Attracting the talent: Chief Executive recruitment for MAT boards in challenging times

By Saxton Bampfylde

Attracting the talent: Chief Executive recruitment for MAT boards in challenging times

Jo Ogilvy is a Partner and Head of the Schools Practice at Saxton Bampfylde. Ahead of Academy Ambassadors third annual board development day, an event sponsored by Saxton Bampfylde, Jo addresses the challenges faced when recruiting senior leaders at multi-academy trusts.

Recruiting a new chief executive for a Multi-Academy Trust (MAT) throws up a number of challenges, however, there are some real opportunities as well.  

We operate in a time where there is a fight for talent when recruiting educational leaders with the requisite track record, financial and operational expertise to lead a MAT.  These people often have choices and may prefer, for instance, the chance to build their own MAT rather than join an existing trust.  The role is so varied that it may prove difficult to identify and attract someone with relevant experience across all areas.  It helps to be as open minded as possible about the background of potential candidates, and instead focus on the skills and personal style required.  A board can make up for any gaps their CE may have through the team beneath them and the board's expertise.  There is a real opportunity here, as leaders from outside the sector are keen to join it, seeing MAT leadership as a potentially really exciting and relevant career move – their chance to lead organisations of significant scale, impact and purpose.  Being part of a move to improve children’s life chances can be a highly compelling proposition. 

A business or charity leader will often have skills that are highly relevant to MATs – knowledge of running multi-site operations, strong financial knowledge, an understanding of regulated environments, and the ability to think strategically as well as operationally.  What can be their downfall, however, is a lack of understanding about how schools operate.  Some would argue that this can be learnt quickly and that with the support of a strong director of education, it need not be a problem.  We recognise however that it is a potential stumbling block.  Risk can be mitigated by finding non-educationalists who bring some knowledge of education, perhaps having been a board member of another MAT, or having had executive roles that have crossed over with the sector. If the candidate has a strong cultural fit with an interest in education, this also helps. 

"Being part of a move to improve children’s life chances can be a highly compelling proposition."

If, on the other hand, the board is certain that the trust needs an educationalist, then we can’t emphasise enough how it helps to be open minded about the package and flexible working, as well as being clear about your vision.  The best people will have options and are often well paid, therefore these things really matter.  When appointing an educationalist, it is likely that they will value having strong operations and finance people beneath them. This will give the organisation the necessary depth to ensure strong financial management and will help ensure that any expansion happens in a way that is sustainable and effective.

If thinking creatively about where your next CE comes from, then there is likely to be a real variance with regards to candidates’ current remuneration (and what figure will persuade them to consider the role), and notice periods will also vary.  Being prepared with an interim solution can enable boards to consider those on six months’ notice; it can also be a way to offer someone within the organisation the chance to gain valuable experience.  

There can often be a tension when prioritising what it is a CE needs to do.  This is highly likely to be between a focus on educational vision and raising educational outcomes, and maintaining the trust’s financial and operational performance.  Which comes first?  The CE inevitably impacts where this focus lies, so it is important to think about counter-balance, given the importance of all aspects of MAT leadership.  Some carefully chosen board members might help redress the balance, as might a well-structured and high-quality SLT. 

Other aspects that matter when recruiting a chief executive include possibly less obvious elements such as the person’s empathy with the region in which a Trust is operating, their evident belief in the work that the academies are doing, and their fit with the Trust's culture.  In our experience, it is not only the person’s ability to do the role, but also their empathy for the ethos of the trust and the work done by its people.  It is often critical for success that a new CE acts in a way that establishes credibility and respect from those working in the academies, and the communities they serve.  This will require someone with outstanding people skills, and the ability to communicate (directly or indirectly) with a wide range of stakeholders – from students and parents to staff to RSCs, the Department and regulators.  

"It is often critical for success that a new CE acts in a way that establishes credibility and respect from those working in the academies, and the communities they serve."

When recruiting a chief executive, the board’s understanding of the job to be done, their vision for the trust, and their realism are all critical in running a compelling and successful recruitment campaign.  It can often be a candidate’s market.     


This Blog post was written for Academy Ambassadors Board Development Day, 11 September 2017, sponsored by Saxton Bampfylde.

  

  Contact Jo Ogilvy









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