From problem to pipeline: cracking the talent problem

CEO James Toop writes for Academy magazine as he commences his leadership of the newly formed organisation Ambition School Leadership, outlining the ways in which they play their part in system improvement by working strategically with Multi Academy Trust to develop their crucial talent ‘pipeline’.

No organisation can become successful and grow without a sustainable pipeline of leadership talent at all levels. This has become an increasingly important focus for heads, CEOs, boards and HR Directors in multi-academy trusts where sustained high performance and growth are strategic priorities. In his presentation – 9 Characteristics of Successful Multi-academy Trusts – Sir David Carter lays out a clear succession plan for the key posts in the MAT as step 8. When the trust is performing at “leading” level, he says it will have:

“… a talent management plan that has matured and now includes staff at all levels across the Trust. Senior leaders have worked in more than one Trust academy and middle leaders and the best teachers are deployed across the Trust to sustain and deepen impact”

So if we know that getting the right people into the right roles is so important, why do we invest so little time and money in building long-term people plans to achieve it?

When it’s time for one of our best leaders to move on, organisations typically face three challenges: we have nobody suitable internally to fill the role; we struggle to attract strong external candidates; or the new candidate falters within their first 18 months in role. These challenges waste time and money, and (in the case of a multi-academy trust) impact on the progress and learning of the children.  

There are four solutions to this: strategic talent management; long-term succession planning; transition management; and improving recruitment and attraction. To be effective though, they require strategic investment, multi-year planning and systems to embed them in the heart of your organisation.

  1. Strategic Talent Management

Every academy and trust should have a central database of their top talent with individual plans mapping out potential next roles and development needs. Line managers as well as an organisational sponsor or mentor should have regular “check-ins” with these individuals to monitor their motivation, whether they are addressing their development needs and how they feel they are progressing towards their next role.

Their development should be integrated with succession planning for future roles. For example, training should focus on behaviours or skills needed for the next role. ‘Stretch’ projects can also be a great way to take leaders out of their current role to develop new skills, and academy trusts have a unique opportunity to move people around the trust to different roles to build new skills. It is worth checking the mobility clauses in staff contracts to see whether they facilitate secondments and school-to-school movement.

Finally this needs to be embedded into systems and structures. It should be triangulated with performance management, academies should consider how they pay and reward their top talent, and crucially it must be enacted at every level of the organisation. This is a job for all line managers not just the responsibility of the top tiers of leadership.


  1. Long-term succession planning

Once you’ve identified your talent and where they might go, start planning for who might replace them. Research from Heidrick and Struggles quoted in last December’s Harvard Business Review (HBR) found that only 54% of corporate boards are grooming a successor to their CEO, and 39% had no viable internal candidates who could immediately replace the CEO if the need arose.  

Succession planning takes years not months and you should start early, ideally the moment a new leader takes charge. Claudio Fernandez-Araoz, in his book, It’s Not the How or the What but the Who, says that it’s helpful to identify potential successors within the organisation and benchmark them against the performance criteria for the role and external candidates. This will both identify where their immediate development needs are and how strong the external field is.

It is also the job of all leaders to be looking out for potential talent to join the organisation. Keeping your networks active and finding ways to stay in touch with future potential candidates keeps them engaged with the trust. The ideal role may not be there at the moment, but you should know which role they would be suitable for if anyone moved on or up.

One good way to focus the mind on the importance of different roles is also to require the board or academy leadership team to conduct periodic emergency succession drills. Asking key questions can test your organisational readiness for change. For example, what would we do now if our CEO, principal or Head of English left? Who would replace them? Would they be ready? How great a risk would that be? They all help focus the mind and will tell you if your plans are not right.


  1. Transition management

Outside of education, one-third to 50 percent of new leaders fail within the first 18 months. There is no conclusive evidence either way as to whether internal or external candidates are more likely to succeed. Context can be one determining factor. For example, for an academy in crisis, an external candidate can provide a fresh start, and a mandate and the objectivity required to deliver change. For an organisation in development, continuity from inside can help continue the momentum and move faster as they know the context and key staff.

But if the first part of succession is identifying the right candidate, the second part is transition. Whatever the context, preparation, time for ongoing support are key to success. This is more than onboarding which Dan Ciampa describes in December’s HBR as a “formal, short-term, agenda-driven orientation program of briefings and meetings. An onboarding plan can be a useful component of the transition process…but a CEO’s transition is a longer process of interactions both formal and informal, planned and impromptu. Handled correctly, the process will begin when the board’s choice accepts the position and will last for months after she arrives.”

Leadership transitions should involve meetings with key stakeholders, coffees with key staff, observations of existing processes so that the incoming leader understands the political and cultural challenges, the people who they will be leading and the agenda and priorities of the academy or MAT. There might even be a period of handover where the incoming leader acts as “designated successor” working alongside the incumbent. This is especially important at headteacher or CEO level where relationships with boards or governing bodies are critical.


  1. Improved recruitment and attraction

If you put all of this in place, not only will your new leaders be more effective in role, you will reduce recruitment costs, retain more staff and make your trust or academy more attractive. Research shows that organisations which systematically invest in development, talent management and succession planning, are more attractive places to work. In an increasingly competitive market, candidates can afford to look for differentiators between roles. What are yours?

At Ambition School Leadership – the result of the recent merger of Teaching Leaders and The Future Leaders Trust – we work strategically to help multi-academy trusts develop their talent pipelines in four ways: identifying high potential leaders for future roles; developing leaders at all levels through our leadership programmes at every stage of a leadership journey; providing a career pathway to aid retention and progression; and a new service to support multi-academy trusts with talent management and succession planning strategy.

Just as the quality of an education cannot exceed the quality of its teachers, an academy trust cannot sustain impact or grow faster than the quality of its leadership pipeline. By investing early in spotting talent, developing it and planning succession, I believe you can enable greater impact in the long run.


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