In the 6 July issue of the Times Educational Supplement, Sir Frank McLoughlin, the Educational and Training Foundation’s Director of Professional Development, shares his four key strategies for building the reputation of a FE institution.
A positive reputation is the foundation of any successful organisation but it is often the hardest to gain and the quickest to lose, as anyone senior involved in the recent TSB bank account problems can surely testify. How we protect our reputation when crisis hits has been under the spotlight recently, but another key challenge for us, both as a sector and as individual institutions, is how we build a strong reputation in the first place, so that we are more resilient in the face of crisis – an issue that has been at the forefront of my thinking throughout my career.
It can seem that our sector is experiencing an unprecedentedly challenging time reputationally. Yet in the thirty-plus years I have worked in Further Education (FE), I have seen the reputation of the sector wax and wane. And while, yes, now is a critical time for us to improve our image, I would argue that it is also an opportune time, as the country’s employers and government’s goals are aligned with that of the sector for the first time in several decades. Now is the time to take advantage and tell the story of how our sector transforms lives.
Four key strategies
So how do we build a reputation? There are four key strategies in successful reputation-building that I have identified in the course of my career that I’d like to share. Firstly, though, it’s important to think about what reputation is. In my view, it is the estimation in which the person or organisation is held by the community or public in general. You don’t own your reputation. It is owned by that community looking into and at your organisation. You can build, shape and manage it, but ultimately you cannot control it.
To shape and design a reputation, the first step is to be clear about what your Primary Purpose is. As you develop your organisation’s vision and mission statement, also ask yourselves the question, ‘What are we primarily known for?’ I think, as a sector, we should be primarily known for technical education. I acknowledge we do great work outside of that, and indeed this is an issue that draws much debate – as can be seen in our recent publication, The Purpose of the Further Education Sector Now, authored by a range of sector leaders who have taken part in the ETF’s Strategic Leadership Programme at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.
The second critically important key is Alignment. When you are aligned with people who want you to deliver your purpose, you have an even better opportunity to succeed. Back in 2005, the Foster Review made a recommendation, albeit buried in paragraph 157 of the report, that Principals of the most successful colleges should go out and fly the flag for FE by telling their story. Yet, if people do not want to hear your story, you’re not going to have much success.
And that was the case for many years. Governments and the wider country for many years did not want to hear the FE story. They did not want to hear it because it wasn’t aligned with where their priorities were. But now that technical education is high up the political agenda, we are aligned with real opportunity. Our moment is coming.
Association is my third strategic key. Whenever I visit colleges, Principals will highlight the success of their collaborative work with prestigious employers. This is reputation-building by association. That’s why I’m delighted that at the Education and Training Foundation (ETF), we have built on our relationship with Oxford Saïd Business School to co-design and co-deliver the Preparing for CEO programme, which is preparing our sector’s next generation of skilled and visionary leaders. This world-leading business school is closely aligned with what we as a sector are primarily trying to achieve, and through this association we are building the confidence, reputation and prestige of our sector.
My fourth key is Acuity. We need to be observant and listen. High profile falls from grace often occur because people did not listen, or they listened but had not responded. That’s why the work we do around student satisfaction and staff satisfaction is so important. It helps ward off crises before they strike. Also, through listening and responding, you can shape the developing culture of your organisation, and get the discretionary effort you need from staff in order to deliver exceptional results. Ultimately, you will not be a great organisation with a great reputation unless your staff are willing to go that extra mile for you.
We are, as a sector, in a promising place reputationally, the stars are all aligning. It is tempting to keep looking inwards owing to the volume of challenges we face, but we have to look outwards and tell our story to the world. Reputation is a crucial key to unlocking success.