Internal promotions into school leadership: how to lead those who used to be your colleagues

Figures on escalator

Every professional who is new to leadership – or takes up a new leadership role – needs to consider how they develop relationships with those they lead.

The same is true if you are promoted internally. There are many benefits and potential drawbacks to being promoted to a leadership position within a school where you are already employed. What is it like when you move from being a member of a team to the leader of that team? What advantages can you make the most of, and what challenges does it bring?

In an earlier blog, I wrote about what to bear in mind when you apply for a post internally. I suggested that there were positive and negative elements to being an internal candidate, and that these probably cancel each other out; in the end, you don't necessarily stand a better or worse chance than someone who is applying from outside the school.

I also think this is true for those who are successful in the selection process. In some ways you have knowledge which should help you to carry out your new responsibilities successfully; in other respects there are specific challenges which being internally promoted may bring. 

Top tips

So here is my advice for those who have just been internally promoted to a new leadership role and are trying to settle in:

  1. Recognise that the dynamic in the team will change as you assume your new role. You need to be true to yourself and what you stand for (don't try to be someone you are not), but with leadership responsibility comes a shift in your professional identity. It would be naive, and unwise, to deny this and it's something that you ideally need to have thought through before your application so that you are prepared to negotiate the shift.
  2. Be ready for support and challenge. For successful leaders to get the most out of each individual and the team as a whole, they need to both support and constructively challenge those they lead. As these are colleagues you already know and have worked closely with, the support side of this – whether that's protecting, advocating for or defending – will be much more comfortable (and pleasant) than holding them to account if all is not as you know it needs to be.
    You will not fulfil your responsibilities as a leader, however, if you are not prepared to challenge when it is necessary. You have to be able to hold difficult conversations at times, and this can be tricky with those who were peers and who may be friends.
  3. This brings me to my next point: I don't think you can get drunk together any more. As an externally appointed leader, you have the luxury of establishing yourself within a new team where you can determine to be friendly without actually being friends. Your social life can lie beyond the team, and this can be more comfortable than trying to deal absolutely transparently and fairly with those who know you personally and socially.
    Again, this is something which you have to navigate – it requires care, thought and sensitivity. You are working to establish the most positive, productive, and professional relationship possible, within a context where personal relationships have already been formed and may bring emotional complications.
  4. Change your focus. As a member of the team, your focus was on being the best teacher/tutor/member of staff you could be. As a leader, your focus should now be on helping every member of the team to be the best they can be – and you know them already (for good or ill). It's important to build on the positives, and don't allow past issues to cloud your vision of what everyone can be. Recognise potential, build capacity and work to earn respect so that those you lead forgive your own past indiscretions too.
  5. Leave your ego at the door. As you navigate your new space within this professional context, you sometimes need to set aside your own ego and recognise that it is all about the team, not you. This isn't about taking credit and basking in glory: I am fond of the Harry S Truman quotation, "There is no limit to what we can achieve if we don't care who gets the credit."
    You may plant seeds that others cultivate and, if what follows is good for the team as a whole, it doesn't matter whose idea it was. Don't let the personalities of those you know well get in the way of this. And, of course, you may not have been the only internal applicant for this post, which requires particular sensitivity.
  6. Be diplomatic. Consider what you know this team could achieve and the best direction of travel, based on your experience within the school so far. That said, beware of saying anything which is openly critical of what has gone before. Instead, build on the strengths, make the most of the legacy and tap into the potential for growth and development. This is your opportunity to realise your vision for what this team could be – work with and through others to make it happen. And, most of all, enjoy the adventure!


This is an edited version of a piece originally ran on Jill Berry's own blog here. 

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