From education to employment

Leading from the edge. The story of unprecedented challenges and overcoming them

Saboohi Famili, CEO and Principal of Epping Forest College (EFC)

A primed College gets ready to join one of the largest and leading colleges in UK.

Saboohi Famili, CEO and Principal of Epping Forest College (EFC) joined her post at less than 2 years ago. Over the past two years the college has undergone significant change and improved in all its aspect. Epping Forest College is due to merge with New City College (NCC). 

Saboohi was appointed in September 2016, and in these past 2 short years has led a transformation of EFC, in which:

  • an immediate grading of ‘4’ throughout the College awarded by Ofsted 50 working days after she started was improved to ‘3’ throughout in less than 15 months
  • learner results have improved significantly across the board – for example and the college received record results in 2016-17 namely the runner up best college in Essex for Study Programme and best A Level Results ever
  • she has successfully chosen a merger partner to ensure and secure the future of the college

Saboohi has been an exemplary leader in a time of crisis. She is a transformational manager, highly skilled at changing a culture from one of low achievement and morale, to one of excitement and success.  

How has she done it?

Five key qualities stand out above all others:

Firstly, she is an outstanding and positive role model. She leads by example. Whatever she asks of her staff, at any level, she is prepared to deliver herself: from taking her turn in checking ID at the entrance, to playing her part in ‘Free Hug Friday’, to acting as a cover teacher where necessary, to providing personal support to any staff or student, she is a visible embodiment of what needs to be done.

Secondly, she is a strategic thinker and can see the big picture better than most. Her selfless and prudent approach means that she will make the best decision for the institution without hesitation and is always putting students first. Her outcome and result driven focus and her professionalism makes things happen.

Thirdly, she is hugely creative. The College has established a wide range of initiatives, all of which have helped shape and improve the College.

Examples include:

  • most notable is creating a culture of Kindness and positive regard at EFC. Staff and students regularly take part in random act of kindness creating a positive working environment for all
  • are providing a piano in reception, which can be played by anyone, any time
  • free hug and fresh fruit Friday – the latter arranged with a local supermarket, at no cost to the College
  • wellbeing workshops at 8.45 each day, as drop in sessions for staff and students, before formal class teaching begins
  • a free-to-attend successful guest speaker programme – “Inspired By…” as an initiative to ‘bring the College closer to the community, and the community closer to the College”
  • a ‘5-a-day’ initiative for the College Leadership Team, each of whom has been tasked to have at least 5 spontaneous conversations every day with one or more students
  • monthly live staff briefings for all staff every month in the College theatre
  • regular Leadership lessons published and shared with the sector in the form of short videos throughout the 2 years under Leading From the Edge Series. The open and transparent nature of sharing lessons learnt and warts and all has been dubbed most refreshing by audience

Fourthly, Saboohi is a true visionary, totally focused on driving improvement and outcomes. She is brilliant at initiating, communicating and implementing key shifts in focus:

  • from past to future
  • from activity to outcomes
  • from words to deeds
  • from blame to ownership
  • from imposition to consultation

and perhaps most importantly

  • from helpless drift, to hope

Saboohi is without doubt, a truly effective change agent, and has confidently set about and achieved a successful transformation within the college – and which of course, is still work in progress

Finally, is her superb blend of passion and compassion. As a female Iranian refugee and qualified engineer, she is passionate about learning, opportunity and inclusiveness. Her compassion also shines through as she knows at first hand how the disadvantaged and dispossessed need a helping and nurturing hand, and to be offered a safe and supportive place to gain a sense of belonging, take stock, and be offered opportunities to improve life chances.

Despite the fact that she had sustained multiple injuries though a car accident whilst cycling 3 weeks prior, Saboohi was cheery, positive and upbeat as usual.

Saboohi explains: “I regularly take part in endurance cycling challenges. In April I raised over £1500 for The Mind, mental health Charity whilst cycling 900 miles across central America and in UK. I take pleasure in doing what can be seen hard and very challenging to most. It gives me a sense of pleasure and achievement to tackle the impossible and drive through using my positive energy and drive.”

A high-altitude climber, endurance rider, long distance walker and all round an individual who does not shy away from a challenge could not have been better placed to influence and lead the positive changes at EFC.

She said: “It has not been easy what we had to deal with at Epping Forest College. I inherited a College that in true sense of the word was dysfunctional. I worked hard with my colleagues and the main reason for our success has been defining our purpose clearly and having the vision, fortitude and determination to succeed for our learners. She continues to explain the College has its values in action encompassed in the acronym PRIDE.

“We Put our Students first, Reward Relationships, Inspire People, Deliver Excellent service and Exceed expectations. These values are simple, and understood by all and coupled by a culture of tough love and 100/0 where everyone in the organisation takes full and 100% responsibility to make it more successful through all our actions and there is a 0% blame means that focus is on doing the right thing and doing it right.”

Asking Saboohi’s colleagues about her leadership style and its impact the overwhelming message is her positivity, and approachability. There is a stark understanding of the challenges and an unwavering resolve to overcome it by staff and students. A quick walk around the college shows how the college has changed and what a positive atmosphere it has.

Saboohi says she has learnt a lot on this post. She counts the experience of leading the college during such a challenging time a privilege and says that she had found it rewarding, similar to reaching a summit or crossing the finish line after over 100 miles of pedalling on the bike.

She said:

“I am no doubt a better leader as a result of working at Epping Forest College and this is thanks to all who supported me and worked with me. I have learnt a lot and hopefully contributed a lot. It has been a learning curve like no other.”

Arnie Skelton, Managing Director, Effective Training & Development Ltd, previously worked alongside Saboohi as Epping Forest College’s, Head of Enterprise and Innovation.

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