CEO In Conversation – Andy Brown, Ad Astra Academy Trust

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In the third of a series of articles, ‘In Conversation’, with academy trust CEOs, Michael Pain (Founder of Forum Strategy and author of Being The CEO) speaks with Andy Brown, CEO of Ad Astra Academy Trust, about the importance of operational leadership, ‘letting go’, and finding the balance between consistency and autonomy across trusts.

Andy Brown OBE

Andy Brown’s career as a school leader has closely reflected the changing education landscape. Since becoming a headteacher in 1996, he went on to become a National Leader of Education – supporting numerous primary schools across the North East of England. Andy’s commitment to building a culture of collaboration and school to school support was reflected in his being awarded an OBE in 2016. Like many of this generation of successful school leaders, Andy has seen his role evolve into one of CEO, seeing a collaboration of schools move to academy trust status as the Ad Astra Academy Trust. So, how has such a well-regarded and successful leader found the transition to the CEO role, and what tips can he share with those who are following in his footsteps?

“The big driver in becoming an academy trust was the ability to develop and have ownership of our own support services, rather than relying on the local authority”, says Andy. “Like many local authorities, those in the North East of England have faced significant reductions in budget, and as trusts began to emerge, we also found that much of the expertise and advice our schools needed and expected just didn’t exist in the LA. I wanted our schools – including my own at the time – to receive the highest standards, not only of school improvement support, but also of HR, IT, finance, estates, governance services, and all the other support that has a bearing on the success of our schools and our pupils. We wanted to be in control of our own destiny and not at the mercy of what was happening in organisations that ultimately we had no control over.”

We wanted to be in control of our own destiny and not at the mercy of what was happening in organisations

Andy’s confidence in creating an organisation that could provide these ‘highest standards’ depended on one thing – having what Jim Collins would describe as ‘the right people on the bus.’ “In terms of educational leadership, we had what it took to start a successful trust – though we’d need to build more capacity later. The trust was built on trust and respect – both myself and the other founding headteacher led strong schools. However, even more crucially I think, when building the trust we were well placed to develop the operational side through the leadership of Sue Lister, that is what has given us the platform to create this organisation. It’s an aspect that quite a few trusts underestimated early on – we all knew how to do school improvement, it was the corporate leadership aspect that needed great attention.”

Sue has clearly played a huge part in Ad Astra’s successful development. As Head of Operations, she was handed the reigns to build the ‘back office’, ensuring that the trust’s school improvement and educational provision is underpinned by a firm operational foundation. “Sue’s role is predominately an operations role in the broadest sense, not simply a finance role, and that is crucial” says Andy. “She has been able to take a very strategic and overarching view of what the organisation – including our schools – needs to be sustainable, compliant and efficient. She has a great ability to translate that into the operational aspects of the trust’s work – she is the bridge between the strategic and the operational within our trust.”

“Sue’s role is predominately an operations role in the broadest sense, not simply a finance role, and that is crucial”

Indeed, Sue’s background and training is key. She has worked as a business leader in both the police force and in a secondary school, building her experience across a range of disciplines. She’s also been preparing for operational leadership for many years. “Sue was latterly my business manager at West View Primary School” says Andy. “Her experience far exceeded the responsibilities of that role, and I knew I had to invest in her to hold onto her. She’s undertaken a wide range of CPD in operational and business leadership – which has also been of great help in preparing her for trust-wide leadership.”

It is clear that Andy and Sue’s leadership styles and approach complement one another – which is often the case at the top of successful organisations. Andy describes himself as ‘a school leader through and through’, recognising his responsibility to lead a compliant and efficient organisation, but knowing his ‘day to day’ energy is focused on what he knows best – embedding a vision for educational excellence. Whilst Andy is focused on coaching heads, supporting his school improvement leaders, building relationships with external organisations, and championing the trust (as well as wearing the hat of accounting officer!), Sue is focused on developing the key services, ensuring the organisation is responding to the detail of new legislation, and managing her team of HR, finance, estates and IT leaders. The partnership is quite aptly described as being like ‘a finger and a thumb’. Without one, the other is in trouble – but together they are transformational.

The fact that Sue is on board is one very key reason that Andy is thriving in the CEO role. “This is a big job. It’s a huge job. I wake up everyday and know I have responsibility for all the pupils and the staff in our trust. However,  it wouldn’t be healthy or good leadership to believe that it all depends on one person or that I have the skill set and experience to bring expertise to every facet of our organisation. Our responsibility as CEOs has to be to distribute leadership to people who are better and more expert than us; and that summarises the relationship Sue and I have. She is more knowledgeable and better than me across a wide range of areas – I am lucky to have her. Without her I’d be nowhere in the CEO role, the breadth of her experience and expertise is key. If my operations leader was actually a finance director and hadn’t got the breadth of experience Sue has, I’d find this job really hard. Sue line manages the finance manager, as well as our HR, estates and procurement leaders. She has the overall view and it’s my job to make sure she’s supported, to ask the right questions of her at times, and to make sure she has the necessary resources to thrive in the role.”

It wouldn’t be healthy or good leadership to believe that it all depends on one person or that I have the skill set and experience to bring expertise to every facet of our organisation.

Andy’s view of the CEO role is clear, it’s not about the individual, it’s about building the right team of executives and creating the conditions that allow them to thrive. In growing the trust, he has also made two key appointments – his Head and Deputy for school improvement. Heather Jackson is the lead for school improvement. “There comes a time” says Andy, “when you have more than three or four schools that the role truly becomes a CEO role. If you’re an executive headteacher, you’ve got to let go – you can’t be a joint CEO and executive leader, the job becomes impossible and that does no-one any good, not least the schools. However, it’s not easy to do this because, if you’re like me, you love working in schools on a day to day basis and providing school improvement – so it’s important to take your time in making the right appointment. This is our core business, so we have to get that appointment right and I was very lucky to find Heather too.”

“it’s not easy to (let go) because, if you’re like me, you love working in schools on a day to day basis and providing school improvement – so it’s important to take your time in making the right appointment.”

Again, Andy describes himself as lucky. As a headteacher of a nationally regarded school, and with experience of teaching schools and school improvement within a trust, it was personal circumstances that brought Heather to the North East. The role with Ad Astra had only just been advertised. “It’s easy for me to say – the stars have been aligned for us – but the most important thing is for a CEO to have the right people on their team; people who are both talented at what they do and live the values.” Heather’s impact has been immediate. Rosebrook, a sponsored primary school has seen its combined scores at Key Stage 2 go from 38% to 62% in two years; and other schools have been drawn to the trust because of the calibre of both its operations and school improvement leadership; as well as Andy’s reputation for making a difference. Andy has networked nationally and has many contacts, one of these being the Learning Village in Tower Hamlets. This partnership is now enabling children new to England to have a better start in their education at a Trust sponsored school with an intensive English language programme. Meanwhile, in one of the Trust’s outstanding schools intensive support and challenge has been welcomed by their headteacher and staff in driving standards even further following a lack of challenge from their previous local authority as they continually performed well.

Respect for and involving people has been at the heart of Ad Astra’s development. The development of the trust’s central team, its policies, its approach to professional development, and its governance model has very much been about co-construction. “We have built this trust by working closely with people across our schools – taking on board their views and involving them in the co-design of services and provision”, says Andy. “The challenge this presents is that we have sometimes lacked corporate consistency where it is perhaps needed, and as the trust grows further, we do need to build in more consistency. That’s going to save us more time and enable better collaboration across our schools.” However, at the same time, Andy also wants to ensure schools have freedom to innovate and to spur greater improvement across the trust – “I want our trust to have a reputation for being a place where people learn and improve by working together, from the CEO onwards. Where people try things, have a degree of freedom to innovate, all with a focus on responding to the needs and meeting the aspirations of our pupils. I’ve learnt everything I know in life from someone else – so if we have 100% consistency we will not have exposure to new approaches and ways of doing things, we cannot learn, and ultimately, we cannot be leaders.”

I end by asking Andy what the biggest difference is between the headteacher role and the CEO role. “A few things, the challenge and breadth of experience and support provided by the board is on another level. A CEO needs this, we cannot expect that a school governing body can rise to providing corporate oversight. It’s rarely going to happen. New trusts and CEOs need a board that can provide strong corporate governance. The role is also much more lonely in some ways. You aren’t part of a team of peers, of which you are the lead practitioners. You’re now leading a diverse team of experts, and the decisions are harder, more complex, and far reaching. So, prioritising the development of your team and being part of a network of CEOs is crucial – it’s important you have that community of peers who you can turn to when things get tough. Being The CEO is a great opportunity and a great responsibility.”

Andy Brown was speaking with Michael Pain.

Find out more about the #BeingTheCEO programme here: Being The CEO programme; Cohort 2