CEO and Chair: the partnership which is critical to success for every FE college

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In the nine years I spent working as a CEO in the education and skills sector, one of the most important lessons I learnt was the importance of the relationship between the CEO and chair.

When I witnessed failure, it almost always reflected a failure of governance, behind which would be a CEO and chair who had not worked together effectively.

The driving force behind success was – and is –a chair who is supportive, constructive and committed to the goals of the organisation; and a CEO who inspires, leads and lives an educational mission which infuses the day to day operation.

I have had the privilege of seeing this from a number of perspectives – sponsoring, as a senior civil servant, publicly funded organisations such as Training and Enterprise Councils and the Learning and Skills Council, led as CEO others such as the Young People’s Learning Agency in 2010 and the Education and Skills Funding Agency in 2018, I have found a number of common factors that make for an effective CEO-chair relationship.

The first is the need for the chair and the CEO to have a clear understanding how they will work together.  It takes two to tango!

This is particularly important in the area of strategy, a domain which both exec and board must own. This will not work if it is something that is developed by the exec and then brought fully formed to the board to ‘rubber stamp’. The CEO and exec must ensure they engage with the board and check back in the process of strategy development so it is shaped together. This is particularly important because it is the board which is the permanent guardian of the college’s mission.

The CEO should also look for the benefit they can secure for the organisation from the skills and experience that board members bring.  Any good board will bring many years of experience across a range of disciplines relevant to an FE College. That is a resource which can make a significant difference to an organisation and the chair should expect the CEO to tap into the talent and knowledge which is around the table.

The CEO should also expect to work with the chair to establish that good governance is followed and there is sound assurance and ‘lines of defence’ against risks.  

While it is important for the chair to set the limits for the level of involvement in the work of the exec – which should never involve micromanagement – the CEO should be clear that depending on the pressure and situation faced by an institution, there has to be flexibility on where the line is drawn in dealing with particular issues.

A chair has a particular role to encourage, support and review the capability of fellow non-executives and ensure that their own performance is assessed.  It’s also important to carry out more formal Board effectiveness reviews every three years or so to get an independent and fresh perspective.  

A final area for the chair and CEO to collaborate closely is to ensure the board is getting the right information and scrutinising the right areas. The financial viability of any organisation is critical but it is not enough just to sit in a boardroom, look at KPIs and monitor  management accounts.

FE is in the business of education and it’s vital to make the connection between strategy and what happens in the classroom. The board must pay close attention to the quality of education and training, remembering our job is all about students, teaching and learning. It’s important that the board can see and hear what is going right and what may be going wrong.

While there is no single template for the successful CEO-chair relationship, my experience is that these guiding principles can set the relationship up for success.

The personalities involved and situation of each college may differ, but you can only work together effectively if you start by understanding and respecing each other’s role.

Peter Lauener, NCG – Chair

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