Executive leadership: you can’t be in two places at once! by @MaximJKelly

My kind of leadership

As a headteacher, I had become quite used to doing things in my own way. Over a number of years I had developed my own style, grown comfortable and confident about my personal convictions and educational philosophy and had found, I thought, an effective way to deliver my kind of leadership and make my school my kind of school.

This meant denying any sort of control-freakery (don’t we all!) but desperately making sure I was all over everything: letters to parents, events, standing outside every single day and saying “hello” to every pupil and as many parents as I could see. It meant becoming firm in my belief that schools were about people and community and I could influence that through a hands-on approach and high visibility.

At the beginning of this academic year, things began to change. Rather rapidly. I stepped into a different type of headship and embarked on a role in executive leadership as the number of schools I led increased from one to two.

This didn’t alter all of those views and beliefs that I had nurtured and grown through single headship, nor did it affect my standpoint on the community, people and a personal touch. But it did force me, rather drastically, to reassess my role in all of that and make me realize, that as an executive head, my kind of leadership was going to have to become a new kind of leadership.

A new kind of leadership

The learning curve has been sharp: and given that the executive leader role is so new to the education system, it comes as no surprise that I looked for guidance. Guidance that is hard to come by. This is partly why I wanted to share some of my reflections on the role – to help add (in a very small way) to a somewhat limited field of books and articles on the challenges of leading more than one school.

I remember that my first big decision was the decision I agonised over the most. I found it incredibly difficult to decide where I would physically be at the start of the day on day number one. Which school should I go to first, which set of parents should I speak to first, which pupils would I be there for to say “good morning” to, which staff team would I chat to before the school gates opened? I worried because I was so new to this role – and I was finding for the first time that my kind of leadership (the very personal, the very hands-on, the very visible and the very involved in the fine detail) was not a leadership style that could work when leading a federation of schools. I’m glad I came to appreciate this from such an early stage.

A three-pronged approach: strategy, teamship and leadership

Instead, I came to see that my role is something different. My new kind of leadership has evolved into a three-pronged approach. First and foremost I have had to become much more strategic.


Strategy is founded upon a strong vision which has a clear objective. An ability to think and plan strategically is a skillset I have drawn on and honed during my first year of dual headship, recognizing that good teams excel at devising and implementing strategy. You can have all the talent and ambitions you need, but without clear strategy from the top of the federation to the bottom, the ambition will not be fulfilled. That is why I came to see that one of my first tasks should be to sit down with the staff, pupils and parents, and re-examine the schools’ vision. From there, my early strategy was to watch, take-in, intervene and change only where absolutely necessary, and get under the skin of the schools and the wider federation. This strategy was explicit and all partners were invited to share in casting a critical, reflective and observant eye over everything.

Beyond that, my strategy stemmed from continuous SSRE – the operational objectives, the action planning, the mindsets and philosophies that underpin the direction all formed the strategic approach, as did looking to build in the wider goals of Government, and the financial budget delegated to the school. And, again, everyone was invited to be part of that – communication was a major part of the strategy.

I am blessed with very strong Heads of School in both of my organisations and I have learned to leave more and more day-to-day operational matters to them. When I became a leader of two schools, one was the school in which I was already firmly established as Head. The federation has meant that I have had to “let go” of certain things – the “control-freakery” I firmly denied was clearly there more than I had either cared to notice or cared to admit. Of course, I trusted my colleagues, but now I had to learn to trust that trust and relax more about other people leading and managing in certain areas I had previously held a tighter control over. In the new school, I was faced with establishing myself as a leader but being unable to draw on the techniques that I had found successful in my previous headship – the “all over everything” approach was simply not viable.

I would reflect that these experiences have made me a better at delegation, communication, trust and teamwork. Teamwork – or teamship as I term it – has become a vital part of my leadership.


Making sure that I spend time with staff from across the federation has now got a sharper focus. When I’m in a building I really really have to make that time count. So efficiency and smarter working practices have developed, too.

Leaders and teachers are of course important people to work closely with, but I have also seen the value of making sure that people in support, administrative and site management roles see me and learn about my expectations of them going forward. I’ve established a federation steering group of this cross-section of staff give to give me a vehicle for these conversations to further develop trust in me as their leader.

I’ve also discovered a need to let go of the guilt that I felt in my early days of executive headship: guilt about asking more of the senior on-site colleagues I left when I headed to my other school, guilt about not being in one of the schools as often as I’d like, guilt about not knowing the children quite as inside-out as before and guilt about “other school drift” whenever I celebrated any sort of success in one of the schools. I’ve come to see that my role is different now. Learning to let go of the guilt was easier said than done, but I’m much more relaxed about my role now and what it entails. I’ve learned to accept that you can’t be in two places at once!


So, over time, my approach to executive level leadership naturally refocused on to these three key aspects: strategy, teamship and distributed leadership. I’ve covered the teamship and the strategy already, but the provision and development of leadership across the federation need mention as it has become a hugely important concept for me, and interweaves through, with a strong connectedness, the other two aspects. It is the agent that binds my approach. It’s about being clear with all partners about your beliefs; it’s about building a vision; it’s about realizing the wider goals to which you are part; and it is about bringing people with you. The best people. And helping to make them better through appraisal, through coaching, through CPD and through expectation. Never being afraid of helping people become better at something than you are and avoiding obsession with control. Authority is different to control; delegation is different to control. That, for what its worth, is what I truly believe.

This newly realized ideal is summed up neatly by Alex Ferguson, the most successful football boss of all time, who said:

“At United, we had plenty of people who could manage aspects of our activities far better than I could. The head groundsman knew far more about the technology of soil management and irrigation than I did. The doctors managed a realm whose subtleties I could not pretend to understand. The head of our youth academy knew far more than I about the abilities of each of the lads in the programme. I slowly came to realize that my job was different. It was to set very high standards. It was to help everyone else believe they could do things that they didn’t think they were capable of. It was to chart a course that had not been pursued before. It was to make everyone understand that the impossible was possible. That’s the difference between leadership and management.”

Alex Ferguson

The learning curve is clearly not over: I’m aware that as I approach the end of my first full year in this role there is still much to learn. An open mind, reflection and an attitude of go again but better are definite prerequisites of the job.

Where next?

Sir David Carter, National School’s Commissioner, suggests that once established into executive leadership, a vital step is to consider ten key questions:

  1. Are the children in my federation getting a better learning experience than they were before their schools joined together?
  2. What is it like to be a child that finds learning difficult in this federation?
  3. What is it like to be a child that finds learning easy in this federation?
  4. What is like to be a vulnerable learner in this federation?
  5. What are the ambitions and hopes of the staff and students in the schools I am leading?
  6. What are the expectations of leaders and local governing bodies in terms of their engagement and participation in the federation?
  7. How many decisions that impact on learning, are taken by the schools, co-constructed between the schools in the federation or standardized across the group?
  8. What are the key financial risks to the sustainability of my federation?
  9. How well are staff developed and performance managed across the federation?
  10. How effective is the federation governance structure and what are the development needs of the individuals who govern at different levels across the federation?

(Derived from source: https://www.ambitionschoolleadership.org.uk/blog/first-100-days-being-ceo-or-executive-headteacher/  Sir David Carter 7/9/17)

These ten questions now form my personal “action plan” – and I’ll begin working with my SLTs and my steering group to look at these as prompts for discussion and action. I can see a thread through them to the teamship, strategy and leadership maxim I have adopted and, short of finding a way of cloning myself and being in two places at once, they will provide my focus for year two of developing my new kind of leadership.

Article originally posted at:

Executive leadership: you can’t be in two places at once!

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About maximjkelly 12 Articles
I am the Executive Headteacher of two schools in the Isle of Man (Dhoon School and Laxey School) which form the Laxey / Dhoon Federation. The schools are on the mid to north east coast of the Isle of Man and are roughly 5 miles apart.

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