Golden rules for a stronger SLT

Written by: Colin McLean | Published:
Photo: iStock

What are the golden rules for creating the strongest senior leadership team for your school? In a new leadership advice series for SecEd, Colin McLean asks secondary leaders to share their tips

We all know that an effective senior leadership team is at the centre of any successful secondary school but how do leaders go about developing a high-performing leadership team?

I asked three secondary headteachers to draw on their years of experience and share their advice on creating the perfect leadership team.

Build a team of all the talents

Helen Salmon, principal of Tavistock College in Devon: "Before you appoint, think very carefully about the skills that will complement your team. Are you looking for a completer/finisher, an innovator, someone with deep and relevant experience?

"It is rare that all of these will fit one person, so I also look for potential. All members of the senior leadership team need to be hard-working, committed and passionate about their role. All should want to make a difference to young people, but as a head you need to think carefully about what you need."

Brian Duffy, headteacher of Tottington High School, in Bury: "The best teams complement the strengths and weaknesses of each member. Make sure these are identified and allocate responsibilities that serve not only the school best, but the individual as well. Not just using their strengths but also developing areas that are not so strong."

Let them grow

Ms Salmon: "Give your team time. Allow them to talk through their challenges and help them find solutions. Model effective leadership by giving them your support and challenge. Signpost them to others who can help. Watch them grow in confidence as their skills develop."

Paul Cowley, headteacher of Bishop Rawstone CE Academy in Leyland: "Manage talent for good succession planning with leadership development through distributed leadership. Leadership opportunities need to be fully devolved with a more experienced colleague acting in a coaching capacity only. This ensures talented individuals have the opportunity to start and see through to the end whole-school projects that they have taken ownership of."

Ms Salmon: "Support opportunities for professional development, particularly the kind that develops leadership skills and understanding. My team have benefited from Specialist Leader of Education (SLE) training, Aspirant Leaders courses and NPQH but you can also facilitate professional development by giving people opportunities, such as leading key programmes in school or working with the community.

"I also probably drive my team mad by inundating them with articles, tweets, blogs, leadership books and ideas all designed to stimulate growth. We also hold an annual leadership residential conference that gives space for more in-depth discussions about the long-term vision for our school. It also enables people to enjoy each other's company and relax. School affords few opportunities for relaxation."

Trust and relationships really matter

Mr Duffy: "Trust is key. Confidentiality is key. Build relationships with your team and let them know that you can offer both to each of them as individuals as well as to the team. Building 'social friendships' can be an advantage – if not always possible."

Mr Cowley: "Everything has to be based on authentic relationships – that is, high levels of trust, consistency, genuine respect, openness, challenge without threat, shared values and a commitment to mutual wellbeing."

Mr Duffy: "Show staff what qualities you want them to have by your behaviour towards them. Showing humility can make you a 'leader' rather than a 'boss'. Don't ask people to do what you wouldn't be prepared to do. Staff want to see their headteacher 'pitch-in'."

Stick to a vision – and never let go

Mr Cowley: "Communicate clearly a shared vision, values and direction with leaders highly focused on the school's goals, self-motivated to achieve them with the autonomy to make key decisions.

"It is important that everyone is clear about the 'big picture' and the role they have in ensuring its success. This is achieved through linking school development plan targets to individual performance management targets, which ensures the key focus is on the area that really matters."

Mr Duffy: "Realising that nothing is ever finished and the drive to always improve keeps people 'engaged' – but not change for change's sake. Maintaining that drive requires a culture of optimism, not pessimism."

Freedom to lead – and make mistakes

Ms Salmon: "Give everyone the chance to chair, minute take, present, and debate in meetings. Allow people to feel comfortable with lively debate and discussion but also insist that agreed decisions are communicated positively by everyone.

"People should be able to argue passionately and disagree with each other as long as there is mutual respect and trust."
Mr Cowley: "Honest self-appraisal of the team and its individuals, constantly challenging to improve performance through reflective practice. This is achieved by building an environment that allows individuals to take risks and make mistakes."

Colin McLean is chief executive of Best Practice Network, a provider of training and professional development. Visit

Further information

A guide to assembling the best senior leadership team has been published by Best Practice Network and is available as a free download at


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