Sir Steve’s Blog – February 2023

Sir Steve Lancashire is Chair of Forum Strategy’s National #TrustLeaders CEO network. Here is his latest monthly article for our members and partners.

‘Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it’.

Yes indeed, Dumbledore. Well said. I’ve long been a student of the power of language and sometimes obsess excessively over choice of words both when speaking and (especially) when writing. Not in a Pride and Prejudice Mr Collins kind of way ( ‘I do sometimes amuse myself with arranging such little elegant compliments, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible’) but more in an appreciation of their importance in ensuring that the intention behind whatever is spoken or written is delivered with clarity, without ambiguity and leaves as little to (mis)interpretation as possible.

I read a study a while ago about the words that powerful people avoid because they can diminish message and intent. Words such as ‘just’ – which is a protector word, softening what needs to be achieved (I’m just following up on..) and playing down the importance of what you are seeking or doing; drama words – such as ‘totally’, ‘absolutely’ (I’m totally committed..) which can be superfluous and add unnecessary drama and reduce the impact of a message or comment; superior words – such as ‘actually’ and ‘obviously’, which can be condescending and seem to make assumptions about a person’s level of understanding; and finally, ability words (‘I’ll try’ or ‘don’t worry about it’) which can suggest that you are unsure of your abilities or lack confidence or, with the second phrase, are overconfident and are belittling the other person. When I read it, it really resonated because I do pay close attention to what people say and write, and the language they choose to use. And make assumptions based on it.

In a completely different way, I love some words because they are just fun to say – words that take your mouth to the gym so that when you’ve enunciated every syllable you’ve done  the oral equivalent of a bench press or a drop set (I believe those are gym terms!). Two such words are ‘nomenclature’ and ‘gubernatorial’ which, happily, are pertinent to the theme of this blog. Before we get to that, just have a go (slowly) and you’ll see what I mean.

No-men-cla-ture  (nəʊˈmeŋ.klə.tʃə)   Gu-ber-na’to-ri-al  (ɡuː.bən.əˈtɔː.ri.əl)

See? And just like after any gym workout, you’ve earned a glass of wine.

These phonetically pleasing words are pertinent in different ways, and I’ll come to the second one a little later on.

Nomenclature has its origins in early 17th century French and Latin. Nomenclatura from nomen ‘name’ and clatura ‘calling’ and means, of course, (please mentally delete ‘of course’, it’s a superior word) a name applied to something. So, what naming ceremony has been happening to catch my eye? None other than our very own Forum Strategy publishing its first thinkpiece on ‘Thriving Trusts’. And in doing so rejecting the nomenclature that both the DfE (and other organisations) have adopted in using the term ‘Strong Trusts’.

But is this just semantics and to be ignored? I don’t think so.

I do have a problem with the notion of a ‘strong’ trust and I am much (remove ‘much’ – drama word!) more comfortable with the more sophisticated ‘thriving’. Why?

Firstly, let’s put aside for now the connotations of power, autocracy and even force, closely associated with ‘strong’, (you can be strong and evil as well as strong and good); to me, using ‘strong trust’ implies that there is a fixed descriptor that can be applied to a trust. That we can write a list of characteristics that, just like the Ofsted framework, tries to capture what ‘strong’ looks like and when you’ve ticked all the boxes you get the badge. We all know this one size fits all, mechanistic approach does little to capture the richness and complexity of our schools; it’ll do even less to properly capture the diverse nature of organisations, structured in a myriad of ways, serving a wide range of communities, of different sizes and in different stages of development.

There are two possible reasons for wanting to categorise trusts in this way. One is an attempt to identify and share best practice; the other, if I was cynical enough to say it, is to provide a ‘framework’ to hold trusts accountable by regulators. My view is the former, whilst laudable, won’t be achieved in this way, it is too unsophisticated to properly describe the nature and effectiveness of what trusts do, and as for the latter, that already exists in the form of summary evaluations by HMI, which to be fair are generally conducted well and I have had only positive experiences of.

“Firstly, let’s put aside for now the connotations of power, autocracy and even force, closely associated with ‘strong’, (you can be strong and evil as well as strong and good); to me, using ‘strong trust’ implies that there is a fixed descriptor that can be applied to a trust.”

My main reason, though, for preferring the idea of ‘thriving trusts’ is that, by definition, it acknowledges that we are in a period of Trust evolution. The oldest registered academy trusts in the country is just over 20 years old, with the vast majority being much younger . Compare that to the oldest registered company in the world (generally regarded as Kongō Gumi founded in 578, so well over 1400 years ago; a family-owned business in the construction sector building Buddhist temples) and we are reminded of just how young the sector is, and that maturation is, in my view, still a long way off. If we think of the generally recognised five stages of organisational/business growth, many trusts are still in the set up/developmental and growth stages in their evolution and I think this needs acknowledging in any attempt to either evaluate trusts, or when getting into the terms that best describe them. (Before we leave nomenclature, let’s hope we never get into other business lifecycle terminology such as Zombie MATs or Dead MATs, it was bad enough having a conversation with a former Junior Minister about why I wouldn’t set up a ‘Hospital MAT’).

Given all I’ve just said about the need to allow the sector to mature before drawing hard and fast conclusions, of course it’s right for us to try and extrapolate what we can to this point. Some essential truths are emerging and I’m looking forward to the further work Forum Strategy is going to be doing in this area. I think it will be fascinating to see the correlation between conclusions being drawn in the education MAT sector and those more established lessons drawn from the wider business community. I’d expect to see a lot of commonality and one area that I’m particularly pleased to see identified as one of the six key areas in the Forum thinkpiece is the importance of shared governance at both Board level and local governing body level in generating greater support, accountability, and professional and social capital.

And so, to the second of my ‘work out’ words, gubernatorial. To many this will appear to be an Americanism, and indeed I first came across it when the Chair of Governors in my first Headship asked to see me on gubernatorial business and I had to fake it and then look it up! She was American and as it was second nature for her to use it, so it has become for me. It refers of course, in this sense, to the role of the trust board and other layers of governance in our organisations. As we know, collectively trusts have chosen to organise this in several different ways, the variation largely occurring around local governance and whether this has any real teeth through schemes of delegation or is advisory in nature. There’s arguments for both, I always landed on the former because I’m a believer in local representation, local decision making and local accountability.

“My main reason… for preferring the idea of ‘thriving trusts’ is that, by definition, it acknowledges that we are in a period of Trust evolution.”

This aspect is not really what I’m going to focus on, however, because when considering ‘thriving trusts’ I am in no doubt that a good proportion of any success at REAch2 was down to gubernatorial effectiveness. Firstly, as a result of having a highly qualified, highly knowledgeable, brave trust board and secondly because of the quality of the relationship I was able to forge with each of the three Chairs of the Board, as a result of which I was challenged and supported into being a better Chief Executive.

As far as the former is concerned, it’s well documented what the benefits to an organisation are of having a top-notch board for the ‘mechanics’ of good corporate governance, compliance, regulation etc. Beyond this, the real additional value lay for me in our board’s willingness to stand tall and be accountable, shoulder to shoulder with me when the stakes were high, when things didn’t go as planned or when there were tough decisions to be taken.This gave me confidence and reassurance in their ability to encourage and even inspire innovation, whilst balancing this with skilful evaluation of potential risks to the trust. This kept us ambitious and creative yet safe and, despite them collectively being my boss, making their collective intellect, talent, skills, experience and knowledge open to me without any judgement, or ever making me feel inadequate or ill equipped for the job. It’s quite something to work for such a team, and I choose that word carefully.

Much of this was possible, as I mentioned above, because of the relationship I formed with the Chair of the Board. It would’ve been easy to have been intimidated by the first Chair of REAch2. A Cambridge educated, hugely successful, multi-millionaire business man with a social conscience. Posh, rich and a do-gooder as I now, with his knowledge, fondly refer to  him. I was in the strange position, as founder, of building a trust board and agreeing to them rather than the other way around. When I first met Peter, the Chair, and realised how impressive he was, and how challenging he might be, it would have been easy to let him pass by (the DfE had put him forward from Academy Ambassadors) but there was something in his passion and commitment that seemed to mirror my own and when he said  ‘I will give you no money but I will give endlessly of my time and experience’, I realised that he was just what I needed in a Chair. Someone who knew more than me about running a company because, as a Head teacher of one primary school, I knew precious little about building an organisation to match the scale of my (and Peter’s) ambition.

 “one area that I’m particularly pleased to see identified as one of the six key areas in the Forum Strategy thinkpiece is the importance of shared governance at both Board level and local governing body level in generating greater support, accountability, and professional and social capital.”

The rest is history. Peter and I were a perfect team seeing the Trust grow from 1 school to 30 schools in three years (30 to 60 schools came with 2 different Chairs), the establishment of a second trust in a different part of the country (Astrea) and then a third (ReachSouth) and various other things. So, as I say, the perfect team. Sharing what made it so, will, I hope, be of interest to you as fellow CEOs in considering your own relationship, and the importance of this relationship, with the Chair of the Board. I’ve got two bits of ‘home grown’ wisdom to share.

Firstly, treat the relationship with the Chair of the Board like a marriage – and get a prenup!

It is akin to a marriage- two people enter into an agreement accepting legal, financial (and emotional) responsibility for a family made up of adults, children, money, and property. Sound familiar? And like a marriage the entire family is affected when the relationship is in trouble; little can be accomplished in an organisation should the relationship between the CEO and Chair crumble. So how to prevent this?

A prenup conversation is really helpful in getting things off on the right footing. Ideally this conversation should happen before both parties start to work together, (as I did with Peter before appointment), but if that’s not possible, as soon after as possible (as I did with the two subsequent Chairs following their election). The conversation needs to determine the practices that will best support the relationship. Each time, we focussed on expectations of each other, preferred methods of communication, preferred working patterns and an explicit promise to be open, transparent, and honest with each other.

The first building block of a successful relationship in this context, I believe, is mutual respect. Every CEO and Chair brings different experiences, beliefs, culture, and values to the table. Respecting and celebrating these differences and understanding the strength that this brings to the partnership is crucial. I genuinely valued Peter’s immense commercial, entrepreneurial, business acumen. I also couldn’t fail to admire his social conscience in giving so freely and genuinely of his time to our trust when he could have been doing a thousand other things. He tells me that he respected my achievements as an educationalist, my ambition to do more for disadvantaged communities and my passion for the role. So far so good. A mutual respect as equals that fosters a desire to make the partnership work.

“Every CEO and Chair brings different experiences, beliefs, culture, and values to the table. Respecting and celebrating these differences and understanding the strength that this brings to the partnership is crucial.”

In every relationship, though, the central tenet is always going to be centred on trust. Can each party trust each other, because we all know that without trust any relationship is doomed to failure. One of my Gurus, Michael Fullan, says that ‘trust comes from good experiences’. I’ve always found this to be true and happily this has been the case for me. But it didn’t happen by chance. As Chair, Peter was very explicit with me in our prenup conversation about what I needed to do and how I needed to behave in order for him to trust me. In a very brief summary: no surprises, no hiding of mistakes or problems, no defensiveness, complete transparency and no bullshit. I was equally clear to him: don’t interfere with the day job, tell me if you think I’m not doing something well enough, manage the board well and have my back (with the number of risks I took and some hefty mistakes I made, I tested this latter aspect to the limit). But we never let each other down; we were both true to our word and the trust benefited enormously from this. I was a better CEO; he was a better Chair.

The second piece of wisdom is to make sure there is role clarity between you both and to protect that distinction fiercely. If the roles are not clear then the relationship can be put in jeopardy. The job of the Chair is to run the board. The job of the CEO is to run the organisation. No confusion. I didn’t really have an issue with this (the prenup worked on all three occasions). In coaching and mentoring sessions, though, I’m often surprised and sometimes a little alarmed when I hear about Chairs getting amongst the weeds of the day to day running of the organisation or being part of decision making at an operational level and not keeping that oh so important balcony view. My advice to CEOs in this situation is, always have the confidence to tell them (nicely) to butt out. To be blunt, it does nobody any favours to indulge a Chair who wants to blur the boundaries. It works the other way too of course; it is incumbent on us as CEOs to know the limitations of our authority and understand when it is imperative to involve the Chair and indeed other trustees, and to accept that the Chair has an absolute right, in the right forum, to represent the trust without the CEO. Knowing these boundaries on both sides is key to an effective relationship that allows both parties to carry out their roles effectively, which is to the benefit of all.

So, to conclude. It is up to the sector, and all of us who are part of the sector, to take control of the narrative around what thriving trusts look like. It’s not for a politician, a civil servant or anyone else who hasn’t done the job. We are the people perfectly positioned to make the case that the best way to fulfil our duty to our local communities is for schools to be part of a thriving trust. It’s up to us to describe what a thriving trust is, using our own language, and we are well on the way to doing this.

We do know , as part of this, that a trust where the CEO, the Chair and the board work in unity is much more likely to thrive, so let us all take an oral workout and commit to gu-ber-na’to-ri-al  (ɡuː.bən.əˈtɔː.ri.əl) excellence.

 

Sir Steve Lancashire is Chair of Forum Strategy’s national #TrustLeaders CEO network. Our next national network meeting will take place on March 9th and will pick up on some of the themes in this blog. Find out more here: http://forumstrategy.org/forum-strategy-events/

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Sir Steve’s Blog – February 2023

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Sir Steve Lancashire is Chair of Forum Strategy’s National #TrustLeaders CEO network. Here is his latest monthly article for our members and partners.'Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury and...

read more

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