Blogs + think pieces

Recruited for their thinking: Leaders in a changing FE and Skills landscape

12th February 2016

FETL is funding research into new leaders in the FE & Skills sector.

The project is led by the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) supported by the 157 Group and Jean Kelly.

The project seeks to establish the impact of fresh leadership styles and approaches from new entrants to the FE and skills market.  It looks at how this can be shared with established leaders in the sector to stimulate greater thought and new approaches to leadership.

This think piece looks at emerging themes and contains interviews with new leaders in the sector hearing about the different thinking they bring to FE & Skills.


Recruited for their thinking: leaders in a changing FE & Skills landscape

“As a leader, providing space for thinking is fundamental…at the moment we are drowning in ‘process’; space to think allows you to rationalise and move beyond the paperwork – to identify alternative ways of working

This was the response of a new leader in an FE & Skills provider recruited from outside the FE sector and this is part of a growing trend. A research project funded by FETL and conducted by the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) and the 157 Group has identified a significant number of FE colleges and independent training providers who are increasingly looking outside of the FE & Skills sector to bring new and fresh leadership thinking and skills to their organisations.

This year-long project is intended to examine how the leadership of thinking manifests itself not just in solo attempts to do things differently or in finding ‘alternative ways of working’, but rather in how ways of leading the thinking of others in order to grow and prosper in the radically changing world of education might have a greater impact on organisations than is imagined at present.

For FETL, the leadership of thinking is “about how leaders encourage and develop capacity for thought in their people, and in the systems they work within. We believe that a key role of leaders of further education and training, at all levels, is to encourage thinking and debate amongst their colleagues about their practices, and with students and stakeholders about the world they enter and handle. This is about curiosity, encouraging discussions on difference, supportively questioning the status quo, and therefore is at the heart of great, progressive organisational performance especially in the pedagogy of vocational and technical education”.

The project began in March 2015 and is engaged in investigating the leadership of thinking in a sample of new senior leaders in the FE & Skills market, and sharing the outcomes with established leaders in the sector in order to stimulate discussion on how the leadership of thinking and skills of leaders new to the sector can be maximised by their organisations.

A series of initial interviews with new leaders revealed how the FETL definition of the leadership of thinking struck a chord with participants and started them debating how other colleagues like themselves, recruited for their different ways of thinking, could be supported to help create ‘great, progressive organisational performance’. Their messages were, on the face of it, obvious:

It would be helpful for a newly recruited leader and their development of the leadership of thinking:

  • to have clarity from the outset about expectations and the frameworks around these (personal, team and organisational frameworks)
  • to have an honest appraisal of the context of the organisation at the recruitment stage
  • to have support and time/space for thinking and thinking differently in order to challenge norms and orthodoxies
  • to have support and space in order to extend their leadership of thinking capabilities to explore tomorrowrather than reacting to today’s challenges
  • to know that the organisation is open to other kinds of opportunities and that other staff know why ‘outsiders’ have been brought in and what they might be able to contribute
  • to have protected time (some kind of ‘contract’) at the outset of employment to ‘dig deep’ and understand the context and culture of the organisation
  • to have opportunities to gain a view of business across the sector and wider stakeholder groups in order to situate the organisation within that view and challenge it’

However, when these messages were shared in discussion at regional knowledge exchange groups, there was agreement that developing the leadership of thinking would involve a more gradual, more subtle (often invisible) conceptual process, which could mean a more profound shift in leadership behavior.

Emerging themes and questions from the knowledge exchange round-tables

We need to ensure that we understand the difference between the thinking that is distinctive with new leaders from outside the sector and those internally promoted; this may be about not having a sense of the history of the sector or not having been socialised into its norms and expectations.

A cultural fit between the individual and the organisation is important: whilst some degree of difference is part of the purpose of external recruitment, too much difference can be counter-productive.

One useful product of the research could be some rethinking of recruitment processes, particularly around pre-interview advice and information.

We need to keep an open mind about how to encourage those from outside the sector to apply for roles and bring new thinking; job titles can have a dramatic effect on recruitment.

Do we know enough about barriers to movement between different parts of the sector? Movement from college to independent learning provider seems to happen but there appear to be fewer examples of traffic in the opposite direction.

In the college sector, does the emergence of the CEO role alongside or instead of a principal have any implications for the leadership of thinking?

We may need to address issues relating to the role and attitudes of boards/corporations both in respect of their views on external recruitment and also the respective roles of executives and boards in the development of vision and strategy.

Developing the leadership of thinking may bring its own risks; organisations may need to reflect that not all new ideas or innovations will work as expected but this is acceptable as long as the consequences of failure have been discussed, understood and mitigated as far as possible.

Next stage in the research

Follow-up interviews and in-depth case studies will explore reactions to these emerging themes in more detail over the coming months against the backdrop of even more significant changes to the landscape of FE & Skills. A final report will be published in the summer of 2016 to allow learning on the leadership of thinking to be shared and illustrate what might set organisations apart which have considered in-depth this aspect of leadership.

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