What are the habits of an Effective MAT CEO?

This blog comes from the Chief Executive Officer of Folio Education Trust, Jonathan Wilden

In 2013, I was appointed to the position of Headteacher having been Deputy Headteacher in the School since 2010.
Following a rigorous external advert and interview process, I was in the fortunate position of being able to continue the work that I had already started in changing the school in its journey to becoming Ofsted outstanding which it finally achieved in 2017.
2013 was a very important year in my career development and remains a time which I reflect upon, now that I have moved from Headteacher to CEO. Two small but significant things happened. Firstly, following my appointment to my first Headship, the then retiring Headteacher came into my office smiling and through a book on my desk telling me to read it. He left chuckling to himself. The book was entitled ‘What got you here, won’t get you there’.
While this may come across as being mean it wasn’t. In the care free act of tossing me a book the message was clear – ‘you have been great but make sure you think about how to approach the next few years – don’t be the same person’. At the time I thought, ‘Don’t worry I will be fine’, but on reflection I needed that message. As being a Deputy is not the same as being a Headteacher and just like becoming a CEO is different to the role of Headship.
The second incident in 2013 was within my first Half Term as Headteacher. During this time I clearly hadn’t read the book! I was still in Deputy mode. I was walking the corridors, solving discipline issues, standing on the front gate. It wasn’t until my then Deputy Headteacher then delete asked to talk with me. ‘Let me do my job … give me the space I need … I will let you know when I need you to get involved.’ How rude! Telling me to back off, to get back in my office, but on reflection that book and my Deputy telling me to give him the space he needed were the most important messages in how to be a great Headteacher.
The School was judged by Ofsted in January 2017 as outstanding because it had developed a strategic formula for whole school improvement. It had metrics of monitoring and effective systems in place to target those children who were not making expected progress. It needed that strategic oversight and if I hadn’t have delete changed into a more hands off strategic Headteacher the school may never have made it. My shift empowered others to reach their personal best.
The same applies today to the way I have morphed from Headteacher to CEO. What got me there definitely won’t get me here. The role is different again. Or is it? The change process is actually the same but we need to imagine that the school has just become a lot bigger. In a Multi Academy Trust of 5 to 10 schools the CEO needs to have that strategic oversight. To get out of the hair of the Headteachers and let them do their professional duty. Trust them to be, in a way, good Deputies. To know the heartbeat of their school and to buffer the local issues that as a CEO you will drown in if you try and understand the detail too much.
Many Headteachers will struggle at being effective CEOs because they won’t be able to make the shift similar to that which they first made when they became Headteachers. Their main challenge being they just can’t let it go, and still find themselves caught up too much in the operational aspects of school life.
Here would be my essential list of do’s and don’ts to becoming an effective CEO…
– Don’t try and know the name of every member of staff and every child in every school within the Trust. Firstly, it would take too long and secondly it would take too much time and you would have to get too close to the school to get to this point and ultimately undermining the role of the Headteacher. Have staff lists and be able to picture the amazing teacher or the person who is being promoted should you be told about them or should you meet them on your travels but really it is the senior staff who you are most interested in understanding.
– Organise strategic Headteacher meetings which are similar to traditional SLT meetings in school. Use these to develop collaborative school improvement strategies and to co-construct shared documents, like an effective scheme of delegation or an effective trust wide governance model, Performance Metrics, monitoring, governance and an effective scheme of delegation will become your world.
– Have an absolute watertight appraisal mechanisms in place for all Headteachers, modelling the importance of a school development plan which acts as the single most important mechanism for improving a school. Use this to motivate a Headteacher and their team and re-visit it regularly as a way of knowing the areas the school is developing.
– Don’t be afraid of feeling like you are always in the wrong place. You can’t be everywhere and if you try to be you are probably not staying long enough to be helpful.
– Empathise at all times. Feel the stresses and strains of Headship and be an ear to listen or the voice of reason when you sense that life is tough for Headteachers. Give yourself respite from the dark days of CEO leadership by helping others solve issues in their schools. Think of it as providing an educational service. Offer possible answers but not precise solutions as this would be too involved in the day to day operations of a school. By alleviating the dark moments from others you will in fact alleviate the dark days from yourself knowing that you are of use and are having an impact.
– Don’t over stretch your ability to take on new projects or additional schools. I hugely dislike the phrase ‘empire building’. It is a short but hurtful comment towards what I believe are the best CEOs, who are genuinely trying to develop local collaborative groups of schools that benefit from working with each other to solve the difficult life chances of many young people.
– Maintain a firm moral purpose that what we do is always in the best interest of children. This is unbreakable and can challenge any failing Headteacher, teacher or non-teaching member of staff. By having a strong moral purpose we can smile and wave, sleep at night and ensure we have an impact on the local educational landscape.
By identifying some simple Do’s and Don’ts we are able to maintain the purpose and functionality of our role as an effective CEO. We are able to make that step from Headship effectively.
If I were to boil it down to one key skill or important attribute it would be…

“The ability to form meaningful and empowering relationships with Headteachers, which have clear lines of delegation and a warmness of character thereby allowing us to join the romantic roller coaster of changing children’s lives”

Being an effective CEO is a great job which brings real accountability to a family of schools, but we MUST reflect upon the fact that what got us to this point in our career might not get us where we want to go in the future, unless we reflect and adapt.

COVID 19 – The Challenges of Leading a MAT in times of Uncertainty


Even at the best of times, MATs face a number of issues as they seek to raise and maintain standards across their family of schools.

In my experience, challenges typically centre around relationships, people management and harnessing experience and skills within their team for the collective good.
However, the COVID-19 outbreak has presented MAT CEO’s with an unprecedented array of challenges. The implications of which are far-reaching and will have transformed most aspects of academy life.
Consequently, for many, this period of intense transition and uncertainty has been characterised by feelings of anxiety, doubt and worry. The impact of which is still very much in evidence across all levels of our school communities.
Whilst staff navigate new ways of working and indeed new relationships with one another, attention still needs to be given to new systems, roles, policies and practices that will shape the ‘new normal’.
Amidst all of this, what mustn’t be forgotten is that Executive Leadership in these times has been traumatic for many. Many a CEO has had to had to carry a huge emotional weight and work extended hours to ensure that no stone had been left unturned. It has not been easy.
Time to properly process, unpick and formulate a strategic response to the wide range of issues that have arisen has been in short supply.
Executive Leaders need time to consider the impact this crisis has had across their communities, so they can reflect in depth on the foundations that need to be put in place to support their leaders, staff and pupils alike when they return in September.
It is for this reason, we are now offering free 30 minute 1:1 MAT Executive Leadership Sessions. 
These sessions are designed to provide MAT CEOs with a strategic planning space where executive leaders can:
– Develop a deeper insight into the impact and key learnings from the last few months, personally and professionally
– Find solutions to fit your current context and challenges faced
– Consider new ways of working and internal system change that will be needed to accommodate life in the ‘new normal’
– Build a greater understanding of your support and well-being needs of both themselves and their school community
– Identify the best strategies for strengthening relationships with colleagues and the wider community

Learn More


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