Sarah Shaw, partner in the education practice at consultants Odgers Interim, discusses the need, and rise in demand, for interim executives in the Further Education sector.
It goes without saying that the FE sector has evolved hugely in the last few years and it now changes just as quickly as its private sector and more commercial focussed cousins. This kind of ongoing and rapid change often requires a new way of thinking which has been embraced by many but worryingly overlooked by some. The sector is – of course – being driven by a complex agenda that now includes new policies, curriculum and initiatives coming out of the Department for Education and BIS as well as changes to funding and more emphasis being placed on an improved student experience. There is debate around each of these factors, but the key to tackling each one is to take a step back and really analyse what needs doing and being realistic if the skills aren't available in-house to fulfil a specific need.
A lot of people working in FE are sceptical about taking a more corporate approach and looking at the universities and other institutions as standalone businesses. Sure, it's a mind-shift but it's one that is now essential for maintaining long-term stability and planning. One of the key trends being very successfully adopted across the country is the use of specialist interims whose skilled capabilities can be tapped into on a finite or project by project basis.
It's been well publicised that many FE institutions have had made efficiencies across their academic as well as well as clerical, technical and managerial teams in response to budget cuts and to balance the books. Staff redundancies are sadly the norm so it can – quite rightly - be difficult to justify taking on new staff to the unions. This means getting on board results driven individuals, who are used to being parachuted into challenging situations and providing immediate solutions for their clients can be a sensible and – more importantly - cost effective option.
Forward thinking and switched on institutions are now actively looking to diversify and are finding new/ innovative ways of increasing income in order to offset the impact of budget cuts - with colleges especially trying to do much more with a lot less. As a result, the kinds of skills that are most in demand from our FE clients are for interims who can lead on income generation; such as developing innovative employer partnerships that drive up revenue from the private sector rather than relying on the Skills Funding Agency, as well as improving and increasing employer engagement, curriculum development and maintaining quality standards.
There are – of course - sensitivities that should always be considered when using an interim along with realistic expectations. 'Fit' is central to everything as even if an executive is only being taken on for a short period of time, it is important that both client and interim share the same goals so the executive can perform better by quickly gaining a good understanding of the institution's culture and aspirations. However, on the flip side, our experience has shown that the interim also needs to have the gravitas and experience in order to command respect internally, so he - or she - can make an impact and a positive difference from the very beginning.
As I've said, income generation and curriculum development skills are in huge demand but there are other non-academic roles that rapidly add value in this complex and changing environment, for example; HR, Finance, IT, Estates and Facilities Management, Marketing and Communications, Student Recruitment and Academic Partnerships. We are also seeing more placements for academic services such as roles in Senior Management Teams and Executive Boards right through to Vice Principals and Heads of Department.
To sum up, interim management resource is now becoming a very attractive option in these unprecedented times of organisational change and uncertainty. Many FE institutions recognise that interims can offer an external, apolitical and objective viewpoint which can bring innovative thinking and fresh ideas that can make all the difference and leave a valuable, lasting legacy.
Sarah Shaw is a partner in the Odgers Interim's education practice