Professional Standards for Middle Leaders: Moving out of your comfort zone

Nick Mercado portrait

This case study investigates the experience of non-curriculum leaders and illustrates the benefit of development beyond that of a person’s initial role and skills. Nick Mercado, Group Head of Student Services at Crawley College, discusses how over time he progressed from working as a temp to being a key leader within his institution and reflects on the value of pushing beyond your comfort zone.

In my current role I have responsibility for delivering student services at Crawley College. These services include pastoral support, student voice, careers programmes for students and positive student behaviour management. In addition to this, I lead on quality assurance for student services across the college group; this includes ensuring that there are clear and workable systems in place across all campuses.

In 2003 I moved to the UK and applied for a job as a temp in the admissions team at Crawley College. Over time I moved into team leadership within admissions and then moved to lead on Information Advice and Guidance (IAG). The college has experienced a series of mergers. Throughout this time of growth, I have continued to progress. Initially my career was very systems orientated. However, when I took the lead for IAG I would, at times, deputise for my manager, which led to me needing to learn more about student welfare and the strategies to provide effective support which moved away from a purely systems orientated approach and towards more student orientated work.

I was never the type of person who would give talks/presentations, in fact, it would make me so nervous I would shake. However, my line manager gave me the opportunity to deliver presentations and build my confidence. I recall the first time I presented to a group of more than 200 students. I was terrified, but once I started and got into the flow of my talk, I was fine. I realised I knew the material I was presenting well. This, coupled with my passion about what further education – and my college – could offer these students, resulted in my confidence growing as I delivered the presentation.

Afterwards I was elated and proud of this achievement. I continued to be nervous for future presentations, but I have developed strategies to manage this and become more adept in delivering to large groups of people, whether they are students, staff or external stakeholders.

In the early years of my leadership role, training and development tended to have an on-the-job approach. This was useful but, at times, it could lack structure and clarity, which could be stressful. I remember being given responsibility for personal development, behaviour and welfare in readiness for an Ofsted inspection and was the link person for one of the Ofsted Inspectors. This really opened my eyes to my capabilities, as well as allowing me to learn a lot from the Ofsted process. I found this very positive.

However, I also reflected on my own performance during the inspection and realised that I needed to learn more about what was happening in the wider FE sector so that I could become more proactive and less reactive. I was motivated to bring in ideas that would facilitate meaningful changes that impacted across the full range of services in my college.

In my current role I have had the opportunity to undertake formal qualifications in strategic management, which were useful in understanding the theory of management and leadership, though for this to be effective I engaged in internal training for leaders which is bespoke to working in an FE college. This hybrid development was very beneficial for me.

The Professional Standards for Middle Leaders are integral to the work and development I have engaged in over several years. Student Services has a central and complex role within the college. As a leader within this service, I need to ensure my professional values, skills and knowledge are well rounded and continually develop. These range from presenting information clearly and reflecting on my approach to supporting others, to developing my knowledge on educational pedagogy in supporting students. It is for this reason that the ETF Professional Standards for Middle Leaders are so useful, and I fully subscribe to the values they set out.