Frank Norris became CEO of the Co-op Academies Trust in 2014. He was previously the Education Director of the Trust. During his five years in charge, the Trust grew from just six academies to 23, and has gained an impressive track record of turning struggling schools around. Frank retired last Summer and, here, he shares his reflections on ’being the CEO.’
The Values and Principles should be non-negotiable
The values and principles of the Co-op are well-established and deep-rooted, because they stem from the original values of the Co-op’s founders in 1834. They include self responsibility, equity, equality, self help, democracy and solidarity. They are supported by ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others. As an organisation, the Co-op knows what it stands for, and what it wants to achieve. This made it easy for me to make the decision to become CEO of the Trust. I felt at peace with who I was working for, and what we were trying to achieve, and I learnt that I had been and still was intrinsically cooperative. The Co-op’s values and principles are apparent at every level of the organisation and this made it easier to find my feet within it.
Clear values and principles should be the cornerstone of every successful Academy Trust, and there must be ‘buy-in’ at all levels. It is important that a CEO is entirely comfortable with the values of the board before they commit to the job.
Make the values easily actionable by having core behaviours
Behaviours are the values and principles made clear and actionable. The Co-op has four core ‘behaviours’, known as the ‘Ways of being Co-op’. They are ‘do what matters most’, ‘be yourself always’, ‘show you care’ and ‘succeed together’. We encourage staff and pupils to engage in these behaviours throughout the Trust, and draw on them to bring about a clarity of purpose. All our staff receive training on the core Co-op behaviours, and also focus on them during learning time. They are also embedded through the performance management process. The behaviours are easy for everyone to recognise, discuss, and understand.
Having core Trust behaviours makes your values clear and actionable to all.
The importance of the brand
Your brand as a Trust cannot be underestimated. It is more than just a logo (though, of course, that is part of it). Having a clear brand is key to your PR, your strategy, and to communications with your partners, stakeholders, and your local communities.
I first became aware of the importance of brand when I worked as HMI with Ofsted. Without a sense of purpose, certainty and confidence the inspectorate would be much diminished. Co-op has a unique brand and it is one that explains what it stands for and why it is different. Trusts need to consider what they stand for and draw on this in establishing their own brand. This allows the Trust to get its message out and explain and what it stands for. As local communities gain trust in the brand, so they gain trust in the local schools. This is the reason why we expect all schools that join our Trust to stay within the parameters of the Co-op brand; it must not be diluted, and must be a consistent presence, across logos, websites, and even in the ‘tone’ of communications. All our Senior Leaders receive training on ‘tone of voice’ and regional communications officers work with schools to make sure they get that tone of voice right. The main goal is to always be authentic, and convey honesty, and a sense of being down to earth, caring and confident.
Do not underestimate the importance of having a strong brand; for building recognition and trust, communicating your values and vision, and strengthening your authenticity as a Trust.
School Improvement and Trust Sustainability
Enabling school improvement is of course the most fundamental and important part of being the CEO of an Academy Trust. What I have learned is that improvement isn’t just about teaching, but involves all staff in your Trust buying into the vision and values. The CEO must have a clear narrative for improvement.
As a CEO, I also found it exceptionally useful to reflect upon why certain organisations were less successful or ultimately failed, in order to avoid making the same mistakes. I highly recommend that all CEOs read the book, ‘The Seven Stages of Ethical Collapse’ by Marianne Jennings to help identify and solve any potential problems. It will help you ensure that your Trust avoids these seven potential pitfalls. If these pitfalls are not addressed they can build up cumulatively, and leave previously successful Trusts, or other organisations, in real trouble.
CEOs and Trust boards will benefit from regularly reflecting upon ‘The Seven Stages of Ethical Collapse’ to avoid potential problems building up.
My time as CEO has taught me much about the importance of being as authentic as possible as a leader. When difficult decisions need to be made, every judgement needs to be considered against the values and principles to make sure you are working in line with them. If you are unsure, you must be honest and take the time to question, investigate, talk to others, and strategise. A notable example of this for me was when I was first appointed and I needed to merge three trusts run by the Co-op into one legal entity. At first, I wasn’t sure how to go about it, and I had to be honest with the board, and tell them that I needed to take the time to work things through and to discuss with others how best to move forward.
You must also be honest with yourself, and ask yourself, ‘how well am I doing as CEO?’, regularly. You won’t always do everything perfectly, and inevitably there will be times when you will make mistakes. How you react to these will be picked up by your senior staff so you need to react positively and with the determination to eradicate such mistakes going forward. Don’t be afraid to apologise.
Authentic leadership means being honest with others, and yourself.
Strategy and Succession Planning
Part of being a good CEO is knowing the right time to step down, but also staying on long enough to plan the next stage of the journey for the Trust with your board, your headteachers, and your staff. A new CEO can then be employed whose approach is in line with the Trust’s strategic vision moving forward.
Before I retired I worked with the board, and each of our headteachers, to put together a new strategic vision. I also visited each school in the Trust to speak to members of staff and student councils, and invited feedback to ensure that everybody was able to have their voice in developing the new strategy. I received over 200 emails from across the Trust with ideas and suggestions- read them all (honest!)- and I did take some changes to the board as a result.
The Co-op Academies Trust’s new strategy continues the previous focus on improving the progress that the pupils and students make, but it has a strengthened element on the re-generation of the communities its schools are a part of. Now that all of the Trust’s schools bar one have been rated as ‘Good’ by Ofsted, it is in a much stronger position, and has more capacity to look outwards. This capacity is being used to focus on how we can make a positive difference within our local communities.
Planning your Trust’s strategic vision should involve listening to stakeholders at all levels, and is also a key part of successful succession planning.
You can follow Frank on twitter at @FrankWNorris