Perspectives as an Interim Principal: Is there a compelling case for it to become the norm?
Insights from Jenny Ethell MAICD
Advisor at Fisher Leadership
Having recently completed a four-month period as Interim Principal at Methodist Ladies College (MLC), Perth in 2022, I reflect on the fresh perspectives gained from this type of appointment and whether the ‘Interim Head’ should become the ‘new normal’ for schools to support the successful transition between Principals/CEO.
Traditionally in schools where a gap of service occurs between the Outgoing and Incoming Principal/CEO, is for the Deputy Principal or equivalent to ‘step up’ into the Acting Principal role. I now question whether this is the best option?
With a young and relatively new Executive team in place at MLC, the School Board made the decision to employ an experienced Principal to help guide the College through this important transition. Having just made the decision to return to WA, after three years as Head of Oxley College and with 20 years of Principalship across three schools I was pleased to be able to undertake this appointment at MLC.
The brief from the Board Chair was:
- Provide the College with operational stability and a sense of security for the community.
- Support the Executive team in their leadership roles.
- Oversee some important projects for the College prior to the new Principal commencing in the new year.
As I reflect on this period of leadership, I would like to share some of my perspectives of the ‘value add’ of this model.
Value to the College, the Board and the Incoming Principal:
- As a visible leader with the ability to connect with students, staff and parents I made sure there was confidence and trust in the College and its leadership.
- As an experienced and independent person, I was able to provide a fresh and objective perspective, and evaluate the schools’ strengths, challenges, and opportunities for the future. These insights and recommendations shared with both the Board and incoming Principal gave them a different and somewhat broader perspective and understanding.
- The College Leadership team were able to use the opportunity to grow and build their capacity as leaders. It allowed them to gain valuable experience and exposure to higher-level decision-making processes. Being from outside again I was able to draw on my experiences and provide them with some sage advice about matters they might be dealing with.
Value to the Board:
- Preparing the community for the arrival of the incoming Principal and setting up the environment for the Incoming Principal to make a smooth and successful transition.
- Allows the opportunity to make some of the ‘tough’ decisions and implement necessary changes without any ‘reputational risk’ to the incoming principal.
- Allows the Board an interregnum to reflect on its practices and way of operating during the transition of the outgoing and incoming Principal.
- Provide a different perspective to the Chair and members of the Board on the working relationship between the Board and Principal.
Value to the Incoming Principal:
- Provide the incoming Principal with information and an objective evaluation of school operations including strengths, challenges, and opportunities which results in them being well prepared for entry and having a smoother transition period.
- An opportunity to enter the school without having to deal with critical issues identified by the Board.
- A strong professional and respectful relationship develops with the incoming Principal which allows for ongoing Collegial and Professional support.
This experience as Interim Principal has made me reflect on my own transition in and out of Principal roles. Looking back these could be seen as less than optimal, often rushed, or overshadowed by other priorities or geographical distance. An experienced Interim Principal for 3-6 months creates a model that is worthy of consideration for School Boards to ensure they are planning a successful transition for their greatest investment, a new Principal.
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An experienced Interim Principal for 3-6 months creates a model that is worthy of consideration for School Boards to ensure they are planning a successful transition for their greatest investment, a new Principal.