Recruited for their thinking: leaders in a changing FE and skills landscape - Tim Chewter

Recruited for their thinking: leaders in a changing FE and skills landscape - Tim Chewter

14th August 2015

“As a leader, providing space for thinking, confidence and empowerment are fundamental for an organisation… 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 newly recruited leader to an FE and skills provider, who had previously worked in a different industry. This is part of a growing trend. Research currently being conducted by the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) and 157 Group (funded by the Further Education Trust for Leadership) has identified a significant number of FE Colleges and training providers who are increasingly looking outside of the FE and skills sector to bring new and fresh leadership to their organisation.

This trend is taking place against a backdrop of significant change. Substantial budget cuts have already been made, with more on the horizon; a major review has been launched looking at the FE College model in each region; and far-reaching reforms to the Apprenticeship programme continue. These changes are not unexpected. Many providers have recognised within their own organisation that thinking, approaches, structures and processes need to be transformed in order to succeed in providing high quality training for learners and employers in the years ahead. Governance and HR teams have a pivotal role to play in recruiting the right leaders for the task and a growing number are looking for high-profile leaders from other industries (who don’t necessarily have any background in FE and skills provision) to drive the organisation forward.

What, if any, fresh thinking and approaches do leaders newly recruited from others industries bring with them? Does their approach as a leader differ from leaders who have been established in the FE and skills sector for many years? How does the thinking of new recruits evolve and develop in their first year in post? What can sector leaders learn from these leadership approaches and how can organisations maximise the benefits of newly recruited leaders? These are the questions that AELP and 157 Group have started, and will continue, to ask over the next 12 months.

Twenty-four interviews have already been conducted with new leaders recently recruited from outside the FE sector and a number of themes have started to emerge:

  • Most interviewees didn’t perceive any big differences in their leadership responsibilities or skills, but rather in how their leadership skills are applied in a different organisational and sector context
  • There was a common recognition of the importance of organisational culture (and of required shifts in organisational culture to occur) to enable more delegated authority and responsibility for decision-making throughout the organisation.
  • Some newly recruited leaders identified a lack of commercial awareness among staff, and yet were impressed with their focus and dedication to learners. For these leaders, it has been important to hold the two ‘in tension’.
  • There is an increased focus on the development of ‘thought leadership’, but in many organisations this appears to be relatively new and responds to a recognised gap. Developing leadership thinking was seen as particularly important for those going through organisational change, and in particular encouraging all staff to ‘become a leader in the change process’.
  • Development of the interviewee’s own leadership thinking often came from experience and mentors rather than formal training.

In October, AELP will be hosting complementary round-table events for leaders, focusing on how organisations can maximise the talent in leadership thinking recruited from outside of FE and skills, and how fresh leadership approaches can be shared more broadly.

Within a confidential environment, leaders new to the FE and skills sector will meet in the morning to share their thinking and experiences of leading in the FE and skills sector. Established leaders (those who have worked at a senior level in the FE sector for a number of years) will arrive for lunch, followed by a joint session – allowing the themes from the morning to be presented, with space for all participants to reflect, respond and debate.

The round-tables will allow attendees to develop new thinking and practice to better equip them for staff and organisational leadership in the new landscape. These events are being held on:

  • Thurs, 1st October – Birmingham
  • Mon, 5th October – Manchester
  • Thurs, 8th October – London

If you are a senior manager/leader working for a training provider and are interested in joining us, then please register your interest here.

The wider research project will finish in the Spring 2016, culminating with the publication of a final report of findings, to allow learning to be shared with all leaders across the sector.

Any queries about the research can be directed to Tim Chewter, AELP.

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