CEO Sharon Bell on the importance of defining a recovery plan

Sharon Bell is Chief Executive of Services For Education (SFE), a unique charity that uses the power of learning and of music to create and build confidence amongst children, young people, adults and communities. Here she talks to Partner, Heather Greatrex, on the challenges faced by the charity in dealing with the pandemic, from re-engineering delivery to their commitment in using all the lessons learned to emerge stronger on the other side. Perhaps most importantly of all how they prepare for 34,000 children who will be ready to make music again.

What were your immediate priorities in tackling Covid-19? 

  • As soon as we recognised that the Covid-19 Crisis could have some impact on our operation we performed a complete risk analysis and identified mitigating actions.
  • Very quickly it was apparent Covid-19 would have an unprecedented impact on society and our work. Close financial control was and continues to be essential. Reforecasts of outturn and cashflow are being updated on an almost daily basis. As a result, being clear about where we could maintain income (even if we adjusted delivery methods), where we would inevitably lose income and working out what we could do to mitigate the loss.
  • Enabling everyone to work from home in a meaningful way, which is a major shift when over 200 of our team are used to being in the classroom or delivering face to face on courses.
  • Regular, consistent and transparent communications with the team and fostering a sense of community as we navigate this challenge together 
  • Maintaining regular contact with funders and customers, ensuring that we are listening to and responding to their needs.

What has been the biggest challenge to date? 

We are an organisation that operates in school classrooms and delivers training courses and consultancy services to teachers and leadership teams. With schools closed, we had to re-engineer our delivery.  We have been able to continue to provide excellent training – and we can still inspire pupils to love to learn music either through one-to-one on-line lessons or a virtual learning platform. The passion and enthusiasm of the team across all areas of SFE is inspirational and I am very proud of each one of them.

I think for all leaders across all areas of the economy, it has been the unknown nature of the duration of the situation that has been difficult. For SFE, a more immediate question lies around schools re-opening. If they do, would we be allowed in – but more importantly how can we ensure that it is safe for all involved for lessons to restart. Looking ahead to the new academic year, we need to prepare for an autumn term which I suspect will still look different to usual. Importantly we have 34,000 children who will be ready to make music again, and over 500 schools wanting to engage in our training and consultancy services.

What positives have your drawn from the crisis? 

There has been huge creativity at levels that we could only have dreamed of across every team in SFE. We have innovated and delivered new materials, content and ways of working extremely quickly – thanks to everyone pulling together for the good of our customers.  The nature of our operation is that in ‘normal times’ many of our colleagues are out and about, and at times the role may feel quite isolated. Embracing technology means that in some ways our teams are more connected than ever before – although we look forward to the day when we can meet in the same space again.

How will this crisis change your organisation? 

We were doing lots of great work before the crisis and whilst we can operate to some extent in this period, we look forward to being able to deliver our full range of services again. However, now that we have developed an on-line, virtual offer, this is likely to become an embedded part of our portfolio going forward.

I have no doubt that the culture of SFE will shift positively whilst as a country we emerge from the horrors of Covid-19.  We are currently defining our Recovery Plan, with ‘Emerging Stronger’ being a central theme. As a Senior Leadership Team, we have felt very supported from all areas of the organisation and by our Board of Trustees, and we look forward to building on this in the next academic year.

What are likely to be your leadership priorities after the crisis has passed? 

Robust financial planning is always important, but it will continue to be an absolute priority.

We were defining our five-year strategy before the crisis, and it was one or two meetings short of being finalised. That development understandably paused whilst we were in a crisis management situation – now we need to revisit it and reprioritise for a different starting position. Without a doubt the landscape and the context have changed – but the fundamental principles and aspirations upon which it was developed, haven’t.

We want to identify the positives that have emerged from the crisis and ensure that they are ‘baked into the DNA’ of SFE going forward. Importantly I want us to celebrate appropriately what we have achieved, and my role is to continue to provide strong and empathetic leadership in what will undoubtedly continue to be uncertain times.

What have you learned about yourself during the crisis?

I have enjoyed the challenge that the current situation has posed, but I don’t like the uncertainty it has created for our people – and of course we all wish that the circumstances that have caused this situation were so very different, without the tragic loss of life in our society.

As leaders, when under pressure our natural style will shine through – the positives and the negatives. I will inevitably have made mistakes (there is after all no rule book for a Chief Executive in this situation), but I hope that I have been able to demonstrate consistency, authenticity and empathy throughout – whilst providing reassurance when I can. Strangely the lack of rule book can be liberating – I am still relatively new in role (8 months) so I am very aware that how I lead SFE through this will define how my colleagues engage with me in the future.

What advice would you give to others? 

  • Priortise financial management and control.
  • You can never communicate enough or be visible enough.
  • If you don’t know the answer, say so, but commit to getting back to someone when you can.
  • Listen to people and give them a chance to vent.
  • Trust colleagues and empower them to do what they do best, enabling the use all of their skills and talents.
  • Check-in daily with your Senior Team. It may be very short but being co-ordinated and joined up as a leadership team is so important.

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