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Walking the Talk of Succession Planning

Walking the talk of succession planning

Author: Judith Hicks, Head of Inspiring Governance, National Governance Association

Having previously enjoyed a career in HR, succession planning was always something that I advised others about; I could give them advice, tell them how to create a succession plan and how to identify development opportunities for their staff, but I was generally talking the talk rather than walking the walk, as the saying goes.

In 2011, I became chair of governors at an infant school in Warwickshire – a role I have really enjoyed and in part is the reason why I had a career change towards governance, culminating in my appointment as head of Inspiring Governance at NGA in September 2016.

For the past two years, I have been writing about succession planning for governing boards and in particular about chairs standing down, ensuring leadership and moving on as part of our work on Future Chairs.

Having been chair for six years, in September 2017 it was time for me to walk the talk; I had to start to plan for my own successor and by July 2018, it was time to say farewell to the first school I had ever governed in and that both my children had attended.

NGA’s published revised guidance with practical steps ensures a culture of succession, but my blog is not about what you SHOULD be doing; it is about actually doing it and how it feels to step down.

The commitment you feel to a school is all about the people; this is particularly the case in a primary, infant and junior school where you know all of the staff, you know the history and they know you.

The key to making the transition a success was all about having those conversations early; my vice-chair agreed to take over in the summer of 2017 and we then spent time ensuring that she knew as much as I did, attending meetings with me and increasing the frequency of her own one-to-ones with the headteacher. Starting to develop the new relationship between your successor and the headteacher as well as the wider senior leadership team is critical to ensuring as smooth as possible transition.

There were quite a few moments in that last year when I realised that I was doing something for the last time; presenting to parents at the new parents evening, last monitoring visit and most difficult of all; chairing my last full governing body meeting. The headteacher wrote to me; thanking me for my commitment and for working with her to lead the school. That was definitely a bit of an emotional moment.

In truth, stepping down was not as difficult as I thought it would be, partly because my vice-chair was more than ready to take over and we spent my last term attending external meetings together, slowly handing things over. We also informed the staff, so that they could get used to the idea that I was stepping down.

At the same time I was approached and asked to join the academy committee of a large secondary school, which is part of a three school multi-academy trust. This is a completely different governance experience from a maintained infant school and has certainly helped me to focus on some new challenges, filled my calendar and because it is so different, it has stopped me falling into the trap of comparing the two schools. It has been great to be able to use my experience to support another school and to be able to join the new academy committee and hit the ground running, so to speak.

The bottom line is that it is sad to leave a school that you know so well, but I left knowing that I have made a real contribution to the school. The governing body made the decision to open and run a successful pre-school, established a breakfast club, we oversaw three construction projects which have added real value to the school and monitored a sustained improvement in attainment and progress across the school.

If you are reading this blog and thinking to yourself that perhaps it is time for you to think about a successor, then my advice would be to go for it. You can always find reasons to stay on for another year, but all schools and governing boards benefit from a fresh pair of eyes and the challenge that comes with that. Go and find another school governing board that could benefit from your experience, give yourself some new challenges and broaden your governance experience.

Inspiring Governance can help you find a new school (although you may be approached once word of you stepping down gets out there) and Future Chairs can help you find a successor for your school if there is no one willing to step up; start planning early. NGA also published The Chair’s handbook, an essential guide for chairs and aspiring chairs of governing boards, and a valuable resource for current and new chairs alike.

Further resourses

  • Preparing your board for the future - guidance to help boards plan for the future and the future leadership
  • The Chair's Handbook -  an essential guide for chairs and aspiring chairs of governing boards
  • Inspiring Governance - a free, online service that connects volunteers who are interested in becoming governors and trustees with schools that need them.
  • Future Chairs - a free recruitment service designed to help governing boards that will need a chair, vice-chair or committee chair within a year to connect with volunteers with the right skills and willingness to take on a leadership role.
  • Leading Governance - a training programme for chairs (including future chairs), clerks and boards, funded by the DfE.
  • The right people around the table - guidance to support governing boards in recruiting and retaining skilled governors or trustees.