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The role of the academy trust CEO: People and culture

Article Three: People and Culture

“Great companies don’t hire skilled people and motivate them, they hire already motivated people and inspire them.” Simon Sinek, Start with the why

The role of academy trust CEO remains a very new one, and trust boards and leaders across the system are still finding their feet. The transition from executive headship essentially means that the lead professional must now make the leap to corporate leader, and it can sometimes be a bumpy ride!

At Forum Education we work with academy trust CEOs nationwide through our four regional CEO networks, and our consultancy and coaching work; supporting them to grow and develop in their roles. In this series, we identify five key responsibilities that all academy trust CEOs should be delivering against, including:

The 6 aspects of the CEO role are Copyright (c) Forum Education Limited 2018


For every CEO, both building the right team around you and building the capacity of the wider organisation to deliver is a prerequisite to success. The CEO must be the chief talent officer, constantly working to create an environment that attracts great people and then enables them to flourish. With talented, motivated, and committed staff on board – at all levels – the job of the CEO becomes far easier and the organisation’s path to success, more assured. As Joe Trammell, author of the CEO Tightrope writes:

“I have always felt that I should attribute the majority of my success to my efforts to get the right people in the right positions. For me, it has been the most important task, because I believe that all the strategy in the world cannot make up for a lack of capabilities.”

The importance of the quality of the CEO’s immediate team cannot be underestimated. As with Lincoln’s ‘team of rivals’, the effective CEO will aim to recruit a team of people who are better and more expert than they are -they certainly won’t worry about their own ego and being seen as ‘master of the universe’. Indeed, they will strive to bring on board a group of people from whom they can seek advice, support, and challenge, and whom they can trust to deliver for them.

Senior team culture is important,and once the right people are in place, an effective CEO will invest time in developing a team that demonstrates disciplined listening, openness to feedback, and a commitment to leaving egos at the door. They will also invest time in helping each member of the team to see their role in delivering upon the vision and shaping the strategy (See our programme for MAT SLT development: Support, training and resources for multi-academy trusts ). None of this is time wasted for the effective CEO who will dedicate themselves to both coaching and managing their senior teams well.

Crucial to all MAT CEOs are those senior school improvement leaders (those with NLE or LLE level experience) who can drive improvement and ensure educational standards at scale – without the day to day involvement of the CEO; and a Chief Financial Officer or finance director. The recruitment of a highly effective school improvement leader is a big test – the CEO must let go of the day to day leadership responsibility in this regard, despite the fact many have built up their professional credibility and reputation by leading school improvement so well. Letting go of (without taking ones eyes off) this work is a big test of whether the CEO has made the leap from lead professional to corporate leader. Many CEOs, in my experience, are delighted to let go the operations of financial leadership – but must always remain strategic and ‘eyes on’ in this regard.

Attracting the most capable candidates to these roles is essential to the CEO’s and the organisation’s success, yet it can often be a rushed process as CEOs seek to recruit anyone of sufficient calibre in order to fulfill their growth plans. Savvy CEOs in both growing and established organisations anticipate this, and are always on the look out for these high potential senior leaders.  They network intensely and cultivate relationships with people who may, one day, be looking to move. Alongside this, they also make sure to develop and promote their organisations as employers of choice – places where people aspire to work.

It is only through establishing a MAT as an employer of choice that the CEO can truly cement the people and culture aspect of their role.

Indeed, it is only through establishing a MAT as an employer of choice that the CEO can truly cement the people and culture aspect of their role. The best CEOs also see it as their responsibility to oversee that there is a pipeline of high quality teachers and professionals, and that the organisation invests in their learning, growth and wellbeing for retention. They keep a careful handle on the organisation’s strategy for becoming an employer of choice and constantly have reference to the views and feedback of their staff in taking it forward. A good CEO will ensure they have the intelligence to understand how their staff are feeling and what the major barriers are that they face. After all, the reputation of the organisation as an employer will always stem from its staff.

A recent survey by Deloitte showed that the key things those under 35 are looking for in their work are sense of purpose; ability to make use of their skills; involvement in a variety of experiences; access to professional development; and aligned values. The research around the expectations of generation z employees is now only beginning to emerge and for every CEO it should be treated like gold dust. This kind of information is critical to organisations and CEOs who are future-proofing their talent pipelines and looking to meet the expectations of a new generation of employees. Indeed, KPMG’s UK CEO Outlook 2017 found a clear trend amongst CEOs in terms of “placing more emphasis on the millennial generation, and the different way in which they will impact on (and interact with) the workplace.” It also found that recruitment will be CEOs’ top area of investment over the next three years, with 77% saying they will invest highly in people.

So what can a CEO do to establish that reputation as an employee of choice? First of all, they can establish that sense of purpose, communicating and reinforcing the vision and the difference that the organisation is seeking to make. That must be more than woolly words, but a clear and inspiring view of what success looks like for children and young people and the role of the trust in making that a reality. This will inspire people both to join and to stay at the organisation – but the CEO must keep it up and find every opportunity to tell the story again and again.

The CEO is also central to how the organisation engages its workforce, makes the most of their skills and connects them into the broader vision. This may be through performance management and leadership development, or through other – potentially more creative and innovative ways. At the Keys Federation in Wigan, for example, the CEO invited people from all levels of the organisation to apply for the role of ‘Leaders of Purpose’, through which they could contribute their skills, talents and passions to achieving a particular strategic priority. Staff were highly motivated to develop their leadership skills and to contribute to the wider success of the organisation in areas such as improving the school environments, identifying opportunities for better value for money, or engaging girls in STEM subjects. Elsewhere, REAch2 Academy Trust is developing its 11B411 scheme, putting the vision of the organisation into practice and drawing on the talents and ideas of staff at all levels to provide children with a wide range of new and exciting experiences of the world around them, raising aspirations in the process: MAT DEVELOPMENT: Vision and purpose into practice .Where talent is recognised and made use of, retention is almost always assured.

Of course, the CEO should also set the tone in terms of learning and professional development, ensuring that the organisation has a clear and well-understood talent development framework and that they themselves are invested in it and supporting it – not least through their own learning. The same goes for their senior leaders and managers. A culture of coaching, mentoring and professional networking is particularly valued by the next generation of employees, but this kind of culture only takes hold if the most senior leaders encourage it and support it to flourish. Every CEO must value and be seen to value professional learning, development and growth. The best CEOs almost always have their own mentors.

A culture of coaching, mentoring and professional networking is particularly valued by the next generation of employees, but this kind of culture only takes hold if the most senior leaders encourage it and support it to flourish.

Finally, values are also crucial. Again, the CEO sets the tone both in living out the values and behaviours that make the organisation a positive and inspirational place to work. They also have a critical role in confronting those behaviours that fly in the face of the organisation’s values. The recent example of sexual abuse at Oxfam has shown how important it is for the senior leadership to not only be seen to be living the values, but to confront those whose behaviour is inconsistent.

A CEO who ‘loves’ their staff goes a long way. The temptation for all CEOs is to use their levers of power to make big and rapid changes in order to deliver results. A more thoughtful CEO will ask staff about their experiences and perceptions, involve them wherever possible in strategic planning, and look to make changes that take into account the needs of their staff as well as children and young people. They will bring people with them. Those CEOs who are setting the mitigation of workload as an organisational priority, for example, have done well to read the landscape and are now well placed to establish their trusts as employers of choice.

Recruitment and retention may currently be a challenge for the education system, but it will always be a priority for an effective CEO who will have developed the strategy, culture and relationships to ensure that people will always aspire to work for them and for their organisations.

Some key questions:

  1. Are you building relationships across the sector with people who you would potentially – one day – like to hire to the most senior and influential positions in your organisations?
  2. Do you have an employer of choice strategy, with clear reference to research around the expectations of millenial and generation z employees?
  3. Are you investing sufficiently in retention: building a culture that identifies people’s skills and interests, engages staff at all levels in activities that directly link to furthering the vision, and providing a clear framework for the talent management of all staff?
  4. Do you consult and involve staff early enough in major changes, seeking to understand the barriers and challenges they may face and seeking their input and suggestions for how change can be successful for all involved?
  5. Do you readily confront and challenge those behaviours that conflict with the organisation’s values, whilst also celebrating those practices and achievements that strongly reflect them?


Michael Pain is founder and CEO of Forum Education, a leading consultancy supporting the successful development of academy trusts and their leaders: www.forumeducation.org

Other related articles include:

Five key development areas for MAT sector in 2017/18

Talking about my generation – schools must work hard to retain millennial generation

MAT Resource: Leaders must be proactive in responding to recruitment challenge