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April 1, 2021
Vol. 78
No. 7

Growing Principals into Strategic Talent Leaders

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In July, Carly Knox received the call. She was being promoted from her central office curriculum specialist role to principal of a middle school. Carly had received her master's degree in May and was thrilled to accept this school leadership opportunity so quickly.
During the initial meeting with her new supervisor, Carly learned that the school's former principal had not filled nine teacher and four staff vacancies for the coming year. School started in three weeks, and she didn't know where to begin. Her licensure program had prepared Carly to be an instructional leader, to engage community members, and for many other things. But she never learned how to recruit, interview, and hire new talent—especially not 13 new team members in three weeks.

Little Preparation

Carly isn't alone. A survey of principal preparation programs across the United States showed that an average of one course is dedicated to human resources (Holcombe, 2020). The typical content of that course concerns human resources law, leaving principals across the nation underprepared to be talent stewards of the personnel whose salaries and benefits on average make up 83 percent of their total school budget.
Yet studies show that the collective impact of teachers and principals on student standardized achievement is 58 percent (Hattie, 2011). So, if the largest budget investment is being spent on the resource with the largest impact on student academic outcomes—school staff and their skills—why aren't we guiding principals to be strategic talent leaders?
Part of the answer is that decades of accountability policies have led us to focus myopically on leaders' instructional leadership while ignoring the potential of talent leadership to achieve school improvement goals. But we can change this.

Four Ways to Get Strategic

In our work, we—two principals and a university dean—focus on helping school leaders manage talent. For instance, we recently led a strategic talent leadership initiative in a public school district in North Carolina. We've seen that strategic talent leaders successfully leverage the educator talent in their school by working across four domains: talent acquisition, talent acceleration, talent advancement, and talent assessment.

1. Talent Acquisition: Monitoring the Pipelines

Strategic talent leaders know that the front door of their school is a talent gateway—and they control who gets in and who goes out. Such savvy leaders forecast their upcoming needs for certain teaching skills, recruit top candidates, and close on hires. They take these actions upon themselves, not leaving them up to their human resources office.
Tina Johnson, one of the authors of this article, learned these skills when she worked in human resources recruiting and preparing alternatively licensed teachers. Through that experience, not her principal preparation program, Tina discovered the importance of creating partnerships with local educator preparation programs. As she placed preservice teachers in student teaching positions, Tina found that if she made a strategic match by considering the supervising teacher's growth data and the student teacher's areas for development, she could increase the effectiveness of both educators.
Now as principal at Ronald McNair Elementary School in Greensboro, North Carolina, Tina observes the preservice educators doing student teaching at McNair multiple times to determine which ones might be a strong fit for her students, faculty, and school. Early in the spring semester, Tina interviews, and makes job offers to, those student teachers who meet that criteria. Notice that Tina makes her offers before other school leaders have the opportunity to acquire these talented novice teachers, who are already strong contributors at McNair, but may be sending out résumés to other schools.
What other practices build capacity to strategically manage teacher talent?
  • Forecast vacancies. In December, distribute a nonbinding Declaration of Intent for all teachers to respond to. This lets you find out which of your staff and faculty intend to return the following year—or seek out a transfer, take a leave of absence, or even resign. Gathering this information early helps in forecasting vacancies for the upcoming school year and lets you make early offers to top candidates.
  • Recruit continuously. Your pool of potential hires should include not only student teachers, but also retirees, strong teacher assistants, substitutes, and boomerang teachers (those who left the field but may to want to return). These are all potential candidates, so keep names of those you know in an active recruiting pool and in an email distribution list.As you recruit, prescreen candidates, taking into account previous education-related experiences such as leading youth groups, tutoring, or serving as a camp counselor. Consider levels of engagement demonstrated during college and student teaching internships. From our experiences, we've seen that while GPA and teacher exam test scores may be indicators of book knowledge, a strong indicator of future performance is past performance in similar scenarios.
  • Hire early. There is a direct correlation between teachers being hired at an early date and eventually showing high-quality performance (Levin & Quinn, 2003). Try to fill all vacancies by June 1 each year.

2. Talent Acceleration: Onboarding and Mentoring

Thinking that the hard work is over once a hire is completed is an easy trap to fall into. Acquiring talent is just the first step in a continuous talent development strategy. Building leaders need to be strategic about where to assign new team members, how to onboard them into their new roles, and which school staff will make the best mentors to help each new hire reach their potential.
Through collaborative conversations and learning from the experiences of her colleagues, Tina realized how critical onboarding is for any just-hired teacher to smoothly transition into a new school community. Tina now orients new team members—whether new to the profession or simply new to McNair—to the culture, climate, and expectations of her school community, which leads to strong performance for these teachers early on. Onboarding activities include community tours, a review of school achievement scores, providing a role-alike mentor, discussions about grade-level placement, and providing just-in-time professional development.
For Tina, the most important strategy for accelerating a new hire's performance is having multiple conversations about teaching practice that are anchored in classroom observations. These critical conversations lead to improved teaching for the instructor who is being guided in her first experiences, and improved learning for students.
What other actions build principals' capacity to promote new teachers?
  • Place first-year teachers in roles where they have no more than two course preparations per semester. In the case of elementary generalists, consider a departmentalized team placement for the first year.
  • Create a new teacher academy at your school that includes a 90-day onboarding experience. Offer new hires a new teacher handbook you've created, chances to talk with experienced faculty, a who-to-call list, a starter kit of classroom supplies, and monthly PD opportunities targeted at new teachers. Tap your strongest current teachers to lead this initiative.
  • Assign all novice educators a mentor for their first three years. Ideally, the mentor and the new teacher should share the same licensure area and job assignment for easier collaboration. Other considerations for matching mentors and mentees include schedule availability, personality, and skill sets.

3. Talent Advancement: Identifying and Supporting Strengths

School improvement initiatives often lose momentum when schools experience staff turnover. Strategic leaders understand the importance of developing and sustaining momentum by growing a strong team across multiple years. Building a team takes time and effort. It requires advancing the skills and knowledge of all team members by nurturing them, individually and together. Training, coaching, and using developmental evaluations of performance are all ways to advance the talent of your team—and help teachers feel engaged so they are less likely to leave.
For example, while attending a leadership training session with fellow principals from her district's hardest-to-staff schools, Shannon learned about the importance of advancing talent, and acquired a resource to help her do so, the 9-Box Talent Map shown in Figure 1. This tool helps leaders strategically plan individualized professional development for their teachers (Holcombe, 2020). Shannon learned to use this grid, considering where to place each faculty member in terms of what seemed to be that individual's level of potential measured along with their current performance on a scale of low–average–high. The resulting filled-in map guided her in giving each educator in her building the appropriate levels of support and challenge. Specifically, Shannon looked for leadership indicators such as past performance, initiative, influence among the faculty, and an expressed desire to continue taking on new challenges.

Figure 1. The 9-Box Talent Map

Using the Talent Map to consider where each teacher in her school fell in terms of strength, potential, and gaps, Shannon identified an emerging leader in one of her primary grades. This teacher, Joanne, stood out as someone who needed to be stretched, as she had completed an advanced degree but had not yet secured a promotion. As she did with every teacher, Shannon began engaging this teacher in conversations about her potential and growth. She suggested that the teacher gain experience in additional grade levels and engage in coaching, which the school offered, to further develop her instructional leadership skills. Joanne was excited that her principal had taken an interest in her career trajectory and willingly accepted the challenge.
Shannon continued guiding this teacher, encouraging her to accept appropriate challenges and opportunities throughout 2019 and into 2020. She was thrilled when Joanne told her that, because she had been pushed and supported, she could imagine advancing into future leadership roles, potentially strengthening the school's talent continuum.
What other practices build principals' leadership capacity to advance teachers' talents?
  • Help each educator in your school craft a "professional journey map" that begins with an assessment of where that educator is in relation to where they want to be, professionally, in five years. Collaboratively plan a pathway that includes individual training, book studies, job shadowing, and possibly university courses if advanced licensure is required. Progressing down a pathway increases employee engagement and job longevity.
  • Give every educator the opportunity to be coached. Coaching can be a one-time event designed to learn a single skill or it can be an ongoing activity that is iterative in nature, looping back again and again until a set of skills and behaviors are mastered. Unlike mentors, coaches can be peers whose role it is to hold a figurative mirror up to a practice to facilitate feedback.
  • Align evaluations to individual growth plans. Talent advances when we help teachers identify developmental opportunities and provide sufficient training and coaching to get there. Evaluations should be opportunities to set and reach new professional goals.

4. Talent Assessment: Knowing Who You Need to Keep—or Guide Elsewhere

Finally, strategic leaders continuously assess the bench strength of their talent. They know how each team member is rewarded, with monetary and nonmonetary compensation, and who they should and should not retain as a part of their team if they are to achieve their goals. And, most important, they know who is positioned to head into a more challenging role, within or beyond their school building.
Shannon learned how to assess educators and guide them—as appropriate to their ability—from working with other strategic talent leaders. As she explains, being strategic helps her access the gifts of her staff:
I see myself as an educational coach. My job is to assess educators' potential and help them reach their professional goals—even if it means they move beyond my building. An instructional coach at my school had been trying for many years to move into school administration. To support her growth and future promotion, I made her my administrative designee when I had to be off-campus at principal meetings. I included this coach in conversations with staff, parents, and students, and [when she wanted to move into leadership] I advocated for her; she eventually secured an assistant principal role. As a result of these successful efforts, I could then move another emerging leader into her vacant coach role.
What else do leaders who strategically assess teachers do?
  • Assess and adjust educator compensation. Principals don't have control of the salaries of their educators, but they do have some control of nonmonetary benefits that can be provided in ways that many educators value. While leaders should provide all teachers appropriate training and chances to improve their skills, they can offer more targeted and strategic opportunities to teachers who have particular talents to contribute. In doing so, principals should take care to note that stretch assignments are available to anyone seeking to develop new skills or hone existing talents, so these opportunities are not viewed as favoritism. Access to particular conferences, the ability to sponsor a specific club geared to their interest, or a preferred schedule are good ways a leader can offer "in-kind compensation" and acknowledge a teacher's strong performance (although such offerings shouldn't be limited to only top performers).
  • Identify, for key positions, two or three people who can be ready to step in if the person in that position leaves. Strategic leaders then develop those "successors" such that they are primed for promotions when vacancies arise. This not only helps promote talent within the ranks, it ensures a stable team by retaining top talent within the organization.
  • Assess which team members need to be retained and target those effective educators for growth opportunities. At all costs, keep these educators engaged and vested in your school by providing them leadership opportunities, recognition, and expanded influence. And, it has to be said, don't expend significant effort to retain your lowest-performing educators. In all likelihood, they already know that they are ineffective and aren't happy in their role. Coaching them sensitively into another profession or role can be mutually beneficial.

How to Grow Principals Who Manage Talent

Districts seeking to grow their principals into strategic talent leaders can begin by reviewing current policies and procedures for hiring, mentoring, and retaining teachers and considering: To what extent do our current practices support the acquisition, acceleration, advancement, and assessment of our talent? A talent leadership advisory board made up of principals and human resources team members can recommend revisions to current policies and practices, review historical data to understand the impact of those practices on desired outcomes, and train their peers in best practices. Collaboration between principals through book studies, best practice showcases, reciprocal site visits, or principal professional learning communities can be good forums for sharing strategic talent leadership tools and practices.
In their district, Tina and Shannon participate in annual principal leadership retreats, where school leaders are explicitly taught the skills of recruiting, hiring, placement, onboarding, coaching, and training.
Building a principal's capacity doesn't end when that leader completes a program and receives a degree. Preparation, especially in terms of bringing strong teachers in and developing their strengths, must be an ongoing effort.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ Principals: Do you think of yourself as a "talent manager"? How might you be more strategic in how you recruit and "grow" great teachers?

➛ Teachers: Has your principal reached out to point you to new challenges and encourage your growth? How would you like to be encouraged professionally?


Hattie, J. (2011). Visible learning for teachers. New York: Routledge.

Holcombe, A. A. (2020). Strategic talent leadership for educators: A practical toolkit. New York: Routledge.

Levin, J., & Quinn, M. (2003). Missed opportunities: How we keep high quality teachers out of urban classrooms. New York: The New Teacher Project.

RAND Education. (2012). Teachers matter: Understanding teachers' impact on student achievement. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.

End Notes

1 This is a hypothetical composite of many experiences we've seen principals face. Principal and teacher names are pseudonyms.

Learn More

 Shannon Brown Peeples is principal of Cone Elementary School in North Carolina.

 Tina Johnson is principal of McNair Elementary School in North Carolina.

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