Rachael Gacs

Rachael Gacs, author of the Being The CEO report 2020, summarises some of the key findings.

Over the past few weeks I have had the pleasure of interviewing a number of CEOs about their experiences of, and reflections on, leading an academy trust. At the same time, Forum Strategy has undertaken a survey of almost eighty CEOs to capture how they feel about their transition into the role, and to understand their priorities for the months and years ahead. The combined results have made for fascinating reading, as we all develop our understanding of the role.

Professional background

The survey has provided us with a range of insights. It shows, for example, that the majority of CEOs began their careers as classroom teachers, and generally have had years of experience as leaders within the education sector prior to their current role. At the same time, I was able to talk to CEOs who had a varied career history, and found that experiences in wider sectors, (such as human resources, business, the charity sector, and the finance sector), had given them a valuable additional perspective on organisational management and leadership.

“whilst over 95% of our survey respondents were former teachers, over 40% did not see a background in teaching as a necessary pre-requisite for the role of CEO.”

We are now seeing an increasing number of CEOs come to the role armed with experience of leadership both within and beyond the sector, and whilst over 95% of our survey respondents were former teachers, over 40% did not see a background in teaching as a necessary pre-requisite for the role of CEO. We are certainly beginning to see more CEOs with non-teaching backgrounds taking on the job, and achieving sustained success. Whatever the case, the majority of CEOs tell us that they found the best preparation for the role is having experience leading teams of people.

Many of the CEOs that I spoke with who were former headteachers or executive heads also emphasised how important it was for them to develop new skills once they became CEO. In fact, it was evident from all of my conversations with trust leaders that continued learning and professional development forms an integral part of being a highly effective CEO. This, in the main, is because the vast majority of CEOs find that the role differs considerably from any that they have held previously.

Letting go

Without a doubt, for those who have made the transition into the CEO role, the biggest change was ‘letting go’ of the day to day operational responsibilities, and developing a strategic approach to system-wide leadership instead. For many CEOs this also means learning to let go at an emotional level, whether that be to their attachment to one particular school, or more generally, to their involvement in the day to day operational running of a number of schools.

“it also reveals how crucial it is for CEOs to secure – and surround themselves with – a highly skilled leadership team with diverse expertise.”

With most CEOs being former teachers, it came as no surprise when our survey showed that the aspect of the role where the majority are most confident is in overseeing school improvement. There is also a clear degree of confidence in working with their boards and in managing HR. However, the CEOs surveyed were generally not as confident overseeing areas where they were less likely to have had previous experience. These areas include substantial procurement exercises, technology, media and marketing, and managing ‘high level’ government relationships and politics. This is where the importance of continued professional development comes in again. However, it also reveals how crucial it is for CEOs to secure – and surround themselves with – a highly skilled leadership team with diverse expertise. The importance of being surrounded by a great team was emphasised by every single one of the CEOs I spoke to.

Priorities

In terms of short-term priorities, our survey showed that CEOs see the growth of their organisation, alongside securing pupils’ and staff wellbeing, as their top priorities for the next twelve months. In this short-term period, CEOs are also focused on building improvement leadership capacity (possibly because they are still doing so much of this themselves). They are also focussed on building technology capacity – no doubt driven by the rapid shift to remote learning brought about by COVID-19. However, over half of CEOs who took part in our survey did not feel confident about overseeing development in this area, and as technology becomes increasingly important, this is undoubtedly an area where many CEOs would benefit from professional development.

Interestingly, despite the fact that the survey and this report were undertaken in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, only 12% see crisis management as a priority in the year ahead.

“one of the CEOs I interviewed informed me that her trust was about to launch a five-year strategy which has sustainability as its core focus.”

Most of the CEOs surveyed do not yet rate environmental sustainability as one of their top priorities – either within the next year, or in the medium- to long term. This is despite the fact that children and young people see environmental sustainability as one of – if not the – key issue of our time. Encouragingly, however, we are seeing a growing group of CEOs see this as a major priority, and they are shaping their organisations to respond accordingly. For example, one of the CEOs I interviewed informed me that her trust was about to launch a five-year strategy which has sustainability as its core focus. Forum Strategy is also committed to helping trusts to develop in this area, with the launch of our CEO working group for sustainability beginning on 7 December 2020.

Sources of Support

Both our survey, and my conversations with CEOs, have reflected just how vitally important it is for trust leaders to have a support network; perhaps never more so, given the turmoil of recent months. Our research shows that most CEOs consider their key sources of support as being their ‘colleagues’ (both internal and external to the trust), and facilitated CEO networks, such as Forum Strategy’s #Trustleaders networks. The board, mentors and coaches, and friends and family also featured highly as key sources of support.

Conclusion 

The role of CEO is still a relatively new one in the world of education, and there are clearly aspects of the role that CEOs are ‘learning along the way’. CEOs have overwhelmingly spoken to us about a growing awarenesss of the need to develop clear and compelling leadership narrative, particularly given the scale at which they are working. They have also recognised the importance of having a strong network of peer CEOs from which to access learning and support, and the importance of systems and project management in leading an organisation at scale.

In our report we have attempted to encapsulate and disseminate many of the hard-won lessons of CEOs, in a way that we hope will be beneficial not only for the next generation of trust leaders, but also for current CEOs, and those of us involved in CEO professional development.

The full report is available for our #TrustLeaders members via Forum Strategy.

Forum Strategy runs the National #TrustLeaders network and Being The CEO programme.