You can’t go into the role blindly, thinking that it is simply the next step of leadership after being a head or executive head. It is a very different kind of role.
As part of the ‘#BeingTheCEO Report 2020’ we interviewed a number of serving CEOs of multi academy trusts. This interview with Jenn Plews, CEO of Northern Star Academies 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 a secondary teacher of art and design, and subsequently took on leadership roles including becoming a head of sixth form, and an assistant head.
My career has also involved working for a local authority as the secondary Strategy Manager, and working as a Teacher Development Manager. I had the opportunity to work on the establishment of the Bradford Partnership, which brought together all the secondary headteachers in Bradford.
In 2013 I became Head of Academy of Skipton Girls’ High School, and then deputy CEO of Northern Star Academies Trust in 2015. I became CEO of the trust in September 2017.
What attracted you to apply for the CEO role?
It was knowing that I could have a greater influence and impact on the wider community, not just within one school, and having the opportunity to lead sustainable change at a trust wide level. The prospect of being able to help to close the gap of disadvantage for children, and improve inclusive education, at scale, was particularly exciting.
What are the main differences between the CEO role and your previous role?
The main differences are not being able to see and work with children and teachers to the same degree; nothing in any of the training prepares you for letting go of your connection to the everyday functioning of an individual school at an emotional level.
Another difference is the extent to which you must work with your board of trustees. As a CEO you have to have a deep understanding of how the board should function, and how to achieve the best from your trust governance and leadership model.
What have you enjoyed most about the CEO job so far?
The biggest thing is that I do feel I’ve made a significant difference by modelling inclusive leadership and an unwavering focus on achieving excellent outcomes for all NSAT children. In several of the trust schools in our trust we have achieved school transformation – with several phenomenal inspections, and schools where outcomes for children have gone from totally inadequate to being in the top 5 – 10% in the country, for progress. Last year two of our primary schools were two of the highest achieving primary schools in North Yorkshire on progress, which is testament to the determination across the trust to keep improving.
We’re a trust of good and outstanding schools, and all eight of our schools are good and outstanding on judgement and outcomes. That is a huge responsibility, but I also take immense pride in the work of our school leaders and governors and what we have achieved as a trust partnership.
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?
Leading people; especially in terms of being transparent and kind, leading by example, and being as visible as one possibly can be.
In terms of that greater impact, we’re innovative as a trust. We’ve led a teaching school since 2012, we’ve led the DfE equality and diversity grant programmes for two whole regions in the last 18 months, and we support other organisations with school improvement and offer school-to-school support. As a trust we are as outward facing as possible.
We are also absolutely committed to being a green trust, and we’re about to launch our next five-year strategy which has a core focus on being green and sustainable. Finding new solutions to delivering green, relevant and sustainable education underpins every decision we make.
What have you learnt most since becoming CEO?
I’ve learnt that it is my job to keep us focussed on our strategic direction; to keep looking up and beyond, out and ahead, and horizon scanning. This has been particularly important during the pandemic, to try and keep focussed on where we have to go next, not just on the operational.
I’ve also learnt the importance of seeking regular stakeholder feedback, and finding positive ways to engage with your wider stakeholder group.
Another thing I’ve had to learn to do is to discover ways to ensure I am visible in our schools, that I’m not just in the office, but out and about, making myself really visible for the staff. This has included having regular keeping in touch (KITs) with headteachers, and looking out for opportunities to attend, and contribute input, at staff meetings, student gatherings, and parental events.
What has been the most challenging aspect of the job? How are you overcoming this challenge?
Probably in the early days the immensity of the workload, and recruiting and developing the right team of people around me really helped with that.
Working with the board to get governance right was also a challenge – on the current board, there’s only two people on it that were there in 2015 – so that’s been a huge transformation. The trust has appointed a director of governance, and that has been a real asset to me, and the way that the whole organisation works.
What has been your greatest source of support and advice in taking on the role?
I feel very supported in my personal life. My mum, who is in her 70s, was a secondary school teacher, who taught biology, and then taught art and design, for 40 years. She is currently studying for a PhD, which I find inspirational.
Making connections through networks via organisations like Forum Strategy has also been important, as it’s been an opportunity to meet people who are like-minded, with whom I can share challenges and problems, as well as celebrate what’s going well.
Finally, having a team of people around me within the trust, who are aligned to the trust’s vision and values, has been immensely important.
What is your top advice for those about to become CEOs?
You can’t go into the role blindly, thinking that it is simply the next step of leadership after being a head or executive head. It is a very different kind of role. You must research, talk to others, and find out and discover as much as you can about what the role entails. Having said that (and this especially applies to female CEOs), have that self-belief and confidence in yourself that you can do it!
Challenge your desire for perfectionism – what matters most is doing your very best, and if something goes wrong, it isn’t the end of the world. You can use any failures as a learning opportunity, and as a stepping stone to success.
Jenn Plews is a member of the national #TrustLeaders CEO network. 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.