October 2020 edition: A Leadership Baptism of Fire

A Leadership Baptism of Fire

Starting a new leadership role is an exciting challenge at any time – but how does it feel to have taken up a new CEO role during lockdown and the subsequent COVID period?

Although this is my third CEO role, joining Astrea Academy Trust in July was a leadership baptism of fire like no other. The normal trappings of the ‘first 100 days’ in office – getting out across the patch, understanding what makes staff tick, triangulating what the organisation says about its strengths and weaknesses with what I see, and gathering thoughts about the short, medium and long-term priorities of the organisation – are made harder by the need to live primarily in a virtual world. Add to this the complexities of summer results, concerns over catch-up, uncertainties over staffing, and preparations for any future lockdown, and you have a set of challenges for which no leadership experience or business school book could prepare you.

I have therefore focused during my first three months on three core ideas. First, I have triaged the competing draws on my time by asking myself ‘Will it make the boat go faster?’ (see Harriet Beveridge and Ben Hunt-Davis’s book of the same name). Using this mantra, first coined by the gold-medal-winning British Olympic Rowing team in preparation for the Sydney Olympics in 2000, has helped me focus on areas that will be impactful, screening out the ‘nice to haves’, the glad-handing, and perhaps more challengingly the insatiable desire for evidence, information, status reports, and baselines that often characterise a new CEO’s first period in office. Asking myself whether my actions add to, or are a distraction from the Trust’s ability to deliver its core purpose of educating the children in our communities, has allowed me to screen out the noise and, to paraphrase Stephen Covey, ‘make the main thing the main thing’.

Second, I have taken visible leadership seriously, even though COVID has limited my ability to be as free range in person as I would want to be. Staff at all levels need to develop quick confidence in the passion, vision and integrity of a new leader, so I took, early on, the decision to be visible in the office and in schools as soon as guidance allowed, wrapped around with thorough planning and risk management. Determining the level of school or office based work with which we feel comfortable is inevitably a personal, risk-based decision; for my part, I felt that I would not be able to do my job adequately without visiting each school at least once during the early period of my tenure. I have, though, supplemented this face-to-face interaction with hour-long ‘Question Time’ style Teams events with live polls and live questions posted by staff to me and my executive team to put us on the spot and drive accountability. This has proved a huge success, with over 600 Trust staff in all roles attending a session, and over 50 live questions being asked.

Third, I have established a simple performance path for schools, and positioned the executive as unblockers of barriers to this performance. COVID or not, Astrea serves some of the most disadvantaged communities in the country, and lowering our aspirations now will only result in them being left further behind. It has taken some mental gymnastics to work out how to maintain a performance focus without appearing insensitive to the enormous pressures on our workforce, so I have sought to set targets balanced with a human understanding of the pressures that staff and students are under. It is certainly true that many things that in normal times would have been a priority seem irrelevant compared with the daily challenge of getting children to school, dealing with practical risk management, developing technology skills at a hitherto unprecedented pace, and supporting the wellbeing needs of staff and students. Clarity and focus, underpinned with compassion, have been the watchwords in setting out my stall in my new Trust.

Clarity and focus, underpinned with compassion, have been the watchwords in setting out my stall in my new Trust.

Rowena Hackwood

On a practical level, I have challenged myself during my first three months to pick up the phone rather than resort to email, as I recognise that an email from the CEO can create work for colleagues as they put together long (often unnecessary) written responses, shifting effort away from more pressing priorities. I have satisfied myself with rough and ready verbal updates rather than written reports wherever possible, so as to limit unnecessary drafting time, something that I know staff have appreciated. And I have made it my mission to focus my team on sorting out practical problems rapidly and taking issues ‘off the worry list’ of school leaders. Teams technology has been great in getting colleagues together to solve problems, and I hope this practical problem-solving approach will be a hallmark of the Trust moving forwards.

Three months in, and I am incredibly grateful to Astrea colleagues who have welcomed me so warmly, and to colleagues across the sector whose generosity has given me a ‘soft landing’ into my new role. I have noticed a new level of listening, sharing, collective lobbying and purposeful problem-solving amongst my peer group nationally, which I really hope will become the new hallmark of the sector. Difficult times call for leaders who support from below as well as leading from the front, and I am proud to embrace this complex and exciting challenge.