As a CEO you must also always keep learning.

As part of the ‘#BeingTheCEO Report 2020’ we interviewed a number of serving CEOs of multi academy trusts. This interview with Suzanne Horan, 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 human resources and training manager in a fast-paced and demanding retail environment. My experience of working in this environment really helped to shape my thoughts about how best to approach leadership. It also gave me valuable understanding and insight into the world of business, which has proved very useful in becoming a CEO.

Even though I enjoyed my career in HR, I had always wanted to become a teacher, so I made the decision to change paths and to train to be a languages teacher. In time I moved into school leadership, and have held various positions which have included subject and pastoral leads, assistant principal, vice principal, head of school and Principal– and now, of course, I hold the role of CEO.

What attracted you to apply for the CEO role?

I didn’t apply for the role the first-time round, but the company was struggling to find the right fit for the MAC, and that’s when I began to consider if I could be that person. I thought to myself, ‘if not me, who? And if not now, when?’

Being in education is a vocation, and I felt a duty to apply for the role to support the wider MAC, and it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made! It’s a genuine privilege to have the opportunity to make a difference to the lives of so many young people in our care across the MAC.

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

Leading a group of schools is very different to leading a single school, so effective system leadership is vital. A major realisation for me was that being a CEO isn’t, and cannot be, about controlling everything, or even having a handle on everything that is happening in each individual school. I have had to learn instead to be an effective strategist, influencer, evaluator, and facilitator.

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

Making a difference. I love working with and interacting with other people, so my greatest joy is seeing staff and children develop and achieve their full potential. It’s a privilege to have the opportunity to make a difference, not just within an individual school but in all of the schools within our MAC, and also to our wider communities.

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?

One of the key priorities was to grow our MAC, and this is an area where I have had a significant impact. On 1 April 2020 I became the CEO of a second MAC, and we are working with the diocese, the RSC, and the DfE to merge the two companies to become one company from early 2021.

Another area where I feel I’ve had a significant impact is in being an agent for change. My role is the first CEO role in our MAC, so whilst we’ve been operating as a MAC since 2014, the CEO role has really changed the dynamic.

I have worked hard to convey the vision of the MAC, and ensure that the role was credible within the company. This has involved supporting the principals, the board – and other staff – to understand more deeply the process of thinking at a MAC-wide level. The benefits have been significant, and have included building MAC-wide networks to share and improve practice. Within the MAC, we have all been able to learn from each other, and also to sustain each other, and the feedback from our principals is that they appreciate having the support of a CEO.

What have you learnt most since becoming CEO?

Establishing a strong central team is crucial, as the central team are able to offer improved shared services across our schools, which helps us to achieve consistency of systems and economies of scale. Also, by developing a stronger central team, we’ve been able to improve our financial security across our MAC.

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

As an organisation grows, it’s a challenge to ensure that you’re communicating effectively and consistently with all stakeholders, and that’s something I constantly reflect upon. I ask myself regularly, ‘are the ways in which I’m communicating effective for all of our stakeholders, or is there something I can do better?’

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

I have developed a network of colleagues with whom I share good practice. I seek the advice of others and I see that as a strength, and I’ve had some fantastic support from fellow CEOs, from within the arch-diocese and also through the relationships I have developed through Forum Strategy’s Trust Leaders network and the Being the CEO programme, and that has been invaluable.

As a CEO you must also always keep learning. I’ve particularly valued the advice and wisdom dispensed in publications such as ‘Being the CEO’ by Michael Pain and ‘Leading Academy Trusts’ by David Carter.

My relationship with the Trust board is also critical. I’m very fortunate to work with a strong board of directors; whilst they challenge me and hold me to account, they are also extremely supportive.

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

  • Ensure that your personal vision and values align with those of the board prior to accepting the role.
  • Join a networking group such as Forum Strategy’s #TrustLeaders network, get a mentor, and enrol on a programme such as Being the CEO.
  • Develop a strong and competent central team around you.
  • Ensure that you commit to taking care of your own personal health and wellbeing from the outset, because being a CEO is an extremely demanding job, both physically and emotionally. You’ve also got a responsibility to lead from the front, and model that behaviour to others.

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