What MAT CEOs need – The 5 Levels of Relationships

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

From my early memory of working in a school I was told that the most important person in the building was the person with the biggest bunch of keys.

For years, this person also proved to be my unofficial marriage counsellor as without them kicking me out of my classroom and locking the door behind me I wouldn’t have saved my marriage through those essential years; a period when building a family and a support network is often so essential for modern day professionals.

I needed that balance between the world of work which I loved and the world of those individuals away from my desk at home.

With regards the role I play today, I have come to realise that there are a range of relationship levels that a MAT CEO needs to establish to be successful…

Relationship Level 1 – Who do I look forward to?

That person with the big bunch of keys could only achieve so much with regards to marriage guidance and so sadly in the process of being promoted and taking on more and more I lost my marriage. But in the years following this regrettable event, I made sure that I did not lose sight of my children; their development and the importance they have in my life.

While I don’t necessarily wake up every morning in the same house as them now, they continue to give me personal significance at the start of every day. When I leave my house  and walk out through the front door, they enable me to enjoy every day whether in person or by message.

As a father, I ensure that I never miss an opportunity to say to them, “I love you and I am proud of you.” I hope to this day and in the future that the pride I have in them is the same as the pride they have in me. They complete me and are truly what I look forward to every day. They give me my purpose and my strength and are absolutely the first and most essential level of relationship in my life.

While I can be clear about who I look forward to, I know not all MAT CEOs will have the same life story as me. Despite this the rules still apply. The question of who is the most significant person or place outside of work in our lives needs to be answered.

This person or these people or place form the basis of our go to safe place. Our sounding board or our distraction. Whether this be a friend, a partner or a place which we enjoy, we must all answer the relationship question who or what do we look forward to in life, as this will give us the comfort when we are most in need.

Relationship Level 2 – Who do I look up to?

For some, they will reference their god as the provider of strength and guidance, but for others looking up means to someone that they might admire. Whichever the response, I would advocate  ensuring that we have respect for who we are, as well as showing respect towards the work of others.

Looking up to or admiring the work of others within schools is key to the success of an academy trust CEO in an educational setting. We must be less impressed with our own position within the organisation and more involved with what we are doing and what our core business is; which is to ensure the healthy development of young people into adults who stand every chance of discovering and reaching their personal best.

Things are far more rewarding when a person breaks a sweat and so while an academy trust CEO cannot do everything or be everywhere, they can pay attention to things that really matter and try to be in the right place at the right time to give others the credit they deserve.

When we look up to the achievements of others and display the important leadership characteristics of humility and professionalism, we can then start to remove the concept of ‘unbelievable’ and replace it with a celebration of the credit that others deserve. Whether a Headteacher, a Teaching Assistant or a member of the service team, as a multiple academy trust CEO we need to look up to them and what they have created.

Relationship Level 3 – Who do I chase?

This is not necessarily the person that I look up to and admire, but the person I most want to become.  Like most people I see lots of traits that I admire in famous people, great speakers, people who have changed the world, but I don’t necessarily want to chase them or follow in their footsteps.

For me, I chase myself into the future. I chase the person I want to be in 10 years and then as this milestone is reached it’s the next 10 years. When I first started my career I continually felt I was just lucky; bouncing from one thing to another which to me always worked out pretty well.

After sharing some experiences with a colleague they made it very clear that nothing was down to luck in the professional world. It was pure ambition and nothing else. That therefore is what I chase. I chase my ambition, trust my decision making and feed my energy with taking advantage of opportunity as it arises. I am driven by the person I want to be and am the architect of my own destiny.

Relationship Level 4 – Who do I keep close?

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. While the world of education is very different to that in Game of Thrones, there are occasionally some similarities. In the position of a multi-academy trust CEO we will meet all sorts of characters and egos which all need to be managed sensitively!

In education we are very much in the business of building relationships and possibly  emotional intelligence,  is a skill that we all need, as we seek to forge sustainable relationships with those with whom in most other circumstances, we’d find very few areas of alignment.

The role of a CEO in the educational landscape is one of an enabler; someone who can empower and support colleagues, as well as help them to develop a sense of ownership in pursuit of shared goals.

One of Aesop’s fables can help make sense of this; where the wind and the sun have a competition to see who can make a man walking along a road take off his coat. It is the “carrot” not “stick” approach which wins through. Because the sun appeals to man’s own decision making and supports the process through presenting a pathway of motivation to achieve the desired outcome.

There are no enemies in the world of an effective MAT CEO. Just challenging conversations and these are best had face to face rather than via email, text or on the phone. Respect is earned by our involvement and as previously said, much reward can be gained by breaking a sweat, although at times it is a challenge!

Level 5 – Who deserves most of my time at work?

Having already stressed the importance of the person or the place that we look forward to, one major professional consideration for every multi-academy trust CEO are the “checks and balances” that need to be applied when considering who we visit and how we spend our time.

The answer to this relationship question is in the identification of risk and the need for mitigation. For me, being a few years into the role now, I can clearly define my role to others – as a duty to do just that and position myself where I can identify risk without being accused of interrogation and where I can mitigate without being accused of dictatorship or disempowering the leadership functions of each individual school.
CEO’s may always come under fire for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but never the less I will always ensure that I am always there for our schools; always contactable and always able to develop a meaningful relationships. One of the first questions I will ask when meeting with staff “is everything ok?”.

I am genuinely interested and I want to know their response. That is my job and that is how I  spend most of my time. Empowering and working with others to identify risk, collaborating together and finding solutions to mitigate circumstances to prevent failure and promote success.

Easier said than done and yes at times my skin needs to be thicker than that of a white rhino on the plains of Africa, but that once again it is the nature of the job. I am no longer a traditional Headteacher. I am a risk manager and so I need to expect a continual journey which will at times include visiting challenge, failure and disruption.

There will be times when I will have to leave at  moments of success, achievement and celebration. This I have come to understand and accept that as a MAT CEO, I find my energy from the value of supporting others to improve and enabling them to receive the acclaim for what has been achieved.

COVID 19 – The Challenges of Leading a MAT in a Crisis

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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