Successful school systems understand the need to attract, select, develop, and retain the right leaders. In a 2004 study for the Wallace Foundation, Kenneth Leithwood and the study’s authors found that effective leadership is second only to good teaching when ranking school and classroom factors that have a measurable effect on improving school outcomes and student performance. A later report from McKinsey & Company further emphasized that school improvement requires a strong pedagogy, supported by collaborative practices and leadership continuity.
The impact of leadership continuity was also explored in a 2011 New York Times article that highlighted how frequent replacement of the principal can create instability in a school, hindering growth. While there are other factors within the school, the local community, and home environments that affect student achievement, effective leadership is a catalyst for improvement, as my colleagues Tim Waters and Greg Cameron explain in The Balanced Leadership Framework. Arguably, turnover in leadership is a growing concern, compounded by a shortage of qualified and potentially talented replacement leadership candidates, as described in a 2010 study from the Wallace Foundation.
So, then, where should we focus our attention when cultivating good school leadership? We’re probably all familiar with the business term “Human Capital Management” (HCM), widely defined as an organization’s approach to acquiring, developing, and retaining employees whose value can be measured, and whose future value can be enhanced through some type of investment. While the term might seem cold and impersonal in education, a profession where people-development is essential to success, we can translate the business definition into an educational context. HCM in education is an investment in leadership talent identification and development to improve school productivity and student achievement.
In fields outside of education it’s, perhaps, not surprising that research suggests that a concerted focus on leadership talent identification and management can have a significant return on investment. According to a report by the international human resources research company, AON Hewitt, companies demonstrating best practices in leader talent identification and development are also more successful.
Wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume that the same attention to talent identification and development in the field of education would result in positive outcomes? McKinsey & Company’s survey of top-performing school systems in the world revealed that the world’s best systems often take a focused approach to leadership talent identification and management, resembling the practices of high-performing global companies. In fact, in School Leadership that Works, McREL’s authors reported that a concerted focus on leadership talent identification and, specifically, development can predict, on average, a 10 percent increase in school-wide student achievement. Seems like a good return on investment.
The key leadership talent development practices demonstrated by the top-performing companies are:
- Creating a strong leadership brand. Top executives promote their organizations to the outside world and work hard to develop a meritocracy inside the organization, rewarding and advancing top performers on the basis of their performance.
- Applying rigorous measures to attract the best leaders. Top companies are clear about the qualities of good leaders and carefully assess candidates, identifying only the best to become leaders.
- Casting a wide net and developing deep bench strength. The best companies start leadership development as early as entry-level positions with succession planning, creating a large class of potential future leaders for whom they provide formal, yet individualized preparation—namely coaching, mentoring, and transition plans—as opposed to “one-size-fits-all” leadership development.
- Rigorously assessing the talent pipeline. Industry-leading companies use 360-feedback and other measures to assess their future leadership talent. At the same time, they continuously collect, monitor, and respond to data about their leadership pipeline, paying particular attention to critical or hard-to-fill positions. Specifically, top-performing companies also assess the strength of their pipelines (e.g., how many potential future leaders have been identified?), diversity within their leadership pipelines (e.g., what percentage are minority or women?), and retention rates of high-potential staff (e.g., are they losing the next generation of leaders to competitors?).
Perhaps, more than anything else, the best performing companies take leadership seriously. Many educators understand the value and contribution of leadership to education’s bottom line: school productivity and student achievement. But, in many cases, the internal systems for talent identification and development in our nation’s school systems are insufficient or inadequate to produce an intentional and sustained approach to leadership identification, support, and retention.
To meet this need, my colleagues and I are working with districts to develop and pilot a model approach to sustainable, effective leadership coaching. Our early results are very promising, but we’re continually seeking additional information from educators to refine our thinking.
As an educator or a leader, what are your system’s biggest leadership pipeline challenges? What approaches has your system taken to cultivate and retain the best talent for your schools?
A former middle and high school principal, Dr. Tony Davis provides school- and district-level leadership training; research, design, and implementation of educator evaluation systems; and educator effectiveness technical assistance to state education agencies across the nation.