Looking back, looking forwards- x 5 lessons from being a CEO- a quick read

Toby has been a CEO of one of the largest multi academy trusts, CEO of AQA the largest exam board in the UK and was previously the deputy CEO of the National College for School Leadership.  Before that – he was the director of the DfE Innovation Unit, having been a headteacher and leader of a federation of schools. Here he reflects on some of the key lessons from his time as a CEO.

I was delighted to be asked to speak to a new cohort on the ‘Being the CEO’ programme recently. The latest group of participants (all serving CEOs or CEO designates) come from diverse  setting, geography, and backgrounds; an exciting mix. The future looks promising. It’s easy to forget that the academy movement is still relatively new and the world, and ecosystem, for multi-academy trusts is even younger. In many ways as Chief Executives you are making history as you go along. What was striking was how many similarities there are in the challenges that you face with many others.  For example:

  • Understanding the politics and history of the foundation of the trust and how to get the balance right of collegiality with necessary central compliance and shared capacity.
  • Getting the right mix of staff and the best possible central leadership capacity.
  • Setting the strategy and vision and building a common purpose whilst dealing with the operational and tactical
  • Pace of growth, transfer, merger and the right scale and balance.
  • Taking everyone with you and ensuring great Governance

All these things, and more, seem to be perennials and each setting and challenge is unique. However, one of the advantages of being part of the Forum CEO network and/or the Being The CEO programme is the power of the network and the knowledge that can be shared.

My top 5 lessons are simply the ones that came to me at the time, so they are not exhaustive and certainly aren’t prioritised. Each, on its own, could be a book.  They will not surprise you either!


This sounds rather twee but on those tricky days and when you have an agonising decision to make remember that you are there to serve the students and their community. I always have pictures of past pupils in my head and remember when I have had to make really hard, sometimes unpopular, decisions which were uncomfortable for the leaders but right for the student. Keep your perspective and your staff will be reassured with your narrative which reminds them that you are grounded in trying to do what is right for students and drawing on your own experience and the shared values of  the Trust.

What are your anchors and which students do you have in the back of your mind? When did you take a brave decision in the interests of those that you served? Do you tell the story often enough to your team about what drives you, your roots and why you are doing it?


I know that you know this, but there’s a huge difference between a governing body and a MAT Board of Trustees. You are running a Ltd company and a charity governed by the law, The Charity Commission and the academy handbook etc. You need the right skill set and mix of expertise, personalities and chemistry to provide the right oversight, challenge and support. You can’t (and shouldn’t) choose them but you should support their development, recruitment and the right turnover. You also need to be clear on schemes of delegation, and that the lines of accountability are clear – as well as of course constantly ensuring that there is a clear demarcation between executive and non-executive roles. The relationship with your chair is critical and you need to invest in that relationship and make sure that there are no surprises for them. I have always given an end of week update to the chair to ensure that they are kept in the loop (and don’t choke on their Sunday morning breakfast over an unexpected headline!).

How do you keep your chair informed? How much time are you investing in making sure that your board are the best that they can be?

The rest of this article is for members only

The rest of this article is for members only. If you are not a member you can read about our membership here


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