As Director of the Education Reform Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas, Texas, Anne Wicks gets a rare insight into the highest levels of leadership. It’s commonplace for Anne to hear wisdom from the country’s—and even the world’s—top leaders, including from the 42nd president, George W. Bush, himself.
Much of this wisdom focuses on the value of foundational purpose-driven leadership. “Good leadership starts with understanding yourself and what you stand for, and knowing how to communicate that effectively,” says Anne.
With a passion for education and creating an equitable system for every child, Anne knows her purpose. She also excels beyond communicating it. She spearheads initiatives that help our nation’s kids grow into tomorrow’s superstars—and it all begins with recruiting, hiring, and retaining the best principals.
By partnering with schools, Anne uses everything from hard data to in-classroom initiatives to researching new ways to attract top talent. She’s especially devoted to recruitment and retention strategies when it comes to schools in lower-income neighborhoods.
“My goal,” Anne says, “is to better support the system so that all kids have the opportunity to learn and to succeed.”
How Can Schools Retain Exceptional Principals?
One big question that’s constantly swirling within Anne’s head is, “What can we do to support and retain great principals in every school?” Without an effective leader, it’s easy for the rest of the structure to crumble.
“Teachers love to work with a great boss that will set up a strong, instructional culture that will also engage with students and families,” says Anne. “Great bosses make them want to be at a school which, in turn, helps kids to progress.”
Unfortunately for schools in lower-income communities, the best principals often will leave the districts for others that they see as better opportunities. Usually, this means receiving higher pay, less stress, and more autonomy.
Anne’s goal is to significantly reduce principal turnover, especially within the schools that need them the most. But changing such embedded structures isn’t easy. That’s why Anne has been studying how outstanding principals are cultivated and retained.
The program is called the Principal Talent Management Framework. Currently made up of four districts, Anne researches and analyzes the experience of school principals throughout their careers including recruitment, compensation, leadership development, evaluation methods, and autonomy levels.
“We want to understand what helps districts develop great principals,” says Anne. By comparing ongoing research from a diverse range of institutions, her team can better grasp why some principals stay while others leave. Or, why some schools easily retain fantastic leaders while others experience constant turnover.
From here, they can develop and launch new strategies within these districts in hopes of building a stronger, better educational system.
Recruiting The Best Leaders From Within
Before developing great principals, you first have to find them—a task easier said than done. Every district has unique recruitment methods, as well as different financial and personnel resources at their disposal.
Schools with better resources usually have a huge advantage when it comes to attracting top talent. Seeing this clear inequity, Anne and her team are working hard to identify the best methods in recruiting, hiring, and retaining amazing principals. Each study a step closer to ensuring that every child has access to a high-quality education—no matter what neighborhood they happen to live in.
One highly successful tactic they’ve uncovered is encouraging districts to tap into the potential undiscovered leaders at their own facilities. “Lots of leadership roles exist on any campus,” she says. “You can see who should be encouraged to get into the pool.”
Think of current coaches, teachers, assistant principals, or other staff members who show strong leadership traits. “You can be really intentional about seeking leadership on campus,” says Anne. “That way, your pool involves developing your own people.”
So, instead of engaging in expensive recruitment or outreach efforts, encourage these aspiring leaders to move up the ranks themselves by staying within the district. “They’ll see that they are opportunities to develop. They don’t have to go off to another program, try to get a credential, and hope for the best,” says Anne. “Strong districts do that kind of thing.”
Hiring from within also increases the diversity of school staff and leadership. “It’s a great way to diversify and recruit principals of color—to get principals that look like the students at the schools,” says Anne.
It’s a strategy where everyone wins. The kids win by having amazing, invested, and relatable leaders. School districts win as retention rates grow thanks to aspiring principals feeling encouraged to grow. And the leaders themselves will feel empowered with the ability to personally shape the future.
Better Communication for Better Education
Hiring the right principal is just the first step towards building a healthy, thriving school environment. Next, the school system has to continually support an environment worthy of the nation’s best educators.
Anne strives to curate the country’s best schools by working closely with districts and their administrative team. These real-world insights allow Anne to launch new initiatives and strategies in an actual school setting.
Oftentimes, an idea will sound perfect on paper. But once launched, school leaders will report issues that Anne may have never uncovered. This provides everyone with an opportunity to make adjustments in real-time. As concepts gradually get ironed out, they eventually evolve from a hypothetical into a working solution—and perhaps the next great educational innovation.
“Partnering with school leaders is a really important check,” Anne says. “It makes us all better when we work together.” Whether the feedback is positive or negative, everyone involved feels privileged to be working towards a common goal—developing the next generation of leaders.
“We want to create a seamless experience for principals,” says Anne. “They’re the most important people you can have in a district.” And as Anne learns more each day, it takes a strong, intentional strategy to attract these very important educators.
“Clear strategies will ensure that they’re getting the best,” says Anne. “Then, we want districts to keep developing leaders while keeping kids on track to learn, and to succeed.”
Originally posted on Forbes.com.
The conversation with Anne Wicks continues on the Leading with Genuine Care podcast. In our chat, we talk more about creating more equitable school districts, the importance of libraries, advice on making a positive impact on our local schools, and more!