Building external relationships & generating social and professional capital

Why leadership is going through a revolution; and what it means for MAT CEOs & heads.

“Leadership was once about muscles, now it’s about getting along with people.” Gandhi

The role of academy trust CEO remains a very new one, and trust boards and leaders across the system are still finding their feet in a very complex context. The transition from executive headship essentially means that the lead professional must now make the leap to corporate leader, and it can sometimes be a bumpy ride!

At Forum Strategy we work with academy trust CEOs nationwide through our five regional CEO networks, and our consultancy and coaching work; supporting them to grow and develop in their roles. In this series, we identify six key responsibilities that all academy trust CEOs should be delivering against, including:

  1. Delivering upon the vision and leading strategy
  2. The relationship between the CEO and the board
  3. People and Culture
  4. Improvement and organisational performance
  5. Organisational sustainability and compliance
  6. Building key external and internal relationships

The 6 aspects of the CEO role are Copyright (c) Forum Education Limited 2018

Many of our MAT Leaders members have been picking up our recommended reading, New Power, which considers the shift taking place from leadership that is predicated on the power that comes with position and money; to a new concept of leadership, where power is generated from the ‘bottom-up’ and relies on networks, influence and social capital. It’s an exciting time to be a leader, a time of endless possibilities unbound by the traditional structures and barriers of the past. However, only some leaders are recognising the shift and the significant influence it will have on their organisations in the decade ahead.

It’s a fascinating idea and one that is beginning to play out in our education system, not least in an age of technological upheaval combined with austerity and the increasingly complex challenges (and opportunities) facing children and young people. And be assured, whatever the Prime Minister said this week, austerity is going to be a reality for years to come – not least with an every growing ageing population and increasing demands on social and public services across the board. Leadership needs to evolve as a result.

The success of our end-users (children and young people) now fundamentally depends on providing them with a secure platform for healthy development. Yet, what we see instead is a generation of children whose life satisfaction is amongst the lowest in the developed world; declining mental health; the all-pervading influence of the internet and AI creating a chasm between ‘masters’ and ‘servants’ of technology; and the lowest levels of time spent outdoors than any other previous generation – impacting on physical health. Couple that with new models of employment – including growing self-employment – that bring opportunity for huge flexibility and creativity, but also uncertainty and a lack of safeguards for the next generation of workers (today’s pupils).

whatever the Prime Minister said this week, austerity is going to be a reality for years to come – not least with an every growing ageing population and increasing demands on social and public services across the board. Leadership needs to evolve as a result.

When we discuss these issues with CEOs and heads, we are met with a deep sense of frustration – not only based on the fact that children and young people are facing these challenges, but also that funding is limited and that there simply isn’t enough time in the day to address all of them alone. Indeed, it was at once reassuring that the Secretary of State recognised some of these issues in his conference speech this week, but at the same time concerning that the initiatives announced in response were piecemeal and limited in scope. It appears that, at least in providing a strategic response, leaders are on their own.

Yet, they aren’t. Only those waiting for national strategies from government are. Because what all of this represents is a need for CEOs and leaders – using their ever-growing influence and scale through multi-academy trusts – to develop ‘new power’ and work towards developing the networks and social capital that can help them develop a generation of confident, happy and successful young people. Indeed, it’s the only choice. Drawing on the time, expertise and resources of others – beyond the education system – is going to be key. The reality is biting that in the age of austerity and ever-growing complexity, leadership is about getting along with people, not about money, position or traditional levers. The most successful leaders of the next decade will recognise their role in fostering social capital.

It is the calling of MAT leaders, given their influence and scale, to be the guardians and champions of young people – providing the vision that others, within and beyond the organisation collaborate around.

What does this look like in practice? Well, it requires academy CEOs and trust boards to step up to a new leadership plate – and to build the relationships with communities, businesses, charities and higher education framed within a broad vision for giving their pupils the very best start. This is both necessary and enormously exciting for this generation of leaders. It is the calling of MAT leaders, given their influence and scale, to be the guardians and champions of young people – providing the vision that others, within and beyond the organisation collaborate around.

These external relationships are likely to be diverse, but all – if they are to have traction – will need to be framed within a compelling vision for ensuring this generation of pupils thrive, in the face of the challenges and opportunities they face. These relationships – depending on context – could involve:

  • Working with cutting-edge technology companies in shaping the learning experiences of pupils, not least in understanding how tech can be a force for good and enrich people’s lives and society as a whole;
  • Working in partnership with local sports clubs and environmental groups to enthuse young people to put down the tech and engage in inspiring physical and outdoors activity;
  • Developing relationships with local voluntary organisations – also in need of help in tight financial times – to ensure pupils develop a sense of place and social responsibility, in an age of superficial online relationships;
  • Engaging with regional businesses so that trusts and their schools can benefit from corporate social responsibility funding and initiatives;
  • Engaging with higher education – not simply for teacher training purposes – but to draw on the wealth of specialist talent amongst lecturers and academics, and opportunities to access resources. Remember, HEI needs a ’shop window’ to your young people;
  • Developing relationships with the early years sector to share intelligence, best practice and resources. They are your future pupils;
  • Working across multi-academy trusts to share expertise and resources – drawing on one another’s specific strengths;
  • Drawing on the knowledge and skills of young people themselves to mentor one another, and provide supportive relationships – perhaps across the boundaries of communities and academy trusts.

At our recent #MATLeaders conference, I described CEOs as being ‘the conductor of the orchestra’. A key role in being the conductor is to understand which external relationships are going to enhance and enrich the curriculum and the learning experiences of children and young people, as well as ensure their healthy development. This is about much more than dealing with the politics and civil servants.

Every MAT should have a ‘living’ list of key stakeholders, and a clear view of why that organisation or person is a key stakeholder and what it is that the relationship should try to achieve. MAT CEOs should also consider how they can foster a sense of mutual-benefit with those stakeholders. The trust board should also understand its responsibilities here, not only in championing the vision externally, but also in drawing on their networks and relationships to draw on a wide-range of stakeholders who can each play a part in enhancing the development and learning of young people. We strongly welcome the recommendation of the NGA, that external engagement should be the fourth responsibility of governing boards.

So, what tips do we have for CEOs (and heads) looking to develop new power and ensure their organisations benefit from high social capital:

  1. Engage your trust board on the importance of external relationships. Make external relationships and how they benefit children and young people’s lives a KPI for organisational success;
  2. Be clear on the vision and ensure it is compelling enough to bring people with you. This is about securing the health and prosperity of the next generation – everyone cares about that!
  3. Get out there and tell the story! Make a list – with you board and team – of organisations that can help to enhance children’s learning and development; either through broader opportunities, professional expertise, resource and money, or otherwise. Use the media, local networking events, and the internet to make those important links.
  4. Make it a reality for staff too. You must tell the story and foster the relationships, but staff must deliver on it. The CEO is the champion and the prime networker – but you’ll be overwhelmed if it’s your responsibility to manage the relationships. CEO’s that invest time and energy building social capital also risk collaborative overload. Distribute responsibility to your staff (or board members) to manage the day to day relationships. This generation of graduates are particularly inspired to join organisations that are well connected and purposefully collaborate with others around a vision for change;
  5. Measure success. Be clear about the impact that the relationship is having and if it is contributing to your vision for giving children that healthy and inspiring start to their lives. Survey stakeholders, pupils and staff for their views. Spend time on the relationships that add value, don’t waste time on those that don’t!
  6. Involve stakeholders in your visioning and strategic planning. When we undertake visioning sessions with MATs, we actively encourage them to invite local stakeholders – including business and community groups. The potential for galvanising social capital often proves to be enormous. When that’s done, create a advisory group for those external stakeholders who can add real value to your strategic development, and maybe recruit some of them to the trust board in the process!


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