Perspectives: FE Newsletter, Issue Five

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Amidst the difficulties of the first few months following false optimism at Christmas, we are now slowly returning to some sort of normalcy with the rapid rollout of the vaccination programme and a long period of ‘lockdown’. However, the world has not stood still, and in January we had the release of the White Paper, Skills for Jobs, and more recently a re-opening of the College and Schools sector.

As anticipated the reaction to the White Paper has been mixed with many a last line focused on the “importance of detail” and “where is the funding?” Across the board there seems to be a consistent, “this is an evolution” of previous policy and that the key points around Lifetimes Skills Guarantee and National Skills Fund are deemed a positive. Reinforcing the central role Colleges will play in working with employers and providing the skills education required for adults as well as younger learners, at both middle and higher-level skills, were also fundamental messages.     

In this issue of Perspectives, rather than focus on some of the themes that have expectedly emerged, and been commented on, from the White Paper, we thought we would provide a view on governance and specifically the role governance can play in supporting a more innovative approach to how College’s approach 2021 and beyond. Pablo Lloyd OBE has kindly provided his thoughts on the governance of innovation which raises some key questions for Chairs and Boards in FE and challenges the more traditional perspectives.

 

Pablo Lloyd OBE has served as an executive and non-executive director on commercial and charity boards for 30 years. He is CEO of Visionnaires, a social enterprise supporting and incubating new businesses, which he co-founded with Capital City College Group. Visionnaires now collaborates with colleges and other educational institutions, delivering a range of entrepreneurship and self-employment programmes to increase social mobility. See www.visionnaires.ac.uk.

Governing for Innovation       

After a year of high-speed innovation forced by the pandemic, boards and leadership teams are asking themselves - how do we keep on innovating and is our governance up to the job? This year of disruption reminded us that innovation should be part of a board’s main agenda, not a side-dish. Other priorities are often more pressing and easier to define, so discussions about innovation are easily squeezed out. We owe it to our stakeholders to do better.       

Strategy      

Most organisations are proud of their strategic plans. They are our roadmap for stakeholders and staff, inspiring and practical. We track progress, highlighting ‘red’ areas to turn round and ‘green’ areas to celebrate. Those of us subject to Ofsted are required to ‘improve’ and we obsess about year-on-year metrics. However, long term innovation is hard to measure, hard to plan and rarely prioritised by regulators. It’s one of the greatest leadership challenges but too many strategic plans are better at talk than action.      

How often do we review our strategy? Some boards only review strategic plans every three years. A 6-monthly review is the least we should expect in a world of fast-changing opportunities and threats.      

How much do we invest in innovation? Budgets are tighter than ever and few organisations can invest 2 or 3% of their total budget in pure innovation. But if we could, what would we invest it in? Good boards put pressure on operational budgets so they can invest for the long term. If budgetary costs and benefits only have a one or two-year horizon, we are just managing, not leading.     

Perspective     

We have to challenge ourselves to keep a perspective on the organisation from the outside. A board is a team with a particular obligation to refresh its perspective regularly.

Do we compare ourselves honestly against the market, and look for collaborators? Boards often want to be ‘market leaders’ in some aspect of their strategy. It is less common to see boards examine other organisations, inside and outside their sector, to learn, collaborate and accelerate.      

Do we hear enough directly from customers and service users? Together with front line staff, they will give an honest reading of what makes us stand out and what holds us back.      

Culture     

For those of us in education, our finest moments are when we see the leaps of knowledge, skills and confidence in our students. We expect our teachers and lecturers to be inspiring in the classroom - a particularly tough challenge over the last 12 months. Do we expect the same of ourselves as leaders in the boardroom? Are our board debates crackling with inspiration? Do we embrace the upsides and downsides of risk, with risk registers including ‘failure to innovate’?      

We also know that diverse teams deliver better results in the long term, and we work hard in our sector to represent the diversity of our communities in the composition of our Boards. However, representation is not enough, could we do more to tap into each other’s cultures, experiences and differences? Do Board debates make the time to draw on the real richness of our combined experience?       

Are we learning enough when things don’t go to plan? If we trust the skills of our team, can we resist pointing the finger of blame, to ask instead ‘what have we learned?’.    

Conclusion     

Innovation should be in the boardroom as much as on the front line. We have to work hard to give it space, not settling for incremental improvement, but leading for the long term. 

 

Though there are many questions raised here, and noting Pablo’s point about this not being easy, there are potential opportunities for boards to embrace innovation and ensure it is part of the Board’s DNA and College’s strategic planning:      

1. The rather obvious one is do the current cohort of board members bring a background where innovation and collaboration has been embraced.  Board Members who have experience of collaboration across sectors and appreciate that risk is not a dirty word, should be as sought after as those who bring digital understanding and experience.        

2. Boards often try and solve everything themselves.  “Surely we have the experience and expertise around the table to do this?” or “The College can’t afford to spend money on governance.” However, with a small degree of investment, boards can challenge themselves by bringing in outside support and expertise.     

3. Collaboration is a strong theme, and the movement around competition within the sector has now been pushed to one side. Can Boards engage with others to see how they can work together, learn from each other and build proactive and meaningful relationships?

At GatenbySanderson, our purpose is to find and develop leaders that shape a better society. We are the UK’s largest specialist talent consultancy focused on the public, not for profit sector and related commercial sectors. Building more inclusive and representative leadership is part of our DNA. We have always championed under-represented groups and over 60% of our appointees are diverse groups. Our business is built around leadership expertise and advice:     

Executive Search – we find/place candidates in boardrooms/top leadership tiers across the public sector with a strong track record of supporting FE colleges and the broader education sectors to recruit senior academic and corporate leadership roles.       

Board Practice – dedicated expertise around Chair, non-executive and Governor appointments and board development. We understand the challenges of public sector boards and our networks are extensive, reaching across sector boundaries. and have particular expertise in start-ups and corporate governance.       

Leadership and Talent Consultancy – board review and development, leadership development, top team facilitation, executive and leadership coaching, talent, change and restructuring advice, executive assessment for selection and development, managerial assessment.       

Digital, Data & Technology – increasingly our clients face change through the digitisation of service delivery and operations – we provide programme advice and source high calibre digital leaders and teams (often from industry) to support their aims.       

Interim Leadership – whether in response to change, growth, restructuring or attrition, our team access a huge network of interim leaders to help clients’ plug temporary leadership gaps.        

Within our Leadership and Talent Consultancy, we have a dedicated team of learning and development specialists who lead on the design and delivery of our leadership development modular programmes, our manager and future leader programmes, our board evaluation and development projects as well as our organisational transformation initiatives. We also then have an extended leadership faculty that are spread nationally to meet our client and sector needs.          

If you are in need of talent, either on an interim or permanent basis we are in a position to help. If you wish to discuss any of the above or potentially other levels of support for your senior teams or Board then please do get in touch: Paul Aristides, Partner, Further Education and Skills: paul.aristides@gatenbysanderson.com