Moving from the military into FE leadership

Campbell Christie CBE became Principal/CEO of Bracknell and Wokingham College in 2011, after a distinguished career in the military. Campbell had originally trained as a teacher, but ultimately spent 27 years in the Royal Navy, retiring as a Commodore. In this article, Campbell, who for a period was also responsible for the education and training of 35,000 sailors and Royal Marines, discusses the parallels of his two careers.

Campbell-Christie outside Bracknell & Wokingham College
Campbell Christie CBE

After I became a college principal in 2011, people used to say that “you must find it very different from the military!”. While my naval career gave me some amazing memories (training as a Commando and as a Navy Diver, serving in West Belfast and the First Gulf War, leading a mission to Uzbekistan, visiting the Pentagon, White House and Oval Office), my answer was always the same – that there were more similarities than differences! Both roles required an ability to create a vision, set strategic goals and establish achievable and monitorable milestones, backed up by adequate resources. Both required the ability to communicate the vision and to lead and motivate people so that they could get the best out of themselves and their teams.

Naturally, there were things that were new. The lexicon and terminology of FE was one! But there were more fundamental issues too. Like the need to focus on cash flow. Although, as a Commodore, I had been responsible for a £100m annual training contract, I hadn’t had to make sure there was enough cash in the bank every month so that staff could get paid. That responsibility really focused the mind! This led on to new aspects that I really enjoyed – such as forming a strong relationship with our bank and developing commercial nous through taking a personal lead on the sale of redundant college estate.

My military service had given me extensive command and staff training. I had been a student on this year-long residential course, a member of its directing staff and finally its Deputy Director. In many ways, therefore, I had been prepared to act as a change agent which, of course, is one of the aims of the ETF’s FE Strategic Leadership Programme (SLP). Had I not had the benefits of command and staff training, I would have leapt at the chance to take the SLP. I know from friends and colleagues who are SLP alumni, just how much the Programme meant to them.

The ability to learn fast is vital in the military, especially when postings can occur every 18 months to two years (rather like a government minister!) For example, I had 15 different jobs in my 27-year career. Like a government minister, you have to master your brief quickly so that you can fight your corner effectively.

That is why I was full of questions when I first took up my position as Principal. I had a lot to learn! Asking simple, open and genuine questions such as “Why do we do that?” or “Why do we do it that way?” helped me to learn on the job and also encouraged a helpful self-analysis of our work.

To finish on another similarity, whenever I got fed-up with the policy/resources staff-work that goes with a senior management role, I would don my leadership ‘cap’ and visit a training establishment or classroom to take pride in the great teaching that was being delivered. I would get a real buzz from engaging with the sailors/Royal Marines/students who were: Where they wanted to be. Doing what they wanted to do. Getting where they wanted to go.

Campbell Christie CBE

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