EDUCATION MANAGEMENT Winning Principals and How to Pick Them

The cover story in the March 2004 issue of Management focused on the critical need to better develop the leadership and management skills of New Zealand’s school principals. Titled Managing Our Schools: Are principals set up to fail?, the article highlighted list of core competencies identified by the Education Review Office (ERO) as behaviours effective principals must demonstrate.
The ERO list features 19 competencies grouped under five main headings: intellectual, results orientation, interpersonal relationships, adaptability, and professional/technical.
In this response to that article Brian Dive takes issue with that competency model. Dive has worked with competency models in more than 70 countries since leaving New Zealand in 1975. He established his London-based DMA International HR consultancy and is now an independent consultant, writer and presenter. He is spending time back in New Zealand and recently interviewed number of teachers and principals here.

It is encouraging to see that efforts are being made to develop principals but I suggest that the model advocated (by ERO – see box story) is fundamentally flawed.
There are many competency models and the unsuccessful ones tend to share four fundamental failings. ERO’s ’19 core competency’ model falls into these traps.

Problems with competency models
The critical errors are:
1. No clear definition of ‘competency’.
2. Confusion between key concepts such as values, performance and assessment of potential.
3. Too many competencies.
4. No context in which the competencies are assessed.

1) No agreed definition of competency
At the third international Italian Competencies Conference in Rome in 1996, the competency high priest Richard Boyatzis acknowledged that “the subject of competencies is fraught with problems of definition”. The ‘experts’ cannot agree on the definition of competency – there is great confusion and little agreement. ERO’s model seems to fit this description.

2) Confusion over key concepts
There are number of concepts that are confused with the term ‘competency’. We will examine and separate the mishmash of skills, values and assessment of potential, which seem to underpin ERO’s competency model for principals.
* Skills
Not surprisingly the first confusion seems to stem from consideration of the English word ‘competent’. This led to an early focus in the 1980s and early 1990s on ‘skills’ being synonymous with ‘competencies’. The Department of Commerce’s Management Competencies in New Zealand by C Page et al in 1994, is good summary of this trend.
But remember the purpose of the New Zealand school principals’ competency model is to identify those who have potential to become principals in the future.
The problem with focus on skills is it necessarily leads to study of performance, not potential. Perfection of skills leads to better performance. But there are numerous examples where people were promoted on the basis of their performance only to fail at the next level of accountability. great maths teacher does not necessarily make great principal, as any pupil will tell you.
The most reliable guide for promotion is an assessment of an individual’s potential, not simply an assessment of their performance.
ERO’s competency model is greatly at risk in this area. It is very likely that teachers promoted solely on the basis of their performance and technical skill (its so-called ‘competencies’), rather than an assessment of their potential, would not succeed as principals.
* Values
There is tendency to use values as basis for competencies. I worked with one European company that had endeavoured for over year to build an approach to identifying potential based on values.
Values are very important for any business or school in New Zealand. They are of pre-eminent importance in private and integrated church schools. But they cannot be used as the sole criterion on which to promote teachers to the level of principal.
Take an important value such as integrity. You do not promote people on the basis of their integrity. It is not differentiating competency. teacher trainee needs to have as much integrity as the deputy principal and the principal. You do not become principal simply because you have more integrity than anyone else in the school.
Values are badges of belonging. If you do not have the value you should not be member of the school. In that sense they are de-railers. But they should not be the basis of who should be paid more or promoted.
* Differentiating competencies
These are the behaviours that indicate whether someone has the potential to develop from the level of head of department, to assistant or deputy principal, to principal.
They are not skills. They are not values.
There is no indication in the March Management article that ERO has come to grips with this fundamental issue. This is because it does not appear to have tackled the critical issue of ‘context’ in which the differentiating competencies have to be assessed.

3) Too many competencies
There is ample research, eg Boam and Sparrow in Designing and Developing Competency 1992, which has established that most people can assess about three to six competencies.
I once worked with global company that had implemented the Hay McBer model of 11 competencies. In review about year or so after it had been implemented, managers were unequivocal in stating they wanted to assess no more than five competencies.
My own experience would suggest six is the maximum for line managers to assess. The principals’ model from ERO consists of 19. This is far too many. Evidence from elsewhere suggests it will not succeed.

4) Lack of context
The most common failing for competency models around the world is lack of context.
For example, many competency models talk about ‘seeing the big picture’. But the ‘big picture’ for junior French teacher is totally different from the ‘big picture’ which the principal of secondary school, of say 2000 pupils, must grasp.
ERO’s competency model for principals is totally lacking in contextual considerations against which individuals’ potential can be assessed.
I have developed model of decision-making accountability (DMA) which provides this context. I have also set out the competencies and some key definitions per level of accountability (ie, context), which will enable an accurate assessment of potential. (See chapter seven of The Healthy Organization, 2nd edition, Kogan Page, June 2004.)

A suggested model for development of principals
I have assessed the levels of accountability of teachers, deans, heads of department, senior team members, assistant principals, deputy principals and principals in New Zealand. I am therefore confident that the DMA Leadership Model will work for principals.
It avoids the traps outlined above. It focuses on competencies as ‘assessors of potential’ and differentiates clearly between values, skills and innate talent. The latter, being innate, can be developed but only to degree.
The DMA model consists of six competencies. These correspond to seven decision-making zones, called ‘elements of accountability’.
The ‘elements’ are the areas which call for individual decisions that add value to the work of others. Given that these decision-making elements are critical then the competencies are the corresponding behaviours that are required for the decision-making zones, which vary in complexity and quality, depending on the level of accountability. The level of accountability provides the critical ‘context’.
(For further insight to this approach visit
The proposed principals’ competency model, outlined in the March issue of Management will not be reliable and valid predictor of potential principals.
Too many competencies are proposed, they are not clearly defined, they confuse values, performance and assessment of potential and they are not set in any rele-vant context.
But business

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