March 2022 edition: Building Leadership Capacity in the Post-pandemic Landscape

Building Leadership Capacity in the Post-pandemic Landscape

The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted our sector in ways that would have been impossible to predict two years ago. It has been a test of resilience and of reactivity, of community and of creativity, and, perhaps above all else, of leadership in learning. The value of great leadership in schools has never been greater than it is today and the market for those leaders is highly competitive and complex. There have, of course, been thorny challenges that have faced School Trusts looking for new leadership, but there are also exciting and positive trends that have developed in our sector that are indicative of exactly the resilience and creativity that were so sorely tested during the pandemic.

The evolution of the role of the CEO in School Trusts began long before Covid-19 intruded on our lives and schools, but it is interesting to note that a new, more refined model of Chief Executive has emerged at this time, inevitably forged to a large degree in the crucible of the pandemic. CST’s recent Guidance Paper on the Core Responsibilities of a School Trust CEO provides the best illustration of the current state of this evolution. The unique pressures of recent years, as well as the increasing maturity of School Trusts as a collective sector, have combined to provide Boards and Executive Leadership with a newly sharpened understanding of the skills, experiences and innate qualities that are required to lead with success. This greater clarity has in turn allowed Executive Search firms to provide more dynamic, diverse and focused fields when partnering on leadership appointments, matching Trusts and candidates more precisely on the criteria that really matter.

This is not to dismiss these past years as nothing but a painful process of necessary growth. The negative impact of the pandemic on School Trust leaders has been real and lasting and there is a very real and entirely understandable sense of exhaustion in our sector after the most challenging period of our collective professional lives. However, there are two key conclusions that we can draw from the recent market for leadership that give cause for optimism.

The first is that the School Trust structure, with its inherent capacity for flexibility and collaboration in leadership, is the strongest and most adaptive model for education in the UK landscape. It may sound obvious, but the most effective Trusts – those that benefit from strong governance, well-articulated structures, and clear strategic visions – are able to attract and develop the most effective leaders. It is no coincidence that it is these same Trusts that are emerging from the pandemic in agile, creative and ambitious phases of their continued development.

The value of great leadership in schools has never been greater than it is today and the market for those leaders is highly competitive and complex.

Rosemary Baylis-West

The second conclusion to be drawn is that the constant and continued building of diversified leadership capacity at the top of Trusts is crucial, and not just at Chief Executive level. While there was the strong sense that existing School and Trust leadership teams rose to the challenges of the pandemic and many Trusts have been rightly thrilled at the organic growth of internal leadership capacity, these successes should not stop Trust leaders from continuing to seek opportunities to diversify not just the personnel at the top tiers of organisations, but also the types of roles that make up leadership teams. We have seen the most successful Trusts react to the pandemic by opening up new opportunities in innovative roles at both the Executive and Non-Executive level, looking beyond traditional structures and hierarchies. A greater diversity of roles allows for more tailored talent management and focused, deliberate succession planning. We are seeing senior roles such as Directors of DEI and Strategic Governance Professionals become more prevalent, as well as an increased focus at Board level on areas of expertise such as Digital Learning. Those Trusts that are able to emerge from the pandemic with refreshed, diverse and innovative leadership teams are inevitably those that will thrive in the years to come.

Ultimately, despite recent challenges, the leadership market for School Trusts continues to be a dynamic and exciting space and one cannot fail to be impressed by the calibre of emerging leaders that serve our sector, schools and students. For all Trust leaders, established and emerging, our advice is the same:

  • Seek out other Trust leaders at every opportunity. Collaboration, communication, and sharing best practice are the ways to maximise the opportunities for innovation that have been uncovered by the pandemic.

  • Be bold. As we emerge from this period of uncertainty and challenge, those organisations that are creative and proactive will be those that thrive.

  • Diversify structures. The post-pandemic landscape will be different and more fertile than that which came before: Trust leadership needs to reflect this difference by presenting within new and innovative models.

Perrett Laver is a CST Platinum Partner.