perhaps missing here is a Talent Management thought-process that underpins good succession from within the organisation as this is absolutely key to effective Succession Planning.

The sector’s reality is that it is well practised in reacting in a formal and professional way to an event, usually a resignation or sudden unplanned departure with a Search and Recruitment exercise. This really is not the same thing as putting in place a resourced, dynamic plan to replace the current senior leader at a known or sudden point in the future to best enable each college to achieve its long-term strategic goals.

So why are we not good at this, and how can we improve? Firstly, when required we seem to expend so much effort on recruiting the next Principal that I suspect Governors sigh so much relief and hope that they won’t need to repeat the exercise for the foreseeable. Secondly, I suspect that Employment Law gets in the way; leaders are appointed on open contracts and those challenging issues such as potential claims (e.g. Constructive Dismissal or Age Discrimination) get in the way, cloud the issue and constrain grown up conversations that seek to place the very long-term forward planning of each college at the heart of decision making. Throw in a reluctance to blur perceived Equality and Diversity and to form a serious view over the adequacy of the internal second tier as potential successor(s) in order to develop their individual Succession Plan(s) and to fix a line to a successor either from within the sector or from outside of it – and is there any wonder why Succession Planning is a mere reactive senior recruitment exercise in many colleges! In short, its very complex!

The military has an interesting (and widely acknowledged successful) approach to senior career management. It is helped by a very obvious narrowing of the leadership pyramid, the presence of some incredibly long-term and statutory objectives aligned to our national interests and a closed recruitment and succession loop coupled with a commitment to give each senior leader some choice over their next role(s) underpinned with significant pre-role training and development, but notwithstanding by comparison now you can see how far away FE is!

So, what are the potential solutions? First, Governors should speak openly about succession within the confines of the Governing Body, and nominate a Governor with a rolling brief to oversee succession. A good starting point is to review the current senior leadership team (as the effects of succession management (good, bad or indifferent) are rarely limited to one senior leader) and produce a ‘most likely’ timeline, i.e. the Succession Plan. This should be kept up-to-date and reviewed regularly. The point here is that if the Principal is ‘north of’ 60 years old, regardless of any organisational ‘Normal Retirement Age’, then he / she is more (than less) likely to decide that this year may be their last! There should be a formal link to Appraisal and Remuneration Committee discussions also as well as to any uncompromising discussions with the incumbent to keep this Plan in real time.

Thoughts should also be directed to the second tier of leaders, being Deputy, Vice and Assistant Principals and Directors. In any event another Senior Post Holder from this pool may be placed in charge for a transitory period but do they have the tools to do this job?; what are their future aspirations and ambitions and does each have the skills, experience, competencies and qualifications in order to have a shot at the top job when it becomes available. If the answer is no; if a college does not have at least one ‘Principal-in-waiting’ then it may be failing its senior leadership and storing up some accelerated departures further down the line, which achieves the precise opposite of a well-tuned Succession Plan. Again, if the answer is ‘no’ then some of these tools and processes may require more than 12 months to compile, so work needs to start now! After all, committing to resource the development of Level 2 college leaders is not akin to promising each the next job but it is a sign of trust and commitment that each will at least be in a position to try and succeed at the final level on a level-playing field basis!

One consideration from this joined-up thinking on Governance is the optimum period of notice assigned to the Principal. 12 months rolling, 9 months, 6 months or less than, are all currently in play within the sector. Another factor is addressing our reluctance to bring in a successor (or appoint from within) to work along-side the outgoing post holder. Why is it that this process rarely takes place, and is it perhaps the best illustration of all that the current system is inept and reactive rather than proactive? What value to an organisation can be placed on a comprehensive, positive ‘Handover / Takeover’ to ensure that matters of culture, organisational DNA and indeed a motivated managerial team are handed on as well as the facts and figures tied up with the various strategies in play. After all, this is an annual investment by as much as c. £250k per annum; thus we need to get this stuff right!

Increasingly, we are seeing outgoing Principals being less involved with succession activity. In some circumstances the strategic change-exercise has failed miserably and the new appointee will walk in to a vacant office having never really met the outgoing leader. Yet for those who are in post, and who are actively engaged in delivering the (Board of Governors) college’s Mission then why is this the case? This is not about seeking clones; the successor will undeniably be a different fit – but they will still inherit all that is left behind and, save for the basket case of failing organisation, the Mission won’t change with a new appointment; he/she will still be tasked with delivering a lot from not a lot and producing an endless supply of rabbits from their hat!, with the same team inherited at the point of change! Thus, involvement of the outgoing leader can add real value and ensure that the chances of a sweeter parting are greatly enhanced!

If we could get this right then the sector would feel the benefit. Before we know it we will have a much more orderly merry-go-round with significantly more focus on growing the next leaders from within, even if we are training and developing some (a few) of your teams to progress onwards and upwards elsewhere.

In summary we should view Succession Planning as a holistic and on-going long-term exercise that also factors talent management. Succession Planning should be capable of being ramped up when needed, and at short notice, and have a high-level sponsor and be properly resourced. The college’s Succession Plan should always incorporate the development needs of the next level of organisational talent. If we get these simple processes right colleges will feel the much wider benefit of Investment in its People from the very top downwards, and ensure when the time comes a much smoother passage of the ‘leadership baton’ is achieved.

Ian Sackree FCCA is the Chief Operating Officer at Protocol. Ian joined Protocol in September 2014 having previously spent 10 years as Vice Principal and Deputy CEO in a hi-performing large GFE College.

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