Where the FE and skills sector leaders of tomorrow will come from is a question on the minds not only of today’s principals and managing directors, but also their staff lower down the career ladder whose eyes are fixed firmly on the top, as Nikki Gilbey explains.

As an aspiring college principal, I found the Education and Training Foundation (ETF) summit earlier this year entitled Developing the Leadership Pipeline a great opportunity to look at how the sector provides opportunities for people like me.

I met up at the summit with fellow 29-year-old Oliver Trailor, who is the managing director of Kent independent learning provider Runway Training, having been in contact with him on Twitter about leadership issues.

I have spent the last five years developing my career from lecturer to advanced practitioner and on into a cross college management role, with a recent move to head of learning land-based, alongside time served as academic staff governor and freelance curriculum writer.

Since I wrote a piece for FE Week back in May 2013 outlining the reasons behind my principalship ambition, the future principal hashtag (#FuturePrincipal) has been developing on Twitter, with offers of mentoring, guidance and advice flowing in.

But during undoubtedly challenging times for FE and skills, it is all too easy to focus on the present and ignore issues that may present even greater problems down the line, such as poor or even non-existent succession planning.

While fast-track schemes, well-established routes to management and senior posts exist in other sectors, for example with primary education, they feel as though FE would do well to move away from a time-served to a more pragmatic approach, encouraging middle managers with the talent and drive to apply for more senior roles.

Supporting staff to complete level five and level seven qualifications in leadership and management is a great start and, as a new manager, I have found such courses invaluable.

However, they are not sector specific and, although my current cohort are mostly FE managers, the course is not aimed solely at developing new leaders to lead outstanding FE organisations in the next decade or two.

Knowledge-sharing activities, such as shadowing, can be invaluable experiences and present senior leaders with an opportunity to give something back, while ensuring the sector is providing opportunities for future leaders to gain an insight into the world of senior leadership.

Yet in terms of truly developing a leadership pipeline, I believe not enough middle managers and aspiring FE leaders are being encouraged to apply for more senior posts, nor given the time to access and learn from senior leaders.

Oliver and I have both been going against the grain though, actively pursuing opportunities to learn from senior leaders.

We are both openly ambitious and keen to drive forward opportunities for middle managers to gain exposure to senior leaders and benefit from these experiences in the same way mentoring schemes work so successfully in other sectors.

In December, Oliver visited Doncaster College and spent time with the principal and deputy principal, who talked him through their career paths, the type of leaders they are and what they look for in aspiring leaders.

The visit also gave him an insight into the everyday challenges found in leading such a large organisation, and how the senior management team had fostered a culture of transforming lives.

Shadowing is an incredibly useful activity that has great value when planned well. However, there is nowhere for middle managers at present, with existing mechanisms for knowledge-sharing predominantly aimed at the top, ie for deputy principals and above, rather than for those looking to secure their first senior leadership position.

We are currently working with the ETF as it develops The Leadership Register, which is aimed at bringing leaders together from across the FE sector. It hopes the register will provide a platform for both aspiring leaders and existing senior leaders to share ideas and provide opportunities for aspiring leaders to learn from those in senior positions and share best practice.