Trust leadership

The changing face of the MAT CEO

The CEO profile is changing and the pipeline is strong (for now) but lack of succession planning is a cause for concern, writes Rachael Gacs

The CEO profile is changing and the pipeline is strong (for now) but lack of succession planning is a cause for concern, writes Rachael Gacs

9 Dec 2022, 5:00

This year’s Being the CEO report from Forum Strategy captures the views and perspectives of a sample of 51 members of Forum Strategy’s National #TrustLeaders CEO Network – all of whom are serving CEOs of academy trusts. The report always provides some interesting headlines, and this year is no exception:

Professional background of CEOs

Each year we ask about the professional background necessary to succeed as an academy trust CEO, and attitudes continue to shift. Despite the vast majority of respondents to the survey being former teachers, two-thirds indicated that not having a professional background in teaching isn’t necessarily a barrier to taking on the role, a marked increase on previous years. 

This shift seems to reflect the fact that we are seeing more people from non-teaching backgrounds – such as the civil service and local authorities – attain CEO roles. It also appears to reflect the reality of leadership in other sectors. In the NHS, only one-third of CEOs hold a clinical qualification. In policing, programmes to bring individuals with non-policing backgrounds into senior leadership levels have been introduced. And in leading businesses, CEOs often have never had a frontline role within the organisations they lead. 

Indeed, it is clear that having a successful teaching and headship background is not in itself a guarantee of being a successful CEO. In the early days of the trust system, while many  accomplished headteachers developed successful trusts and thrived as CEOs, others experienced significant and very public failure. And while many former heads are now well-established trust CEOs, non-teacher CEOs are also overseeing sustained improvement and success. 

The essential skills can be learned and honed in a wide variety of other contexts

What is incumbent in the role are skills such as the ability to build and sustain a high-performing team of diverse experts, to scale up systems of improvement and innovation and to take a wide range of strategic and interdependent organisational decisions across facets such as HR, technology, finance and more. These go beyond simply overseeing core business (a role increasingly delegated to expert practitioner leaders).

Other essential aspects of the role include leading on key strategic stakeholder relationships and working with the board. These are skills that can be learned, honed and perfected in a wide variety of professional and organisational contexts.

The implication for the future pipeline of academy trust CEOS is that we could see more CEOs coming through from wider public service and charity backgrounds. And as this gradually becomes more commonplace, it is likely to be more accepted within the sector.

CEO Retention Outlook

Another heartening finding is the determination among the majority of our respondents to stay in their roles for the foreseeable future, to continue to serve pupils and communities and to help ensure the system overcomes current challenges.

When asked about their intentions for the next five years, more than two-thirds did not state intentions to leave or retire, though some would consider taking on the role within a different trust. However, this result comes with the caveat that only two-thirds of respondents answered this question (since it was voluntary).

Around one-quarter (26 per cent) responded that they would be retiring within the next five years. However,  given the time frame and the fact that CEOs tend to be at a more advanced stage of their careers, this doesn’t create significant cause for concern. 

Succession Planning Concerns

What is concerning though is that succession planning is still not commonplace among CEOs. In fact, less than 40 per cent of respondents said they have a potential succession plan in place, or are aware of one being in place This presents a major risk to the sector, not only in respect of potential upcoming retirements but also where CEOs decide to move on to another role or need to step down due to unforeseen circumstances.

In light of this finding we strongly recommend all boards and CEOs review their current situation regarding CEO succession and ensure that a potential succession plan is in place.

The report contains many other findings, not least regarding what CEOs consider to be the main challenges facing the sector. No surprises: financial sustainability is right up there, as are recruitment, retention, and changes in government policy on trusts.

What’s clear is that the way we see the CEO role is changing, opening the sector up to the ideas and influence of people who are passionate about public service and complementing the work of educators. And that can only be a positive.

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