In the ever-evolving landscape of the further education sector, the need for diverse leadership and robust governance structures has become increasingly apparent. The role of the chair and specifically the relationship between the chair and CEO can make or break a college.
We know through numerous conversations with FE principals that the role of the chair today is less geared towards the support and development of the CEO but more towards colleges’ outcomes and performance. This is of course a natural focus, given the highly regulated and inspected regime that currently exists.
However, through profiling analysis we know that there are particular areas of the FE leader profile that are less developed than with other public service leaders. They are mainly under the themes of ‘self’ and ‘people’. The former includes the ability to engage and inspire, demonstrating courage, tenacity, engendering trust and being curious. The latter comprises skills like building relationships, having impact and influence, promoting collaboration and building team unity. All of these matter a great deal.
It is also critical to press on with diversifying leadership in FE. This is a matter of equity and representation, and it is also strategic imperative. Through analysis of specific regions within the country, we can see that colleges have worked hard on ethnic representation on their boards. However, there is plenty of scope for improvement both in terms of the strategic partners that boards are aligned to and in terms of the professional backgrounds required of boards.
If chairs were paid, the talent base for the key position of chair would dramatically expand. It would then become part of the chair’s paid role to drive broader participation across the remaining board volunteer base, tapping into a more diverse pool of talent.
Moreover, it would greatly strengthen the accountability relationship between the chair and chief executive. Few support or development plans exist between chairs and CEOs. Attending the ETF strategic leadership programme is a start, but it is not enough. Coaching, mentoring, analysis of the CEO’s strengths and weaknesses and putting plans in place to develop those priority areas needs to rapidly become the norm. CEOs have similar plans for their leadership teams. It seems a glaring omission that they are exempted from this support structure.
Being chair can be time-consuming if carried out diligently and the reality is that FE does not have the support mechanisms of other sectors. This means the one-to-one relationship becomes even more important.
Many FE CEOs may not welcome a closer relationship with their chair, but this is a symptom of a systemic problem. The right chair, bringing significant levels of senior leadership experience, should be a real positive in enhancing the effectiveness of the CEO and the college. Both are (or should be) critical leaders, and remuneration is key to fostering a more developed and mutually beneficial relationship between them.
Paying chairs is a contentious issue. More often than not, discussions and debates over the issue only lead to pushing it further into the long-grass – not helped by the fact that the department for education itself has held various views over the years. The previous FE commissioner supported the idea that board members should be remunerated, but it is still quite rare even for chairs to be remunerated.
But this is an idea whose time has surely come. Its strong potential to enhance and diversify leadership as well as to strengthen the critical relationship between chair and CEO make it essential.
It is a highly competitive non-executive market out there, and there is growing demand for diverse and highly capable committee and board chairs. Attracting the best people to FE boards is not easy, and the sector is crying out for talented individuals who can help it to navigate the complex challenges that lie ahead.
And if tapping into a wider talent base can also drive up support for college leaders to develop themselves and their teams, then it’s surely an avenue worth exploring.