Preparing for leadership

By Sapuran Gill, Deputy Headteacher, The Heathland School

I'm currently Senior Deputy Headteacher at a large secondary comprehensive school in London. My journey started as a PE teacher over 20 years ago, and over that period, I’ve had the privilege to undertake numerous roles and responsibilities in four secondary schools.

I've had the honour of working for numerous colleagues who have contributed to my personal development. Over the course of my career, I have accumulated words of wisdom and advice from outstanding leaders across the country, who have used their vast knowledge and experience to support the individuals like me: leaders of the future. The opportunities I’ve been privileged to be given were as a result of being trusted by leaders. I’m indebted to them; without their encouragement, I would have left teaching after my third year. 

Early inspiration 
I grew up in receipt of free school meals in Southall, West London, brought up by my mother. I dreamt of being a PE teacher from the age of 11. I was inspired by Mr Hughes, a charismatic and gifted football player, who inspired a generation of pupils in his care. Due to Mr Hughes’ impact on me, I never dreamt of any other career and pursued a degree in physical education and geography. 

I had always viewed leadership roles as being beyond me, and, like many, lacked the knowledge and confidence to take on a leadership and management role. My first position of responsibility was as Deputy Head of Year in my fourth year of teaching. There were both tremendous highs and lows, managing a vast range of issues from lost pencil cases to consoling vulnerable pupils. It was demanding but also hugely rewarding, knowing that I was able to support pupils beyond the classroom.

Having worked for five headteachers, I’ve learnt a tremendous amount and have tried hard to gain as much experience and knowledge as possible to prepare me for my leadership journey. Just as I have had the generous support of colleagues, I have in turn dedicated time to supporting colleagues and offer them my advice as they prepare for progression. 

Here are eight tips on achieving success in leadership, in no particular order: 

Find someone who is willing to support you in your journey. This could be in school, through professional development courses, and even social media platforms. 

Seek out professional development opportunities to experience positions of responsibility. This will be useful in your letter of application and interview, enabling you to demonstrate what you did and why, what you learnt and what impact you had. These don’t always have to be paid responsibilities. For example, I recently became a governor at a primary school to help develop my understanding of Key 2 to Key Stage 3 transition and to recognise the excellent work being done by our primary colleagues. 

Prepare thoroughly. When writing letters, make sure you read the job description and tailor your letter to fit the person specification. Too many times, candidates will not be interviewed because they fail to do this, or send generically written letters, sometimes even to headteachers at the wrong school!

What do you believe in? What’s your vision? A question about my leadership style caught me out at an interview for an earlier post, for which I was unsuccessful. When asked what my leadership style was, I replied “coaching”. It was what I was comfortable with: supporting and developing colleagues.

The interviewer then replied, “Are you too nice and can you hold staff to account?”

“Of course. If needed, I can adopt an authoritarian approach,” I replied.

“Are you going to upset staff with that style?” responded the interviewer. 

In a panic, I stumbled over my words. I knew I didn’t know enough, yet knew I could manage staff but was unable to articulate this at interview. I subsequently studied for an MA in leadership and was able to implement theory within practice. 

What are you doing currently to develop yourself? There are vast ranges of books, podcasts and social media platforms for you to learn and refine your leadership and management. My favourite author on leadership is Patrick Lencioni; his Death by Meeting is well worth a read. 

Treat the interview process like preparing for an exam. There can be numerous in-tray exercises in addition to the range of interview questions. Over time, I have put together a series of possible tasks and questions. It is also helpful to establish a network of colleagues to support you with the interview process. 

Don’t apply for a role without doing your research. Leadership roles are demanding and school cultures are very different. Visit the school in advance. I would spend the weekend walking the local neighbourhood, seeing what it was like, and take time to visit the school during the day to see if it is right for me before applying. Remember, it is a two-way process. 

Be prepared for the panel interview. I failed to answer questions succinctly during my early years and missed the opportunity to work at schools that I had really liked because I could not structure responses. This was until I started using the SAR technique to structure my responses: 
  • Situation: What was the situation?
  • Action: What action did I take? 
  • Result: What was the outcome? 

If you are unsuccessful, my advice would always be to ask for feedback. On occasions, you may have just lost out to a better candidate or identified areas that you need to further develop. This can an emotional journey, but do not lose heart. 

I wish you well for the term and your leadership journey. Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter @ssgill76

Sapuran Gill is Deputy Headteacher at The Heathland School, Hounslow 
Posted: 14/07/2021 14:12:46