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Three Critical First Steps for New School Leaders

Well, congratulations – you got the job. If you’re like I was when the excitement wore off you felt a little unsure of what you were supposed to do next. I was one of those leaders who was promoted from within their school, having been an AP in two different roles prior to becoming a high school principal. I knew that I wanted to establish myself as the building leader, I knew my superintendent wanted me to be the instructional leader of the school, but that didn’t necessarily prepare me for what to do next. With that in mind, here are three critical first steps for new school leaders to help set you up for a successful first year.

  1. Plan to listen: whether you are new to the building or are rising from within (like I did), listening to those who are already in the building is essential. Spend the bulk of your first year in that listening mode. Develop specific questions (perhaps around culture, curriculum gaps, personnel concerns, parent engagement, etc) that will paint the full picture of both assets and areas for growth for your new school.
  2. Lean heavily into the veteran staff: they’ve been there for a long time for a reason. Do not discount that experience. Often, new leaders will have a false reality that leads them to believe they have to know everything or be the expert on all subjects. Just stop it…you have very talented and knowledgeable people around you. Don’t alienate them, bring them to the table and build relationships with them. Leaning into them, their experience, and their understanding of the long-term culture of the school and community is huge.
  3. Build your culture: culture is not an initiative. Culture is something your school has, it just may not be what you’re looking for. In professional sports, new coaches typically say they want to create a winning culture. Often that includes addressing negative behaviors, setting very specific expectations, and communicating/celebrating the things you want to see repeated. This requires you, as the new leader, to have great clarity about what you want to see, what you expect, and how you’ll support, reinforce, and redirect when the behaviors don’t match your expectations. Lean into building your culture; it’s not something to wait on – it is critical.

Congratulations on the new gig – but it’s now time to really put in the work. Focus on these three critical elements, along with other essential things you’ll discover as unique to your situation during the course of the year, and you’ve got this! If I can help, seriously reach out! I am just an email away. (

Have a #RoadToAwesome week


Tune in this week to “Leaning into Leadership” where my guest is branding and marketing expert Stacey Ross Cohen.

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