From education to employment

Leading the transformation in FE

Matt Hamnett, Director, MH+A

It’s the role, and the opportunity, of the leader to model the change they envision for the organisation. That means the chief executive is principally a principal.

Throughout this piece, I have deliberately referred to the most senior member of the executive team in a further education college as the chief executive – because the CEO label is almost always and only given to the most senior member of the executive in a given organisation.

Many in further education prefer CEO/ principal, or principal. Particularly as more, larger, organisations have emerged following the area review process, we have started to see more organisations separate these two, once synonymous, labels between two (or more) individuals – with a chief executive responsible for corporate matters, and a principal (or principals) focused on curriculum quality and improvement.

The logic is easy to follow. The corporate leadership requirement in colleges has grown exponentially over the last 15 years or more. Until the 2000s, colleges received block grants from government, independent of student numbers.

Managing a profit and loss account in such circumstances must, in hindsight, feel like a stroll in the park for those who have been on the journey from there to the apprenticeship levy era, in which funding both follows the learner and is paid in arrears on actuals. It’s now a completely different gig.

By the pivotal summer of 2015, leaders had become painfully used to:

  • Salami-slicing resources to deliver more for less (again);
  • Managing complex, dynamic profit and loss accounts, intimately related to the ESFA’s Kafkaesque funding rules;
  • Building commercial operations which could seize the opportunities presented by apprenticeship reform;
  • Managing relationships with lenders whose appetite to continue lending had been spooked through the area review process;
  • Negotiating substantial asset disposal and capital projects; and,
  • Still, running redundancy programmes to find additional savings to stay afloat.

Add to that workload and person specification the need for deep expertise in curriculum and you have two issues:

  1. First, a question over whether it is possible for the most senior member of the executive to devote sufficient time and energy to curriculum matters, given the many other demands on their time in a challenging sector context.
  2. Second, whether it is realistic to expect that you will find in a single person the combination of corporate and curriculum expertise required to succeed in role.

There is currently one player in the whole of major league baseball who both pitches and bats for a reason; they’re both really hard things to do to the required standard,so pretty much everyone does one or the other at the elite level.

Notwithstanding these issues, having thought and talked to many colleagues about it, I have concluded that there are real risks for those institutions which elect to separate corporate and curriculum responsibilities between a CEO and principal(s).

My reasoning is simple: you can’t let the chief executive off the hook for purpose. I have heard too many discussions about the separation of CEO and principal labels becoming an exercise in the separation of accountabilities and I don’t buy it.

It follows from the argument in Chapter 4 about the importance of purpose and the role of the leader in connecting the daily work of individuals across the organisation to that purpose, that the leader must themselves be connected to that purpose.

More than that, they must be the living, breathing, constantly talking embodiment of that purpose. They should inspire, guide, coach and cajole colleagues at all levels to align their work with the organisation’s higher purpose,strategy and transformation plan.

That is not to say that the CEO must be the freakishly talented individual who can do both curriculum and corporate – who can pitch and bat. It is to say that the most senior person in the organisation must be obsessed with curriculum performance – because that’s the whole and pretty much only point of the organisation.Great corporate performance is useless in social policy terms if it is not facilitating great curriculum performance.

The role of the most senior executive in the organisation is to build a leadership team, and an organisation, which delivers against the organisation’s purpose. That means building a senior and extended team with the blend of skills and experiences required to deliver against the whole of that purpose, i.e. corporate and curriculum performance.

In turn, that means recruiting colleagues with the expertise that the organisation needs but which they do not themselves possess. It is no accident that my top recruitment priority on arrival at HLG, as someone without a professional background in teaching or curriculum management, was a seasoned, progressive curriculum leader.

In making that appointment, and in later affording that individual the title ‘principal’, I did not delegate purpose or performance against it. I continued to live and breathe our core business.

I continued to do learning walks, join lesson observations, talk to teaching colleagues every day – and to roll up my sleeves in the preparation of our curriculum quality improvement manual. My desk was full of corporate matters, but my mind was always full of purpose.

Leading transformation is different to leading business as usual. They require different skills, experience and behaviours.

While I am not at all persuaded that you can completely separate corporate and curriculum leadership, I am completely convinced that leading in business-as-usual is a very different skillset to leading in start-up, crisis or transformation. I have spent most of my career starting, changing or – in a couple of instances – closing things down.

When I accepted the HLG job, I was looking forward to the challenge of business as usual; I envisioned a long, Sir Alex Ferguson style, tenure over the course of which I’d get everything exactly how it needed to be; evolve and pioneer new ways of doing things.

That my task was in fact an exercise in crisis management and then major transformation suited my experience. My passion, my experience and, therefore, my expertise is in changing things – quickly and substantially. I do revolution not evolution.

To be absolutely clear, I do not see one skill set as more important or valuable than the other. Quite the contrary. I see them as different careers; many of the leaders I spoke to who were in the midst of a major transformation agreed.

They intend to lead their organisation to safe,solid, ground and then move on to their next transformation mission. Jessica Leitch, Mark Dawson and, my old and inspirational boss at PwC, David Lancefield, argue that most organisations lack senior leaders with the particular expertise required to tackle ‘wicked problems,’ i.e. those which have incomprehensible causes, uncertain solutions and which require major transformation programmes.

A 2015 PwC survey they cite found that only 8 per cent of 6,000 senior executives possessed the expertise required to lead major transformations.

Leitch, Dawson and Lancefield concluded that those transformational leaders tend to share several common traits: ‘…they can challenge the prevailing view without provoking outrage or cynicism; they can act on the big and small pictures at the same time, and change course if their chosen path turns out to be incorrect; and, they lead with inquiry as well as advocacy, and with engagement as well as command, operating all the while from a deeply held humility and respect for others.’

They argue that this leadership gap is typically hidden from view – only coming to light when an organisation faces major challenges: ‘it’s in the do-or-die moments, when companies need a strategic leader most, that they discover the current leadership isn’t up to the task.’

They go on to argue that it is possible for organisations to build strategic leadership capability by focusing on emerging leaders whose capability is currently being overlooked or stifled.

They identify 10 principles of strategic leadership – a combination of organisational systems and individual capabilities – which organisations can use to develop the strategic leadership capability they will need when ‘wicked problems’ present themselves.

Among those principles are several which resonate with this discussion:

  • Distribute responsibility: ‘strategic leaders gain their skill through practice, and practice requires a fair amount of autonomy.Top leaders should push power downward, across the organization, empowering people at all levels to make decisions.’
  • Be honest and open about information: whilst certain things may need to remain secret, they argue that individuals need access to a broad base of information to become strategic leaders.They argue that, ‘transparency fosters conversation about the meaning of information and the improvement of everyday practices.
  • Hire for transformation: ‘hiring decisions should be based on careful considerations of capabilities and experience and should aim for diversity to overcome the natural tendency of managers to select people much like themselves.’
  • Bring your whole self to work: ‘strategic leaders understand that to tackle the most demanding situations and problems, they need to draw on everything they have learned in their lives.They want to tap into their full set of capabilities, interests, experiences, and passions to come up with innovative solutions.… Significantly, they encourage the people who report to them to do the same.’
  • Find time to reflect: ‘your goal in reflection is to raise your game in double-loop learning. Question the way in which you question things. Solve the problems inherent in the way you problem-solve.’

Their work is important and relevant for two reasons:

  1. First, it affirms a view that the leadership of transformation is a distinct skill set.Colleges should not assume that their best businessas-usual leaders will do an equally good job of leading major transformations – and vice versa.
  2. Second, because it offers a perspective on how organisations might generate the capability to lead transformation amongst their talented, existing leaders and managers.

Given the challenging operating context and outlook for further education colleges, the generation of such a cadre of transformation leaders seems to me strategically apposite.

Differences in leadership type matter. School sector research suggests that only those leaders who redesign the whole organisation deliver sustained improvements.

Hill, Mellon, Laker and Goddard have done some very interesting work on the leadership types which have most impact on school performance.They studied over 400 leaders of academy schools122 – looking at their education, background and experience and, recording their actions and impact using a wide range of different variables and measures over a seven-year period. They identified five different types of leaders, but only one that was really effective.

The five leadership types are:

  1. ‘Surgeons’: who are decisive and incisive, quickly identifying what’s not working and redirecting resources to the most pressing problem, i.e. the current year’s exam results. Exam results do tend to improve in the one or two years that a surgeon is at the school but fall back to where they started once the surgeon has left.
  2. ‘Soldiers’: focus on efficiency and order; they hate waste and believe schools get into trouble because they’re lazy and wasting public money.They believe that if they focus on cost and deadlines, the rest will take care of itself. Financial performance quickly improves under soldiers, but exam results remain the same and morale dips as staff fear for their jobs.
  3. ‘Accountants’: try to grow their school out of trouble.They’re resourceful, systematic, and believe that schools get into trouble because they’re small and weak. Revenue increases under accountants, but exam results remain the same because they’re not the accountants’ focus.
  4. ‘Philosophers’: are passionate about teaching and love debating the merits of alternative approaches; they believe schools fail because they’re not teaching properly.They spend as much of their time as possible with teachers, are somewhat elitist and believe that teachers are far more important than the people who support them. Nothing changes under a philosopher’ – students carry on misbehaving, parents remain disengaged and performance, both curriculum and financial, remains the same.
  5. ‘Architects’: are the only leaders who generate real, long-term, impact.They quietly redesign the school; they didn’t set out to be teachers, and typically work in industry for 10 or 15 years before deciding they want to have a greater impact on society. They’re insightful, humble and visionary leaders who believe schools fail because they’re poorly designed or do not serve their local community.They believe it takes time to improve a school, so take a long-term view of what they need to do. They redesign the school to create the right environment for teachers and the right school for the community.

Their research suggests that architects, on average, have a 15- 23 per cent higher long-term impact on the school than other leadership types. They calculate that if architects accounted for 50 per cent of school leaders, UK schools’ performance would increase by 9.68 per cent and, therefore, GDP by between $3.8 billion and $7.6 billion.

The authenticity and openness of the leader matters, too. Their willingness to be open about their own anxieties can help put others at ease about theirs, and help everyone focus on the task in hand.

One of the most important points I hope to make in this piece is about the merits of authentic, accessible and inspirational leadership. As I argued in Chapter 4, the leaders’ prime role is to visualise, communicate and galvanise colleagues at all levels in pursuit of an improved future organisational state.

Everything else follows, and builds on, their creating that platform. That approach places a heavy leadership burden on the CEO. Technical expertise in curriculum and/or corporate matters is not enough.

Their technical, operation and tactical decisions will not deliver the progress that they could if the organisational wheels have not been oiled with a sense of purpose, clarity and energy.

This requirement for authentic, accessible and inspirational leadership is evident in Quinn andThakor’s work. They talk about the fundamental importance of discovering the organisation’s higher purpose through an empathetic, discursive process of staff engagement; modelling that purpose in leaders’ own conduct and decisions such that colleagues begin to really believe it; communicating constantly with colleagues about the organisation’s purpose, helping them make operational decisions in the context of and connecting their daily work with that purpose. All these activities require people-oriented, communicative and open leaders.

Derek Dean talks insightfully about the challenge that CEOs can face in helping their top teams respond to rapid organisational change – whether prompted from within or externally.

He argues that CEOs must help their senior people work through fear and denial, and quickly learn new ways of working so that they can help drive positive change in the organisation.

He talks about the real,simple, fear that senior leaders often face when times of rapid change undermine the assumptions on which they are used to operating, and notes that‘spiking levels of fear can convert frank, flexible, open and self-reflective leaders into defensive, closeminded, rigid and literal ones.’

This can become a downward spiral when others notice the change in a given senior leader and let them know in subtle ways which reinforce their fear. To help senior leaders break the cycle, Dean argues that CEOs must engage with their team on an emotional level, to help their colleagues verbalise and acknowledge the validity of the feelings they’re experiencing so they can move past them and become productive.

Doing this may very likely include the CEO admitting that they share their colleagues’ fears and acknowledging that the reaction is perfectly normal;‘when CEOs acknowledge their own fears, they strip away the stigma attached to the emotion and make it easier for other executives to move beyond it’, he says He also suggests that CEOs must model the right behaviours including an openness to dialogue and collaboration, respecting others’ opinions and showing self-confidence.

He notes that,‘some of these may be difficult to summon in tough times, but they are powerful counters to the prevailing defensiveness and fear that often are rife in those times’.

That human touch can be difficult for many. It can feel like a risk for leaders to share so much of themselves with their colleagues – whether in their senior team or beyond. Most prefer to maintain some distance between their authentic self and their colleagues – preferring to maintain a professional persona which they consider more appropriate.

Leaders need to check that there is real alignment between them and their senior teams, let alone middle managers and others.

Research by Donald Sull,Charles Sull and James Yoder found that most organisations fall short in terms of the strategic alignment between top team members,senior executives, middle-managers and frontline supervisors.

Their analysis of responses from over 4,000 people in 124 organisations found that,‘only 28 per cent of executives and middle managers responsible for executing strategy could list three of their company’s strategic priorities’.

They found that senior leaders tend to overestimate the level of strategic alignment that exists – wrongly assuming that the whole organisation is on the same page with respect to strategy – and that misalignment often begins in the top team – with only 51 per cent of the top team members they surveyed being able to articulate their organisation’s top priorities.

As a result, the sharpest drop in alignment comes between those top team members and their direct reports – 22 per cent of whom were able to correctly articulate their organisation’s top priorities.

Alignment continues to drop, but at a much slower rate, further down the organisation – with 18 per cent of middle managers, and 13 per cent of frontline supervisors able to correctly articulate their organisation’s top priorities.

To address the issue, they recommend that senior leaders should ‘focus first on their direct reports, making sure they understand the company’s overall strategy and how their function, geography, or business unit fits into the bigger picture’.

They found that only half of the senior executives who reported directly to a top team member said that their boss consistently explained how their goals supported the organisation’s overall agenda.

They argue that leaders at all levels must be able to articulate why their priorities matter, both in terms of the team and wider organisation. In their survey, this was the single best predictor of strategic alignment.

The experience of leading a gritty, arduous transformation will change you. Painful leadership experiences shape the leader you’ll become.

As we navigated our way through the transformation journey in Hertfordshire, I often reflected that I wouldn’t have been able to meet the many requirements of the role without having done every single one of the very different jobs I’d done before.

My time as a retail manager before I went to university, my time in Whitehall, at the Football Association, PwC and Capita. I learned and experienced important, different things in each of those roles – and drew on all of those experiences at different points in our journey.

Among that eclectic career back-catalogue were some particularly formative experiences. The Civil Service is a quite remarkable place in terms of the opportunities and responsibilities it permits you to embrace early on in your career. I worked on my first spending review when I was 26 years old.

It was very clear to me when I joined PwC that they wouldn’t have been quite so content to let a 26-year-old work on what was a £5 billion deal with HMTreasury.

Likewise,starting a new business in Capita was an incredible experience which I will always be incredibly grateful that my old boss – and hero – Maggi Bell afforded to me. Capita preferred its managing directors to have a little more operational dirt under their fingernails than a former senior civil servant and big four strategy consultant could possibly have accrued. But Maggi and other members of the Capita Board backed me, and my fingernails quickly attracted the level of dirt required for transformation.

Bennis and Thomas argue that what makes a leader has something to do with the ways in which different people deal with adversity. Having interviewed 40 top leaders in business and the public sector, they found that all ‘were able to point to intense, often traumatic, always unplanned experiences that had transformed them and had become sources of their distinctive leadership abilities’.

They call these defining experiences, ‘crucibles of leadership’ after the containers that medieval alchemists used to turn base metals into gold. They define these crucibles as,‘a transformative experience through which an individual comes to a new or altered sense of identity’ and note that,‘it is perhaps not surprising then that one of the most common types of crucibles we documented involves the experience of prejudice…. For all its trauma … the experience of prejudice is for some a clarifying event.

Through it they gain a clearer vision of who they are, the role they play, and their place in the world.’Other crucibles, they suggest,‘illuminate a hidden and suppressed area of the soul… involving for instance, episodes of illness or violence.’ Not all crucibles are traumatic, though;‘they can involve a positive, if deeply challenging, experience such as having a demanding boss or mentor’.

From their research, Bennis and Thomas conclude that great leaders possess four essential skills – which happen to be the same skills required for a person to find meaning in what could be debilitating experience: the ability to engage others in shared meaning; a distinctive and compelling voice; a sense of integrity, including a strong set of values; and, most‘importantly, they suggest, adaptive capacity, i.e.‘an almost magical ability to transcend adversity, with all its attendant stresses, and to emerge stronger than before’.

This capacity, they argue, is itself composed of two qualities: first, the ability to grasp context, weigh different factors and put a situation into context; and second, what they call hardiness – the perseverance and toughness that,‘enables people to emerge from devastating circumstances without losing hope’.

It’s remarkable how consistent their assessment is: with the skills which Leitch, Dawson and Lancefield identify in transformational leaders; with the role which Quinn and Thakor describe for the leader in connecting an organisation to its purpose; which Hill, Mellon, Laker and Goddard describe for the architect that will most likely succeed in their transformation of a school; and, which Dean describes with respect to leaders’support for their senior team.

It’s certain that my time in Hertfordshire was the most important crucible of my leadership career to date. The preparation of this piece has been incredibly powerful for me in reflecting on my experience, understanding how I led HLG and how I will lead my next mission.

Matt Hamnett, Director, MH+A

Over the next few weeks FE News will be publishing this research in full, and FETL will be hosting a webinar with Matt on the report later in February.

Chapter One: The further education operating context is incredibly tough / The introduction of T levels

Chapter Two: College performance compared to other sectors

Chapter Three: The 5 causes of poor performance in FE

Chapter Four: Seven lenses of transformation for FE / FE Can Learn From The Success Of Other Sectors

Chapter Five: Good Strategy Is Crucial For FE Transformation / Policy Cycle Blights FE: Colleges Leaders Should Chart Their Own Course

Chapter Six: How to unleash the talent already in your college / Aligning funding with organisational purpose, strategy and transformation priorities

Chapter Seven: Leading the transformation in FE

Conclusion: Government knows what effective improvement intervention in the education sector looks like: Its failure to do so in FE is a choice.

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