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View from the other side: reflections of a retired MAT CEO

Phil Crompton

Phil Crompton retired from role of CEO at Trent Academies in the summer. Here, as a first-generation MAT CEO, he reflects on what he learned, what the experience was like, and what advice he would give to those stepping up to the role in the near future.

My generation of school leaders was the first one to be given the chance to move onto another rung of the educational leadership ladder. Until 2010 the concept of the CEO didn’t exist in the educational world. There were Directors of Education within local authorities, but their role had become increasingly diminished over the previous 20 years and they involved themselves in school life only at times of crisis. The CEO role was new. And that brought challenges because the DfE wasn’t prepared to say: “This is how it’s done” and very few were heard saying “I’m not quite sure how to do this”. I once heard government minister, Lord Nash describe us as “educational pioneers”. Quite a responsibility.

I became a headteacher in January 2000 and by 2010 I had taken over the reins at my 3rd school, Rushcliffe School in Nottinghamshire.  I’d learned the ropes and I think I was as well-equipped as anyone for the new world that lay ahead. By 2014 we had been judged “outstanding” and immediately agreed to help out at a neighbouring school situated across the city border. In another year we had been asked to add a school at the other side of the city to our portfolio.  The Trent Academies Group was formed, and I was the CEO with one outstanding school and two others judged inadequate.

Building the trust and developing my version of the CEO role was initially exciting but in August 2018 I stepped down. 36 years in the business was long enough. The Trent Academies Group had merged with the Spencer Academies Trust as there was no one in our trust keen to accept the baton. I assisted the Board in their search for a like minded partner and was content that the right decision was made.

Over the last two months I have had time to think about what an aspiring CEO needs to know if they are to be successful in the role. The current crop have been thrashing around for the last few years doing some things well and some not so well. It has been one big learning experience for the profession. I share these personal thoughts knowing that other colleagues will have different views:

 

  1. If the trust is small don’t stop being a Headteacher. Appoint a Head of School / Senior Deputy who can give you the freedom to manage the trust. I had expected the trust to grow beyond 3 secondaries but it didn’t. This left us with a CEO and 3 Headteachers for three academies. Too many senior leaders in my view. It was a mistake. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

 

  1. Make sure that the headteachers speak your language, share your values and aren’t likely to go rogue. You want them to be confident enough to run their schools in their own way but they are part of a bigger entity. They might not like it but it’s the reality. In all honesty I’m not sure I would have been very comfortable operating as a Headteacher within a trust. I liked the freedom too much. Be sure you can work with the headteachers. The vision is delivered through them. Deciding how much autonomy to give Headteachers is a real challenge. Too much autonomy and consistency across the trust is diminished. Too little and capable people become frustrated.

 

Deciding how much autonomy to give Headteachers is a real challenge. Too much autonomy and consistency across the trust is diminished. Too little and capable people become frustrated.

 

  1. The Board of Trustees matters. I recommend an early and independent review. When we first set up the trust we had a Board made up of very capable and enthusiastic school governors. I liked and respected them all. The level of responsibility in a MAT is much higher. You will need advice around some business decisions and expertise is essential. If you don’t think you can work with the Chair then for heaven’s sake don’t take the job. It will torture you both – and the organisation. The early review was helpful, made some useful suggestions and led to us recruiting a consultant to help us develop a clear strategy.

 

  1. Make it clear to the Board what your non-negotiables are. They need to be at the heart of the culture and you obviously need to believe in the culture. I found embedding the culture to be the biggest challenge. There will be different personalities in key roles who might resist, but the CEO needs to keep going. I spoke to the leader of large multi-national company when I was starting off in the role. He told me that he was constantly travelling the world in order to re-enforce the culture that he and the Board expected to be in place. Others say that the CEO shouldn’t feel such a responsibility for the culture. I disagree. The CEO should be visible and not some Wizard of Oz like person who hides in an office. Live the vision, live the culture.

 

  1. Communicate, communicate, communicate. You’ve never done enough. Policies need to be explained, new appointments announced, and successes praised. The values at the heart of the organisation need to be repeated until colleagues are weary of hearing them. Former Head of Communications at 10 Downing Street Alastair Campbell said that  if he heard a  groan from a group of reporters he knew his repetition was working. I used twitter, a weekly blog, appearances at staff briefings and termly newsletters to keep the messages live. But the most effective way of communicating is by speaking to people. In large trusts that is, I guess, more difficult but I would advise anyone to keep doing it as long as possible. I enjoy talking to members of staff, parents and especially pupils. Others are less keen and will have other ways of communicating but whatever style you choose, don’t stop!

 

The poet Philip Larkin summed it up :

“ Reaching for the world, as our lives do, as all lives do.

 Reaching that we may give the best of what we hold as true.

Always it is by bridges that we live.”

 

  1. We live in a world in which 2 things dominate the educational world and one of them is OFSTED . The CEO should understand how a school will be judged and should be an expert in managing inspections. I made the mistake of not becoming an inspector. Other contemporaries became inspectors and it seemed to help.

 

  1. The other is money. The financial situation does not get rosier and tough decisions will need to be made in the future. Having a Financial Director who really understands the funding streams and how savings can be made is essential. A Prime Minister needs a trusted Chancellor of the Exchequer. It’s a big role. Your relationship with the FD needs to be secure and open. Try to appoint a Finance Director who you can trust implicitly to do the right thing, but who will also have an entrepreneurial mindset when it comes to the trust’s sustainability in a world of austerity.

 

Try to appoint a Finance Director who you can trust implicitly to do the right thing, but who will also have an entrepreneurial mindset when it comes to the trust’s sustainability in a world of austerity.

 

 

  1. I benefitted enormously from having a PA who I trusted completely. You have a lot of plates to spin and when one crashes to the floor you can look silly. You also need someone you can laugh with at a tense time. Some CEOs perhaps enjoy the loneliness of the role. I didn’t. I like the idea of having a team around me, leading the team as well as being part of it. As a CEO you will be removed from the day to day action of a school and might only have a very small team around you. A good PA can lift the spirits.

 

  1. I believe in coaching. I worked closely with someone who had held a similar role in the business world. He listened to what I wanted to do and made suggestions. He had been a CEO and knew the variety of problems that can arise. He was able to suggest approaches that might work. He also told me early in our relationship that to micro manage leads to ruin. It can destroy the morale of others and also leads to an impossible workload for the CEO. What are the big things you need to be on top of ? The culture and the results- both OFSTED and financial results. I’m looking forward to giving back as a coach, not least to some of the aspiring CEOs joining us on Forum Strategy’s Aspiring CEO programme next year.

 

  1. Get feedback. It’s hard to gauge how effective you are being in the role. So ask people. Probably best to do it anonymously. There will be a real anxiety about offending you. And don’t just ask those who you know will give positive feedback. Being stroked is all very well but you will want to find out what isn’t going as well as it could. Prepare yourself for tough messages. Some of them will be valid and will help you become better at leading the trust.

 

I loved being a headteacher . I knew what to do and had seen others do it before me. I found the CEO role a bit less enjoyable, even though I think I did so much of it pretty well. I was learning on the job and so were all the other MAT CEOs. Openness between CEOs is rare. It is a rarity for someone to share their concerns with someone who is, sadly, a business rival. The next generation will have seen the mistakes that went before. There will be books written and training programmes devised based upon the work of the pioneers. Good luck to all who follow. I will watch (and, I hope, play a small part in guiding them) with interest.

 

You can find more information on Forum Strategy’s Aspiring and New CEO Programme here: Aspirant and New CEO programme

See the first Episode of our new series Leaders In Conversation, with Kyra Teaching School’s Marie-Claire Bretherton: Leaders In Conversation – #MATLeaders resources

Leaders In Conversation