#BeingTheCEO: A CEO’s reflections on leading through COVID19

Ann Davey

Ann Davey is the CEO of Pathfinder Schools, a trust of eight schools – including infant, junior, primary and secondary schools – across Northamptonshire. Ann is a member of the National #TrustLeaders CEO network.

For every single one of us, our best laid plans for 2020 have been significantly disrupted by Covid19. This unexpected crisis has presented us all with a multitude of challenges – which we were completely unaware were on the horizon as we celebrated the arrival of 2020! For this article Ann Davey discusses with Rachael Gacs how Pathfinder Schools trust has navigated its way through the challenges presented by Covid19, and how team-work and collaboration, and the trust’s values, have enabled this.

“Like all trusts, we have found the Covid19 crisis unique, as it was something that no one was able to plan ahead for.

As a person who deeply values long-term strategic thinking and seeing ‘the big picture’, I usually keep a diary which not only plans for the day ahead, and the week ahead – but also the month ahead, and the year ahead too. Of course, this kind of approach was severely disrupted in recent months! In March I had to dig out an old notebook and start again, as I found myself filling entire pages with to-do lists for each day. The ability to think strategically at any level seemed to have gone out of the window as, like every trust up and down the country, we were having to react and respond to circumstances which were evolving on a daily basis. It was – and to some extent, continues to be – like being on a rollercoaster, with little idea of what was round the next bend, let alone any chance of the ride coming to an end.

“The ability to think strategically at any level seemed to have gone out of the window”

Without a doubt there are two things which have enabled us to ride this rollercoaster as a trust as successfully as we could have hoped for – our teamwork, and our values. These two things have helped us not only to manage the day-to-day operational decisions and actions which needed implementing at such pace, but have also allowed us to begin to reflect on the lessons which we can learn, and on the positives which have emerged from this time which we can build upon. One example of this would be developing our model of learning and teaching so that where it is being delivered is less important, and technology will certainly play an important part in this.

Teamwork and Collaboration

As a trust made up of eight schools, we have paused to count our blessings on more than one occasion. Our headteachers have been able to work collaboratively when facing, and responding to, new and difficult challenges. Likewise, teachers from across all of our schools have been able to work together to create resources for pupils working from home, and in the development of our recovery curriculum. We have also had staff from across our schools working together on supporting wellbeing across the trust during this time. This teamwork has reduced the pressure which could so easily have fallen upon individual headteachers or members of staff in different circumstances.

“Our headteachers have been able to work collaboratively when facing, and responding to, new and difficult challenges.”

As CEO I have also been fortunate to be in contact with many other trust leaders, who have supported me in leading Pathfinder Schools during this challenging time. These contacts include a network of local CEOs, Forum Strategy’s #TrustLeaders network, and connections with colleagues met through Forum Strategy’s Being the CEO programme. Conversations with colleagues have provided a really good ‘sense check’ for me, both in terms of reflecting on how we have responded to challenges as a trust, and also how best to move forward through each ‘stage’ of this crisis.

Another invaluable contact has been my mentor, David Strudley.  I’ve been in touch with David throughout recent months and it’s been exceptionally useful to talk through issues with him, and to get his perspective and his advice. His influence has helped to keep me inspired despite the difficulties, and as a direct result I have been able to steer our senior leadership team in a more creative direction, that has meant we have been able to stay aware of the bigger picture. That’s been especially important at a time when it could be all too easy to get bogged down by negativity, and focus only on the problems we currently face.

I think a real positive that has come out of the past few months is that trust leaders are finding their own, collective voice. Most would agree that the guidance ‘from the top’ has not been sufficient, and as a consequence, leaders have felt more empowered to trust their own judgement instead. We’re coming together more now, and are deciding for ourselves what is important. We’re doing our best to keep the accountability which comes from above in perspective, as this can so often be a distraction. Indeed, very often we discover many unintended consequences if we focus too narrowly on exam results alone.

Our values

There have been many difficult decisions to make over the past few months. When it comes to home learning, different trusts have taken different approaches, and it has become clear that no one approach can please all of the people all of the time. At Pathfinder Schools we made the decision to cover the curriculum through a creative and topic based approach, with a focus on PSHE and wellbeing, as opposed to expecting our pupils to follow a strict timetable of online lessons. Our main aim has been to support our families to get through this time without adding unnecessary pressure.

While most parents and staff have appreciated this approach, there are of course many different and opposing viewpoints, and this is where the importance of our values, and staying true to those values as a trust, has come into its own. Pathfinder Schools trust has three core values; independence and collaboration, with humanity as the thread that runs through everything we do. And in every decision we have made, and in everything we have done, we have asked ourselves, ‘are we acting in line with our values, and acting with humanity?’

These values run through every level of our organisation and have been our north star. They have given our staff, and our trust as a whole, the confidence to do what we need to do, and what we believe is right – and to stay true to those decisions.

As CEO, one of my key roles is to support our headteachers to have the confidence to stand firm in the decisions that we have made collaboratively, especially when having to handle any complaints or criticism of those decisions. Our values have meant that we have been able to be consistent in our decision making, and to act in line with our principals across all of our schools. This consistency is incredibly reassuring for our headteachers and our staff, especially because they understand how each of our decisions is rooted in our values. Everyone within the trust understands why we have made the decisions that we have made. Our similarity of approach across our schools has also highlighted the character of our trust, as something which binds all of our schools together, and that has been really important in demonstrating our authenticity, and our fairness, as a trust.

“With a great deal of change comes a great deal of potential – but we need to grasp that potential before it slips away”

The future

The challenge of the Covid19 crisis has been difficult for all of us, and we are still as yet unsure where we are on the roller coaster ride. However, when I’m able to take a step back, I can see some of the positives and the possibilities that could emerge from this crisis moving forward. With a great deal of change comes a great deal of potential – but we need to grasp that potential before it slips away if we are going to make our future landscape something better than the one that currently exists.

My hope is that we will emerge from this crisis stronger. That the ‘little things’ that used to bother us so much won’t seem like such a big deal in grand scheme of things anymore. I hope we will become more confident as a profession in looking outwards and not upwards for our accountability, and that moving forward we will choose to be accountable to our pupils and communities first and foremost.

For Pathfinder Schools, it will ultimately all come back down to our values, and to that central core of humanity in all that we do. Humanity will continue to be at the heart of all the decisions that we make, and at the centre of how we judge our success moving forward.

Ann Davey was speaking with Forum Strategy’s Marketing and Resources Manager, Rachael Gacs.


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