The First 100 Days of being a CEO or Executive Headteacher

Sept. 7, 2017
Sir David Carter

Sir David Carter

National Schools Commissioner

Guest blog from Sir David Carter, National Schools Commissioner

Ten years ago as I took my first steps into Executive Headship, I wanted to write an induction programme for new heads joining my federation and trust. At the same time, I was involved in the delivery of leadership programmes for the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT) that many leaders up and down the country took part in. One of these was the “first 100 days of Headship”.

As I travel the country today in my role as National Schools Commissioner (NSC) I still hear many leaders talk about how important the SSAT programmes were to them and the “100 days programme” gets many positive mentions.

As we start the new academic year, many of the leaders I worked with ten years ago are now stepping into Executive Head and CEO roles for the first time. Given the executive leader role is so new to the education system, it comes as no surprise that colleagues look for guidance as to how they approach the start of their new role.

There is a different challenge to being the new CEO, appointed from outside the trust to the candidate who is already known by colleagues. Both routes into the CEO role present different challenges and opportunities, but irrespective of how well the CEO knows the trust, the need to think carefully and plan the first 100 days remains a priority.

There is also a different type of challenge for the new CEO who leads a large trust across a wide geographical landscape where some of the obvious communication channels are harder to implement.

This blog aims to be a guide to new executive leaders as they approach their first 100 days in their new role. I have not tried to cover everything but my hope is that this stimulates some thinking that supports the creation of a mental map for the first 100 days as an executive leader. I also hope that it enables the new CEO to make a great start to what is one of the best leadership positions in the education system.

Where do you want to be by day 100?

The key to a successful first 100 days as a CEO is to be clear where you want to be and what it is you want to understand by day 100. Whilst term lengths vary from area to area, the 100 days takes us up to February half term in year one.

There is a big temptation to focus on being visible, and this is very understandable. However, it carries the risk that whilst the CEO is busy, is seen by many people, the understanding of what fuels the heartbeat of the trust could be missed.

The suggestions in this blog show how you can be both visible and strategic. Having a mental map of the key questions you want to get an answer to during the first 100 days is the most effective way I have seen both in my own work as a CEO and now as the NSC.

Which questions should preoccupy the CEO thinking throughout the first 100 days?

The big question that needs answering is fundamentally about what is working and what is not. Understanding the culture of the trust is a vital goal for the first 100 days. Harvard Business Review suggests that between 33% and 50% of CEOs fail because of poor transition management and not understanding the culture of the organisation. In some cases this led to too much change being implemented too quickly. I would suggest that these questions would get a new CEO closer to understanding the MAT they are now leading.

1. Are the children in my MAT getting a better learning experience than they were before their school joined the trust?

2. What is it like to be a child that finds learning difficult in this MAT?

3. What is it like to be a child that finds learning easy in this MAT?

4. What is like to be a vulnerable learner in this MAT?

5. What are the ambitions and hopes of the staff and students in the schools I am leading?

6. What are the expectations of leaders and local governing bodies in terms of their engagement and participation in the MAT?

7. How many decisions that impact on learning, are taken by the schools, co-constructed between the schools in the MAT or standardised across the trust?

8. What are the key financial risks to the sustainability of my trust?

9. How well are staff developed and performance managed across the MAT?

10. How effective is the MAT governance structure and what are the development needs of the individuals who govern at different levels across the trust?

If these are the right questions, how do you ensure that you access the right answers?

My top ten tips for getting the most from days 1-100

Before I share the list, my first tip is to suggest that you do not over plan and over commit time in too great a volume. There will be days when challenges come at you from every angle and you must be ready and have capacity to deal with them.

1. Make sure that you spend time with staff from across the organisation. Leaders and teachers are of course important people to work closely with, but do not underestimate the value of making sure that people in support, administrative and site management roles see you and learn about your expectations of them going forward. Staff round tables every two weeks made up of this cross section of staff give you a vehicle for these conversations. Have a sense of how you would like your new colleagues and students to describe you at the end of the 100 day period and think about how you are going to build their trust in you as their leader.

2. In my early days as a CEO, I made the mistake of simply assuming parents and carers and the wider community would only be interested in the school their child attended and not the MAT. All of the parents I spoke to as CEO, and parents who I meet in my NSC role, care deeply about the ethos of the organisation that educates their children. Bringing parents from different academies together three or four times in the first 100 days, meeting leaders from across the MAT, reinforces the values and beliefs that underpin the work of the trust senior leaders and builds community confidence.

3. Having a clear communication plan from the CEO to staff and families is vital. A weekly newsletter or message from the CEO communicated via social media, that shares some of the great experiences of the week, that celebrates with staff and parents truly strong practice that has been seen, helps cement the core messages of “children first” and the moral purpose of the trust.

4. Take every opportunity to reinforce key trust messages in the academies. Attending staff briefings, staff meetings, walking the corridors with staff at social times during the day, doing a short presentation on INSET days all combine to build the sense of belonging that staff need if they are to see the trust as being integral to the support and development of their own careers and their schools. Any CEO who does not have a plan for a MAT conference at the end of year one or the start of year two, is missing out on a great opportunity to build the 'buzz' of being something that is truly more than the sum of the parts.

5. How you work with the academy leaders that you are managing is also key to embedding the ways you want to work beyond the first 100 days. Deciding on how frequently to hold one to one meetings, how often you bring the leaders together and how you articulate the role that the academy principals can play across the trust are all aspects of getting the right messages across the systems that you design. One of the best ideas I had to support better communication was the introduction of staff surgeries every week where people could book a 10 minute meeting in the academy where the surgery was based to tell me about their work, ask me a question about the MAT or simply get clarity on something I had said.

6. Some of the vital support you will need will come from the central trust team that have between them some of the key cross MAT roles. If this team becomes high performing two things happen. Firstly, the CEO role becomes easier. Secondly, the academies come to regard the central team as a resource they can call upon with confidence.

7. Remember there is a world outside the MAT. Get to know other MAT CEOs in different parts of the country. See if it is possible to join your local chamber of commerce to work with CEOs in non-educational settings. Get to know your Regional Schools Commissioner and their teams.

8. Get to understand the governance model and the people who play a vital role in making this a success. Visit your board members where they work and focus on what they believe the strengths and weaknesses of the trust to be. After all, they will be spending time in your work place! Attend as many of the local academy board meetings as practical so that you get a sense of how aligned they are and how they want to work with you.

9. One of your core responsibilities is to lead a cohesive improvement strategy for the trust. Before deciding what it is, take stock of how the academies already approach this. If there is something truly effective taking place in one academy, find out how well known it is in the others. Talk in your leadership meetings about how you align and co-construct educational delivery to give all children access to what works well.

10. My final tip is to have something ready to introduce after the first 100 days that is clearly something that you have developed and devised. People identify leaders with ideas and new thinking but they also identify leaders with good or poor change management. Having a plan to make a change such as the introduction of a whole staff conference, a MAT arts event, a competition, a trust sports team, a visit to a university for students across all of the schools will be better received if you involve the staff from across the trust and from different roles. Sharing the ownership of delivery cements the 'buy in' which will outlive the 100 days if you get it right.

Looking after yourself

The CEO role was the best leadership job I had in the school system. It was also the one where I felt the most drained and challenged at times. I was not that good at looking after myself so this final set of advice is definitely more “do as I say than do as I did”!

  • The power of keeping a self-reflective learning log was something that I learned from the MBA in International Leadership I did with Brent Davies and John West-Burnham in the late 1990s. I continue this practice today as NSC and whilst some of my reflections are statements of the obvious, I enjoy the thought processes that gets me to reflect on the decisions I have taken and the challenges I have tried to meet.
  • Being coached is a personal thing that works for some but not all. Having a coach at critical moments in my career has been invaluable. In the first two or three years of being a CEO I could not have managed without this support. If having a coach is a large part of your existing practice, then challenge yourself to be a coach to another leader who does not work in your MAT. This will help to embed the coaching culture more deeply into your thinking.
  • Appoint or develop the best Personal Assistant you can find. Get them to prepare a daily “correspondence log” that outlines all of the messages you need to know about at the end of the day. Get them to prioritise the log into actions, information and reminders. The result in my experience is a dramatic reduction in the number of emails I need to read every day. It also means that other key people are not held up by my inability to clear 150 emails every night. This really works!

This article originally appeared on the website of the Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019 the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.

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