Accidental CEOs and the need for deliberate practice

by Dr Kate Chhatwal OBE, CEO of school improvement charity Challenge Partners.

We have a generation of ‘accidental CEOs’. I’m not aware anyone collects figures on this, but I’d wager that most of the c1,200 school trusts in England are led by people who didn’t set out to become CEOs. Typically, they were successful headteachers. Maybe they were asked to take on another school… and another... and another. Or maybe they saw the opportunity to turn an existing collaboration into something more formal, or to start a new one. Whatever the case, many of the current cadre of CEOs have grown - and grown up with - their trusts. This gave them the opportunity to take small, measured steps, and meant they didn’t have too far to fall if they stumbled on the way.

Being a pioneer of the school trust movement may not always have felt like a privilege. There have been many new challenges to navigate and few guides. Early executive headteachers often tried to run their first two to three schools by dividing their time between them and acting as the operational headteacher of each. If this approach didn’t make them fall over before they got to five schools, they then ran out of days of the week to be on each site. At some point on this journey, they probably stopped calling themself executive headteacher and stepped more fully into the role of CEO. I’m sure it wasn’t easy, but the first CEOs did have the chance to develop and test approaches when their trusts were young and small (and when most other trusts were in the same boat).

Giant leap from headship
The next generation won’t have that luxury. If stepping up directly from headship - which seems less likely - they won’t be taking small steps but trying to make a giant leap to leading a big organisation of possibly 10, 15, 25 schools or more. They might be doing so after headship posts that leave them deskilled compared to their predecessors in some key areas, like governance and finance, which aren’t always these days significant features of the role of ‘head’ (whether headteacher or head of school), but are essential to the successful running of a school trust. Even those stepping up from trust-wide executive roles may not be adequately prepared without careful training and apprenticing.

My concern about this has increased recently as I have found myself in lots of conversations with founding CEOs who are beginning to think less about acquiring schools and more about retirement. Sometimes they have a succession plan, but not always. What guides will they leave to help their successors navigate the challenges of being a trust CEO without making too many wrong turns - particularly when it comes to the core business of school improvement and securing better outcomes for learners?

Peer reviews
In 2018, Challenge Partners piloted a Trust Peer Review, where leaders from other trust, guided by an experienced Lead Reviewer, evaluated how well the host trust did in securing great educational provision and outcomes for the children, young people and communities it served. The pilot reviews - in trusts of different phases, sizes, maturity and geography - was positively evaluated by the NFER and revealed much to feel optimistic about, but also some common challenges. High among these was the extent to which the school improvement model in some trusts was implicit and (over-)dependent on the CEO, verses explicit, systemic and capable of withstanding a change of leadership. While it was a great compliment that the success of the trust was down to its CEO, it was also a risk that they could - if they left - become the ‘single point of failure’.

Invited to articulate their approach to school improvement, some trust leaders are very clear - and what they say is echoed elsewhere in the trust because it is commonly understood. Others struggle, often because they are still in the process of ‘building their plane in flight’ (a lovely analogy borrowed from facilitator of our CEO Jubilee Network, Nick Mayhew).

Try it yourself. Can you describe crisply the approach your trust takes to school improvement and how you know it is working? Can you say how the approach sustains improvement in good and outstanding schools, and what the mechanisms are for identifying and acting on underperformance - and how quickly? Does Professor Toby Greaney’s language of standardisation/alignment/autonomy apply - perhaps variously to different aspects of the model - and does having such a shared lexicon help?

These are just some of the questions explored through Challenge Partners’ Trust Peer Reviews, and which will feature in the workshop I’m leading with trust leader, Dr Tesca Bennett, at ASCL Annual Conference.

Recording answers to them and capturing evidence of effective (and ineffective) practice is important to ensure that trusts are intentional and consciously competent in their approach to school improvement. It will also ensure that the next generation of CEOs can get off to a flying start. This matters because not only will they be continuing to build planes in flight, they will be taking huge leaps from the ground to board aircraft that have already taken off. And their human cargo is very precious indeed.

Dr Chhatwal is leading a workshop – Continuous Trust Improvement: Through peer review and collaboration – with Dr Tesca Bennett at ASCL Annual Conference at 2.30pm on Friday 13 March.  
Posted: 06/03/2020 15:41:19