Three non-negotiables for foundation principals

By Diana Wilkes

Ben Witheford | Principal | Shotover Primary School

My time at Shotover is fast approaching eight years on the payroll, and the school has been open for seven years. These eight years have been one of the most challenging, yet strangely satisfying, journeys of my professional life. Many of those challenges could not have been predicted, known or even fully understood had I had the ability to foresee the future way back in early 2014 when I took the phone call from the establishment board chair offering me the role.

Image by: Ben Witheford

There are many, many lessons I could share with you: including small tips to implement, pitfalls to avoid, and strategic actions to execute. In this article I share applied lessons that I think could work in any context. I am mindful that you will lead in contexts that might bear no or only a passing resemblance to mine. Therefore I have applied the leadership principle that context is king. In practice, this means—as one of my educational heroes, Dr Lester Flockton said—“Do your own thinking”.

All the same, regardless of context, there may be three non-negotiable principles you may find helpful as a foundation school principal: fit your oxygen mask first, be a learning-focussed organisation and develop and grow your culture deliberately. There you go—do those, and you’ll be guaranteed to be a success!

But first, some context.

Shotover opened in February 2015 with 88 children in years 1 to 4, along with 8 teaching staff, three senior staff, two associate principals and a principal. The school is located in a new subdivision and opened when only a handful of houses had been constructed. Today there are approximately 1000 houses, and the roll has 570 children from years 1 to 8 and 56 people working to make our vision real.

Image by: Ben Witheford

Before opening, I had three terms to prepare, and the associate principals had two terms. The roll is projected to hit 900 in 4 or 5 years, and the growth rate has slowed since COVID-19 arrived. You can learn more about our school journey and our spaces by visiting our website. While our context is no doubt different or very different to yours, I do hope you may find these principles helpful.

Shotover Vision Shotover Primary School

Your Oxygen Mask First

Almost within hours of beginning the role of foundation principal, two things were apparent: the to-do list was extraordinarily long and varied, and secondly, there was no manual for starting a school.

When establishing a new school, two New Zealand things about a principal’s role converge. Firstly, there is a mental model that says, ‘one person can do everything’—almost that idea of a leader who can do it all, a hero leader. Secondly, there is an expectation that this person will do it with the bare minimum of resources, all the while expecting 11 out of 10 outcomes.

The combination of tasks, intrinsic motivation and external expectation creates a journey that even the roller coaster metaphor doesn’t do justice to. There are peaks and valleys, twists and turns and sometimes these happen simultaneously. It is unsustainable to take the ride, let alone stay on and have some sense of control, if you don’t take deliberate steps to look after YOU!

As educators, we become enveloped in an unwritten, unstated code of sacrifice—which too many of us interpret as, ‘self comes last at any cost’. The cold hard reality is that an educator who does this for any time is increasingly less impactful. This risk is exponentially greater for educational leaders. We must first put our oxygen mask on to have the impact we desire. I do this in a number of ways. Before I outline these, please note that this is what I do—what you do should be for you. The bottom line: don’t forget to look after yourself.

Shotover Primary School — Image by: Ben Witheford

Professional Supervision. Engaging in regular, ongoing professional supervision is a practice I have been doing for over ten years now. I meet with my professional supervisor at least once a term for a couple of hours. This frequency can increase if I think there is a need. The regular nature of this has been instrumental in maintaining a healthy perspective on all matters of my professional life.

Reading and Strategic Time. I blocked some reading time in my diary from almost day one. It was a weekly occurrence and has evolved to a day a week spent reading and doing strategic work in the last couple of years. In my blog, I have written about the power and importance of reading as a critical leadership practice. I don’t believe that a leader can expect to lead with effect and impact if they’re not spending time learning and thinking about the current and future challenges their organisation is facing.

Learning about the leader you are. What is my value set? Is it in the front of my brain? Can I speak to it off the cuff? Knowing my values as a leader has assisted me in my understanding of how I tick and how this will impact the organisation and those I lead. Similarly, I would encourage you to consider these questions: Are you aware of your strengths? As Lester Flockton would say, ‘Are these cognitively portable’? Do you know what you are bringing to the table? This speaks to a larger question about emotional intelligence—that is a topic for another day.

Personal clarity on your vision for the organisation. Thanks to the advice and guidance from those who had travelled the path before me (namely in this case Sarah Martin), I framed up my thinking for this new school—this new thing. I created a document that looked for connections between my own thinking about learning, with that of the establishment board and the New Zealand Curriculum. It assisted immensely in giving me a stronger sense of clarity. It helped as I worked with my establishment board to define the type of staff we were seeking and the learning design principles we’d employ.

Shotover – outdoor learning — Image by: Ben Witheford

A Learning Focussed Organisation

It would be easy to think that if we are in the learning game then of course we would be a learning-focused organisation where learning is your core business, in the same way as making plastic containers is the core business of Sistema. However both can—and I’d argue—should be learning-focused organisations. Peter Senge defines a learning organisation as one, “where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together.

I have found it essential to be successful in becoming a learning-focussed organisation as this has helped us evolve, innovate, and respond to the future. The opposite meant I would have risked leading an organisation with little ability to move forward and innovate.

I drew inspiration from the amazingly insightful Peter Senge. In his seminal work, The Fifth Discipline, he writes, “In building learning organisations there is no ultimate destination or end state, only a lifelong journey. This work requires great reservoirs of patience.” While this work was initially published in 1990 and subsequently updated in 2006, it remains rich with organisational and leadership insight. I can’t recommend his thinking enough as an excellent leadership resource for both strategically growing your organisation and also your people.

Culture, Be Deliberate, Design with and Design for

The organisational culture will exist, so the critical question is, ‘will you just allow it to exist, or will you design its existence into being’? I have always believed and continue to think this will be one of the most significant factors in an organisation’s success.

I found that as principal of a new school there was a golden opportunity to create a culture, rather than trying to change an existing culture. Here I share some of the principles I found helpful in shaping culture successfully.

Be deliberate. Every organisation has a culture—the only question is whether you have deliberately created it or let it evolve. If it’s the latter then the significant risk is that you may get something you don’t want and something that doesn’t serve the vision. In seeking to deliberately create a culture, I have leaned on the work of Michael Henderson and his book Above the Line. He provides practical advice about creating a culture plan, and gives compelling reasons why this is critical for success.

Design with your people. While seeking to shape culture I was mindful that it wasn’t my culture; it was ours. The entire learning community needed to be part of the process. We had a set of professional norms—now called permission to play values (hat tip to Patrick Lencioni). The entire staff wrote the norms in a day facilitated by an outside consultant. These values have proved an essential cornerstone of our journey and there is sufficient data to indicate the values are now well embedded into the life of the school. I don’t believe this would be remotely the case had they not been designed by the staff.

Design for your people. We’ve hired many professionals. An important question I reflected upon was, to what extent does the culture (and did I) trust them, back them and licence them to do their work? I found that this is easier to do when I have been able to co-design the boundaries in which they do their work. Additionally, I have sought to be deliberate in cutting away the barriers to staff performing their role exceptionally well.

Image by: Ben Witheford

A Final Note

In the first weeks in the role of a lifetime, I spent some time seeking out the wisdom of those who had walked the path ahead of me. It was a valuable exercise and one I’d encourage you to undertake; however, please be careful not to look at someone else’s middle and judge your beginning, to quote someone. I fell into that trap and wanted to be where they were – and immediately. However, I still needed to take the journey for myself, and you still need to make the journey for yourself.

I hope and trust the principles and lessons above provide you with some insight that might make it a little easier to navigate. Please reach out if I can help in any way because while you must make the journey, you should never be doing it alone.  

About Ben: Prior to his role at Shotover, Ben was principal of Otautau School in Western Southland. With over 25 years in the education game and the last 16 as principal he has a keen interest in creating environments that enable professionals to do their best work. His work in recent years has been concentrated around building effective teams, cultures of coaching, authentic curriculum design and building coherent learning focused cultures. 

Ben is available to assist you, your leadership team, staff or Board in moving forward with your ideas to build a great school. If you are keen then please feel free to reach out:; mobile 027 22 11 764. 


1.Senge, P. M. (2016). The fifth discipline. The art and practice of the learning organisation.

2.Henderson, M. (2014). Above the line. How to create a company culture that engages employees, delights customers and delivers results. Wiley. 

3.Lencioni, P. (2012). The advantage: Why organisational health trumps everything else in business. Jossey-Bass.