Coaching for newly appointed School Principals – an enriching gift

Too often governors, having collectively appointed the best school Principal and so are feeling pretty pleased, now pat themselves on the back – and walk away to let the Principal get on with it!  OK, yes, they continue to govern the school either effectively or not (and that must be a topic for another day), but, if I may be allowed a generalisation based in my experience, they are mightily reluctant to take an active role in ensuring the newly appointed Principal is properly prepared to take on the mantel of leadership.

At appointment the interview panel should always be asking themselves “how well has this candidate thought himself or herself into the role”.  But having made the appointment, the next question for the governing body should be “what support, training and opportunities do we need to provide for our new Principal to make sure he or she has every opportunity to step into this role with confidence?”   And the answer is an enriching gift and an essential grounding, not just an induction programme.

Induction is certainly essential – of the ‘where is the photocopy’ variety – but school leadership demands much more by way of preparation.   The difficulty is that governors, having appointed their candidate, are reluctant then to turn around and suggest that the Principal designate is not the finished article; that the new Principal, however experienced, is at the start of a journey, not at the end – and so has much to learn.  The truth is, however, that all new Principals need to limber up both mentally and physically, to go into training, in order to be well prepared for this new crucial role.  Too often I’ve heard appointment panels ask candidates “what training do you think you would need if you were offered this position?” but then do nothing with the response.   I believe that governors need to invest time and thought in working with their successful candidate to really make sure he or she has the best possible support, training and experiences in order to maximise their attributes and skills in this new role.

Having, I hope, appointed for attitude, now is the time for governors to demonstrate that attitude really matters.  Mary Gorham argues that the essence of effective school leadership is that the three elements – who the leaders are, what the leaders do and how they do it – are fully aligned.[1]  Great governing bodies understand this and help their Principals make that emotional and intellectual leap into the new role, rather than just leaving it to chance.  And great governing bodies, because they have already spent time in thinking hard about the values, beliefs and attitudes that they want in the new Head, are now able to make that explicit as part of the preparation process.

So how do coaching and mentoring come in?  Do you see coaching as a ‘deficit model’ solution, the answer to a problem?  Or is coaching an enrichment gift?  Does coaching, particularly as part of the preparation for headship, present value for money – or is it ‘nice to have’?  What are the likely benefits and are those valuable?   My answers to these questions are:

  • Great Principals are highly reflective; they constantly ask themselves how could they do better; they take care to understand the impact of their words and behaviours on others.  Great Principals, therefore, welcome coaching and mentoring because it provides them with the opportunity to stand back and be challenged within a supportive coaching relationship.
  • Someone new to headship needs to develop a very different mind set from that of, say, a deputy; in one sense the skills and attributes could be described as a complete turn around.   The implications of the full responsibility – ‘the buck really stops here’ style of leadership – can only be experienced once in post.  The benefits for a new Principal of a coach and/or mentor are immense and can, in many situations, make all the difference between a satisfactory transition and an outstanding one.
  • It is a temptation to assume that an experienced Principal doesn’t have the same needs when moving into their second or third headship.  That is just not the case.  A second or third headship will always be a different experience – in part because the context is different but also because the Principal is a different person as he or she embarks on this new role.  I believe that an experienced Principal benefits from a coach or mentor just as much, if not more.
  • And finally, schools are above all learning organisations – certainly really outstanding schools are.  What better way to demonstrate that as a fundamental value underpinning the school’s ethos than for the Principal to model that behaviour by being a learner himself or herself?  And what better way for the governors to put learning as the top organisational priority by offering, expecting or even requiring the senior leaders in the school to commit themselves to coaching in order to be true learners.

Putting this gift into a gold box

  • An expectation~ that all new Principals are expected to embark on a programme of coaching and/or mentoring
  • A commitment ~ that governors make the provision of coaching a commitment for all new Principals
  • A professional experience~ that the coach/mentor is a professionally trained expert with a strong understanding of school leadership ideally through his or her own professional experience.
  • A formal programme ~ that the coaching programme is formally structured and is not just a ‘buddy’
  • Independent and accountable~ that the coach is independent of and external to the school and the governors and that the commissioning relationship embeds the basis on which the coach is accountable.
  • A blended strategy ~ that the programme is a seamless blend of coaching and mentoring in a professional relationship that captures the best of both worlds.


Mary Gorham, Matia Finn-Stevenson, Beth Lapin; “Enriching School Leadership Development Through Coaching”; Research and Practice Brief, School of the 21st Century, Yale University