Succession planning is a key leadership challenge. So perhaps it’s time that the sector looked beyond senior management and encouraged middle management and lecturers, says Nikki Gilbey

I am 27 and I want to be the principal of an FE college. I know that this is a long-term goal, as I am at the start of my teaching career. I also know that it is something that I will only achieve by setting a series of short-term targets.

When I attended the recent Gazelle Future Possible event (I’m an academic staff governor), I found myself surrounded by the principals of some of the best FE colleges in the country. They inspired me, all of them individuals whose lives were dedicated to improving the lives of others.

I am at the frontline of supporting students with a range of ages and abilities to achieve their goals and to widen opportunities. But lecturers can only be as good as the colleges that they work in; they need the support of management and the financial and physical structures to enable them to do their jobs as well as they want to.

I may have an impact on the lives of 50 students a year, but principals and their colleges impact on thousands of individuals every year. I am a great believer in doing a job that makes a difference. Becoming an FE principal is the ideal way for me to have the biggest impact on the greatest number of people that I possibly can, in a sector that I am passionate about.

In a recent edition of FE Week, Mike Hopkins talked about how tough the job is, but surely that is a given? Any position at the head of a large organisation isn’t going to be easy. Yes, there are challenges of accountability and measurement of performance, but these processes and procedures are there to ensure that provision is of a high quality.

The brightest and most ambitious staff should be supported by a sector-wide structure to enable them to focus their careers on future leadership”

I am surprised that fewer people are applying for principal posts. I can only imagine that in a society where leaders must be held fully accountable and where downfalls are accelerated by the media, potential principals are wary of losing what they have worked so hard to achieve if they are judged not to be meeting expectations.

The Principals’ Professional Council report, Further Education Colleges: Rising to the leadership challenge, suggested that there are “concerns regarding a lack of new talent coming through . . .  something should be done to encourage more vice-principals and deputies to aspire to become principals.”

That is not enough. We need to look beyond senior management and encourage middle management and lecturers.

The brightest and most ambitious staff should be supported by a sector-wide structure to enable them to focus their careers on future leadership

Rather than staff relying on their own colleges to ensure that their continuing professional development (CPD) is relevant to their future aims, wouldn’t it make sense for wider programmes of development, akin to those in finance and business or the public sector, as in the Prison Service?

In terms of my own development, I have a supportive line manager who is aware of my ambitions and who is helping me to find ways of accessing CPD relevant to my future goal. I have also used Twitter (#futureprincipal) and a blog to open up the conversation with others, and through that have had offers of guidance and mentorship from chief executives, principals and deputies.

My #futureprincipal journey has just begun. I have yet to gain any prolonged management experience, but every expert was once a beginner. Maybe that is a concept we should consider in the discussion of developing future leaders.

Nikki Gilbey teaches at
Highbury College, Portsmouth.