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The role of the academy trust CEO

Article One: Delivering upon the vision and leading strategy 

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 Strategy 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 six key responsibilities that all academy trust CEOs should be delivering against, including:


  1. Delivering upon the vision and leading strategy
  2. The relationship between the CEO and the board
  3. People and Culture
  4. Improvement and organisational performance
  5. Organisational sustainability and compliance
  6. Building key external and internal relationships

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


Today we begin with the first of these – delivering upon the vision and leading strategy.


  1. Delivering upon the vision and leading strategy

It is a misnomer that the CEO sets the vision. They don’t. Beware the leader who talks about ‘my vision’. The trust board is responsible for setting the vision with reference to the CEO, who should still play an active part in these discussions. The CEO’s job is to deliver upon ‘our organisational vision’, using strategy to mobilise people, resources and systems to achieve the outcomes that represent the board’s definition of success.

As Vanni Treves CBE, a former Chair of Channel 4 and Equitable Life tells us “The executive should understand what his or her Board is there to do and wants to do and the ways in which it wants to do it, and then make it happen – all of course within the bounds of what is possible!”

Simple? Well, not quite.

Whilst there are some strong trust boards out there, there is still a long way to go before we see boards of the calibre and experience necessary to set ambitious visions and provide the level of accountability and support that academy trusts need. Indeed, too many CEOs are held back – even if some may not see it – because their trust board is not of the calibre that it needs to be.

Where the board is of low calibre we see two kinds of mindset amongst CEOs. Some CEOs – I’m afraid to say – seem happy to bask in the fact their boards lack the challenge, and enjoy the free rein and autonomy they have. These trusts and their leaders – as we have all too often seen – are almost always doomed to fail. Others – the majority I come across – see a lack of high calibre trustees as a big organisational and personal risk, and are trying their best to strike a balance between helping the board to develop and maintaining the position that they are in fact accountable to the board. Some boards need better training, others need new people – but if it’s better induction you’re looking for, perhaps we can help?: Training & Development for MAT Trustees & Trust Board 2017-18-4

“The executive should understand what his or her Board is there to do and wants to do and the ways in which it wants to do it, and then make it happen – all of course within the bounds of what is possible!” Vanni Treves

A key focus currently for so many MAT CEOs is, of course, the growth and sustainability of their organisations. However, this should always be seen as the means not the end, and it is certainly more about strategy than vision. How many times do you hear a MAT CEO describe their trust in terms of the number of schools they have rather than what the vision for the organisation is? The CEO should constantly refer back to how growth facilitates better learning and development outcomes for all children, and resist expansion of the organisation when growth becomes growth for its own sake and puts those outcomes at risk (again, as we have too often seen). This makes for better strategy, as we will see later in this series.

Another key responsibility in relation to vision and strategy is navigating change. MAT CEOs must be futures-thinkers and must be able to anticipate the opportunities and challenges that await their organisations and the children and young people they serve. How do they develop and adapt their strategy in response? This means listening, learning, and constantly scanning the horizon. This is why it is so important for us that every member CEO of our MAT leaders networks receives a weekly strategic bulletin of key developments, and a number of trust boards and leadership teams also subscribe to this service.

“MAT CEOs must be futures-thinkers and must be able to anticipate the opportunities and challenges that await their organisations and the children and young people they serve”

It is also imperative that CEOs create the space to walk the corridors of their schools, engage with their communities, and build relationships with strategic partners such as businesses, third sector organisations, researchers, politicians and civil servants. Reading is also important, not simply the generic leadership manuals and government guidance (important though this is), but also books and articles that allow us to identify trends in society and in the economy – the things that our children, young people and, indeed, our staff, need us to make sense of. CEOs must be avid relationship builders and avid readers – playing the role of lead learner all the time.

Finally, it is important here that CEOs do not underestimate their role as chief communicator. You can never repeat your message often enough, and developing a structured approach to keeping staff, parents and stakeholders informed about what is happening at the trust (and why) is important to bringing people with you and generating the support all leaders need. Those most inspirational and cohesive academy trusts spend time ensuring that their communications within and beyond the organisation are first rate.

Of course, CEOs must enthuse, but they must also enable and ensure – and we will look at this a little more tomorrow.

So, what are some of the key questions can CEOs ask themselves in this area?:

  1. Are you clear on the trust board’s vision for the organisation? Do you know what their definition of success is so that you may confidently develop and pursue a strategy to achieve it?
  2. Are you able to justify organisational growth and expansion in terms of the positive impact it will have on ALL of your end users – the children and young people academy trusts serve?
  3. Are you investing sufficient time in reading the landscape and horizon scanning? Are you walking the halls and creating the space to listen to others and to read to inform strategic thinking?

Tomorrow we will look at the second key element of a CEO’s role: ‘Developing people and culture’


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:

 THINKPIECE: Are we failing children and young people due to a lack of vision?

Five key development areas for MAT sector in 2017/18

February 14, 2018