You can now do a national professional qualification in just about anything, or so it seems. A few months ago I spoke on a programme for those wishing to get their NPQEL. Correct – that’s for Executive Leaders, people who are, or who will become, executive leaders. I guess they will have already done their NPQH a few years ago – that’s for headship. For your information, I chair a multi academy trust of seven schools.
Being a CEO is quite a different gig from running a school. You have to understand how to distribute leadership throughout the organisation and drop any notion that nothing happens without you. You need to understand how to shape together the different back office functions so that they promote the mission of the organisation with perfect efficiency. You need dials and metrics that give you up to date information on those aspects of your organisation that most determine its effective performance. If you have a decent board with a decent chair, you will have to develop an extraordinary sensitivity to their requirements. They are your bosses.
You’ll have to manage your relationship with your chair. So many headteachers run the school and the board: they end up, in effect, managing the work of the governing body. That should certainly not be the case in a MAT where, scarily, the (unpaid) chair is seen by the Regional Schools Commissioner as having the most significant leadership role in the trust. In a recent accountability meeting which I attended with the CEO and the COO, most of the RSC’s questions were asked directly to me, and not the CEO. That takes a bit of getting used to, but is clearly based on what the academies minister is demanding. The board runs the trust. The CEO is its chief agent. And that, of course, is how most companies run. But not schools. Let’s not kid ourselves.
So, many heads, if they have strong boards made up of highly skilled and demanding directors, will be in for a bit of surprise at the increased level of accountability demanded in their new role as CEO. Managing the board is a highly nuanced proposition and requires a political skill that might not have been thus far honed to quite the required standard. As one guru suggested, there shouldn’t be a gnat’s whisker of a difference of opinion (not publicly, at least) between the CEO and the chair. That state of affairs will only come about if the two leaders are talking regularly.
So – what to talk about? Well this week it has encompassed: key personnel (appointments and concerns); standards (how is each school doing; which is most vulnerable?); cross-partnership strategies (curriculum design, teacher recruitment, disadvantaged pupils); trust leadership plans; growth strategy; back-office harmonisation. Usually I am doing most of the questioning, always with the consideration of what the board will want to know. But the CEO is asking me what I think on a number of issues. He is constantly trying to develop and implement the strategy that the board has signed off in each area. He often asks me if the board is happy with the direction of travel, and I reassure him. He is doing a great job.
But there’s always much much more to be done. Our board is very ambitious and very demanding. Good job.
There is no supermarket shelf where one can go and shop for experienced MAT CEOs. It is such a new position that very few people have so far been able to gather much experience. No wonder, then, that many people are extremely tentative about putting their names forward for the role. MATs will have to offer coaches and plenty of additional developmental support if their new CEO is to thrive. A sensible budget will need to be found for this, or the hefty salary will be wasted. MATs need their CEOs to do a great job. In order for that to happen, they need to adapt to the new person, and that will mean people having to change. Not always easy.
There is a growing number of organisations that are supporting the developing MAT ecosystem, but many of them are far from mature. MATs need their support, however, and should not be too proud to seek it.
In time, the system will develop and we will be better at finding and supporting strong CEOs. For now, we are all learning….