The role of the CEO in state education in England is a relatively recent one. Six years ago, multi-academy trusts were just emerging and there were still relatively few CEOs. There are currently 1534 MATs, each who is led by someone who is (whether formally designated or not) a ‘CEO’. This means the role is firmly established on the education landscape and, presumably, here to stay for quite a while. Yet its emergence has largely been an improvised one.
Headteachers’ Roundtable Chair, Stephen Tierney, himself an ‘accidental’ 1G CEO (as we will now dub them), has voiced openly what many of us acknowledge privately that he is ‘totally confused about what I should be doing’ (25 April 2018). If we were part of another sector, where the role of CEO is a well-established one, there would be a well-trod career trajectory allowing prospective executive leaders to develop over time the full skillset necessary to perform the role successfully. Instead, we are quite literally making it up as we go along.
Into this void can exert the influence of the roles we should have left behind. Most MAT CEOs will have served as headteachers, often for many years. It’s therefore unsurprising that when faced with change, we draw upon the familiar, even if that might not be the best for the future. This tendency is also fuelled by some CEO pioneers. At least one has described acting as CEO as being little different to when he was a headteacher with the heads of individual academies equivalent to the heads of department in his first school. Whilst leading in such a way might be useful for certain organisations at certain times, it doesn’t generally offer the best environment for creative and innovative development. Furthermore it will do little to build the capacity and capability of future trust leaders, the 2G and 3G CEOs.
Fortunately there is good help at hand. There are now more programmes for executive leaders to access and ASCL/NAHT are beginning to acknowledge the existence of CEOs and to frame their support around their distinct needs. Sometimes help can be closer to home – our Trustees, many of whom will have had experience of working with and/or supporting CEOs in their respective sectors. One of mine has a background in corporate HR and has been instrumental in supporting my coaching and development from the head of a single school into a leader of a multi-site, complex and growing organisation.
Looking outside education is not something we do often enough and there is so much we can learn from the leadership of other organisations, not so that we can lead MATs like them (in spite of the too often voiced rhetoric which suggests that MATs are businesses and akin to the private sector) but so we can apply the well-established ideas on strategy, growth and development onto our new and emerging landscape.
It is up to us to frame something genuinely new and different here, a once-in-a-generation opportunity that is indeed an honour. Mathur & Kenyon (2001) remind us that the ultimate goal of an activity must affect the nature and scope of its strategy. For MATs, this is ‘to advance for the public benefit education in the United Kingdom… by establishing, maintaining, carrying on, managing and developing school(s)’. And if this is the object of Trusts, for CEOs, it is carrying this out: advancing an education system that meets the needs and responds to the challenge of our nation in the 21st century.
Mathur, S. and Kenyon, A. (2001), Creating Value: Successful Business Strategies (2nd Edition), Abingdon: Routledge.
Tierney, S. (25 April 2018), Being a first generation CEO, retrieved from https://www.ambitionschoolleadership.org.uk/blog/being-first-generation-ceo/
Rob Campbell is one of the founders of HTRT and is CEO of Morris Education Trust in Cambridgeshire