I have never yet known a school appoint a headteacher who said as part of the appointment process “go on then, if no-one else will do it I will”, and yet I come across lots of schools where that kind of comment is made during the appointment process for the chair of governors.
When I conduct external reviews of governance I consistently find little or no evidence of any kind of succession planning. You may or may not agree with the National Governance’s Association’s recommendation that chairs shouldn’t be in post for more than six years continuously in the same school, but common sense dictates that a chair could leave a governing body at any time, and that individuals can stay in post too long and become stale in the role. And being a chair of governors is a fantastic and rewarding job. If we get our succession planning right we should have people keen to take up the role.
So here are my suggestions for succession planning on your governing body, some of which are shamelessly stolen from the excellent National Co-ordinators of Governor Services (NCOGS) publication “Succession Breeds Success”.
1. Get your recruitment right
One of the six Department for Education principles of effective governance is “people with the right skills, experience, qualities and capacity”. What are those ‘right’ skills, etc? To what extent do we look for leadership potential when we’re recruiting new governors?
2. Effective induction
This is something else I often see done badly. Do we think about how to support new governors, help them to access appropriate governor training, and mentor them so we can help them to become effective and, amongst other things, spot their leadership potential? Or do we tell them to come along to meetings and pick it up as they go along…?
3. Talent spotting
When we’re completing and analysing our skills audits, to what extent are we looking to identify and nurture leadership potential? I was working with a governing body recently that was lamenting the fact that “only three” of their governors had completed the national governance leadership development programme. ONLY three!! If only that were a problem I came across more often…
4. Distributing leadership
Do we have tasks that we think can only be done by the chair? What are these, and to what extent is it true that they can’t be done by anyone else? Effective chairs encourage participation from all governors and share out the responsibility for leadership tasks. Having other governors chair the committees is a good starting point with this.
5. Developing the role of the vice chair
Too often the only role the vice chair has is to chair a meeting or make an emergency decision in the chair’s absence. Do you know how many full governors’ meetings I’ve missed in the eight years I’ve been a chair of governors? That would be none. Not much for the vice chair to do then, unless they have specific leadership responsibilities allocated to them. Effective chairs make sure their vice chairs have a meaningful leadership role on the governing body too, which can include sharing the planning and chairing of meetings, taking responsibility for governor development and induction or committee chairing, for example.
6. Having an effective chair
There’s a danger that chairs make the role look un-doable by anyone but they themselves. Too often I hear governors say ‘I couldn’t come into school every day like my chair does’. Well, guess what. They shouldn’t be coming in to school every day. And there are lots of different ways of being a successful chair, which could involve virtual meetings, and email/telephone conversations when necessary, rather than frequent visits into school during the working day.
If we really believe governance makes a difference for children and that effective governing bodies need effective leadership we should be taking this seriously, and encouraging our chairs to move on when the appropriate time comes. As Lord Nash once said: “Chairs can sometimes stay in post too long and, because everyone’s too polite to put the interests of children first, can, themselves, become the barrier to change and progress. Which is why I think governors should think really hard about appointing a chair for, say, no more than 2 terms of office [eight years]. And if, at that point, the chair is still doing a great job, governors could consider encouraging the chair to take up the mantle of a system leader and train up their vice-chair, so they, themselves, can move on and help another school.”