'In turbulent times, college chairs play a crucial role'

College governors have never been more important – now is the time to invest in them, writes Sir Frank McLoughlin.

The scale and complexity of the challenges that colleges face are at an unprecedented level. The pressures on college CEOs and principals are particularly demanding: the ability to lead their organisations to deliver on a public value purpose and mission, while maintaining commercial agility and financial viability, requires a complex set of skills. The demands of the role are amplified by the speed of disruptive change.

In a post-Brexit future – events in Parliament this evening permitting – the contribution that our FE system makes is only going to increase in importance. There is a recognition across all stakeholders that investment in FE leadership, in the broadest sense, comes at a critical time after many years of under-investment.

‘Flexible, systemic thinkers’ needed

The government has certainly grasped this fact, investing in the leadership skills of both CEOs and the other senior leaders and chief financial officers who support them in recent years.
Research into the role of the FE college CEO/principal, undertaken by Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford, found that characteristics of FE leaders have much in common with those of CEOs of private businesses and multi-national corporations around the globe: “Past experience and traditional approaches to strategy, control and communication are no longer reliable guides… CEOs today must find new ways to establish organisational values and culture, build teams, and align their companies [and] must lead at the intersection of the outside and inside…”

In short, today’s CEOs need to be “flexible, systemic thinkers, and comfortable with uncertainty, complexity, and constant change”.

High-profile leadership changes

The degree of scrutiny that FE college CEOs and principals experience when things do go wrong is exceptional. Recent high-profile changes in the top leadership of several colleges have thrown the challenges and the pressures of the role into stark relief.

And behind the headlines, there is a growing understanding that leadership – when it is strong – is as much to do with organisational culture and governance as it is with the performance of the chief executive and the executive team.

In fact, it is the quality of the relationship between the governing body and the senior leadership team – and by extension between the CEO and the chair – that can itself be a critical factor in success, as well as failure.

The board plays an important role in establishing and maintaining an organisational culture that supports strong leadership and which provides the foundations for resilience and sustained success.

Commitments and responsibilities

In times of turbulence, it is the chair and the board who need to ensure that the college is consistently holding to its purpose, and it is the chair and the board who have oversight of the solvency of the college and the validation of the organisation’s strategy.

Despite the considerable commitments and responsibilities that a chair takes on and the fact that in times of crisis they will be in the spotlight and under the same level of scrutiny as the CEO, the role is, in most cases, unremunerated.

Unremunerated and unsupported are far from being the same thing though, and neither the absence of financial reward nor the typically significant experience of those who hold the chair position should be seen as reasons not to provide support to them.

In need of support

Education and training providers appear to acknowledge the need to support board members, with 86 per cent reporting in the Education and Training Foundation’s (ETF) 2017 Training Needs Analysis that training had been provided to board members during the prior 12 months. The same research also identified a clear demand for support from board members themselves, with 70 per cent stating that further training and development would be of value.

The kind of support that will benefit chairs will vary, but – given the challenges and pressures these individuals face – it must take place in a supportive environment and address the need to deepen and broaden each participant’s leadership capabilities. Equally important is that it should provide the opportunity for these individuals to work with peers and to build a network that facilitates ongoing coaching and peer-to-peer support over an extended period.

That kind of support can make a real difference, enhancing the development of complex relationships between senior management teams and boards and growing the resilience of colleges. The importance of this is recognised in the Department for Education’s decision to fund the new ETF chairs programme at the Saïd Business School.

The bigger prize, of course, is to raise the esteem and reputation of our sector and build an even stronger technical and professional route to success. That must be worth investing in.

Sir Frank McLoughlin is associate director of leadership for the Education and Training Foundation. This article was originally published by TES on 12 March 2019.

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