“I have had to learn to ignore a lot of the ‘noise’ and focus on what is important, and the things that are in my circle of control”

As part of the ‘#BeingTheCEO Report 2020’ we interviewed a number of serving CEOs of multi academy trusts. This interview with Anta Ghidotti, CEO of Pendle Education trust, is taken from the wider report, which is available to all #TrustLeaders members from 22nd October 2020. The interview was conducted by Rachael Gacs.

Tell us about your career before becoming CEO

I began my career as an HR professional in the financial sector for Aviva. The roles I had during that time helped shape who I am as a leader; they gave me invaluable experience that ultimately prepared me for the business side of the CEO role, and also gave me a really strong notion of what an effective people strategy looks like.

I moved into the education sector in 2003 when I became Head of HR at a local FE College, and in 2009 I became Director of HR at Nelson and Colne college, which is the sponsor of our trust. Moving into education gave me a strong moral purpose, and the opportunity to work with inspirational educational leaders.

When Nelson and Colne sponsored a multi academy trust, our potential to have a positive impact on the lives of local children grew because we were able to positively affect a much greater number of children, from age 4 upwards. At this stage I was working as the trust’s Operations Director, and was also working as the Executive Principal of the secondary school within the trust, which gave me first-hand experience of being immersed in a school setting. I eventually became CEO of the trust (Pendle Education Trust) in 2014.

What attracted you to apply for the CEO role?

I had strong people and mentors around me who believed that I could do it and who encouraged me.

Also, through working at Nelson Colne college I learned what outstanding education looks like, and the work that needs to go into that; the unrelenting standards that you must have and more importantly believe in, and the things that you just won’t accept.

What are the main differences between the CEO role and your previous role?

The level of responsibility. Ultimately, I am responsible for over 2200 children and 330 staff, making sure that things are the best they can possibly be for all of them. It’s a huge amount of responsibility.

What have you enjoyed most about the CEO job so far?

The people and the human interaction, which includes the brilliant staff we’re lucky to employ, and of course, the children themselves.

I’ve especially enjoyed being able to shape the success of the trust through building a fantastic team of people around me, who together bring a wealth of skills and knowledge (and character!) to the trust.

Where do you feel you have had the greatest impact so far, and why have you been so effective in this aspect of the job?

I feel I have had the greatest impact by being quick to respond and make necessary changes for the good of our children – especially intervening positively and quickly where things aren’t working well, including challenging staff where they’re not aligning practice to culture. Each year we have a whole-trust INSET day where we determine and remember what our values look like in practice, so that we have a clear framework to help us to recognise when what we are doing doesn’t match the values we designed – then we do something about it!

What have you learnt most since becoming CEO?

I have had to learn to ignore a lot of the ‘noise’ and focus on what is important, and the things that are in my circle of control. I’ve recognised that my job is being the guardian of a fantastic culture, that everyone in our trust is part of our family, and that my most important job is to ensure that we keep our values at the forefront of everything we do – with our children as the heart.

I’ve also learnt that it is very important to have a support network, especially during difficult times. Forum Strategy’s #BeingtTheCEO programme really helped me to find colleagues that I’m now in touch with regularly. Twitter has also been a useful tool in connecting with other CEOs. It’s important to have others around you who can help you to put problems into perspective, and speak to you from their experience – it helps to ground you, and to understand that you are not on your own. Sharing is important. Being involved in WomenEd has also been really helpful to me; it is a great supportive network, promoting being 10% braver – I took on the challenge when I wrote a blog about leadership for them – “Banish the sock” –https://womenedblog.wordpress.com/author/womenedblog/page/3/

What has been the most challenging aspect of the job? How are you overcoming this challenge?

I think one of the most challenging aspects of the job is the expectation that you can change a culture that has been deeply embedded within a school, sometimes for decades, in a short space of time. In reality a 3 – 5 year period is needed to turn around a school in a meaningful and sustainable way. I think the external pressure that the system can put on you can be very difficult; there has to be a focus on data and rapid change, of course, but there are other factors, including the community you work in, to consider. I have worked to overcome this challenge by always communicating the context and situation of our schools honestly and openly – we understand the different communities we work in and want the very best for our children. That’s what we are here for.

What has been your greatest source of support and advice in taking on the role?

I am blessed to be in touch with leaders in other trusts. For example, Wayne Norrie from Greenwood Academies Trust, who I first heard speak at a conference in East Lancashire, has helped me greatly with strategy work. He has also been a great support to me as an honest friend and mentor. I have also benefitted from the incredible experience and knowledge of Forum Strategy associate Ros McMullen as my coach. Finally I must mention Helen Rowland and Donna Tandy who I met through the visit to Focus Trust during the #BeingTheCEO programme. They gave me the confidence to stand firm in my trust’s core purpose during a difficult time, and to have the determination to keep going, and for that I am very grateful to them – I met them at just the right time!

What is your top advice for those about to become CEOs?

  • Get brilliant people around you.
  • Make sure you build up an external support network of trusted people.
  • Don’t cancel developmental opportunities because you think you don’t have time; it is always worth getting out there to learn from others.
  • Keep coming back to your core purpose, which is always the children, and doing what is best for them.

Ultimately, being the CEO is not about sitting in an office or being in meetings all the time. It’s about understanding what is happening in our schools, with our children, and with our staff, and making sure that their wellbeing is the number one priority.

Anita Ghidotti is a member of the national #TrustLeaders CEO network and a former participant on the #BeingTheCEO programme. Find out more www.forumstrategy.org

This interview is taken from the Being The CEO Report 2020,. The full report will be shared with all #TrustLeaders members on 22nd October 2020.