How the Co-Op Academies Trust established its culture

blank Arbor - 4 January, 2019

Category : Blog

How the Co-Op Academies Trust established its culture

At our Manchester MAT conference on 5th December 2018, Frank Norris, Director of the Trust at Co-Op Academies Trust, spoke about the highs and the lows of trust’s journey so far, focusing on how they’ve created a shared culture and endeavoured to make sure schools are fully onboard with that culture. He began by drawing

At our Manchester MAT conference on 5th December 2018, Frank Norris, Director of the Trust at Co-Op Academies Trust, spoke about the highs and the lows of trust’s journey so far, focusing on how they’ve created a shared culture and endeavoured to make sure schools are fully onboard with that culture. He began by drawing a series of thought-provoking comparisons between the structures of the big banks that went down in the 2008 financial crisis, and the structures of multi-academy trusts today. We’ve transcribed the first half of his presentation below.

Image 1: Frank Norris addresses the delegates at our 2018 Manchester MAT Conference

Introduction

The Co-Op Academies Trust have a row of desks on the eighth floor of this building. There are no private offices. The CEO of the company was here this morning at the coffee shop, queuing up with everyone else. We had a chat, and he wanted to know what I was doing this morning, so I told him I was going down to speak at Arbor’s MAT conference. It’s a very open environment.

As a trust, we have become immersed in the Co-Op, and what I want to do today is tell you a little bit about the journey that we’ve been on in order to get where we are now. I won’t pretend there haven’t been pitfalls – it’s not been easy, and there have been some really bad things that have happened within Co-Op that have had an impact on us – but there have been some great moments, too. This idea of a journey is something I want to focus on.

We are the largest business-sponsored academy trust in the country, and we have 18 schools at the moment. The Co-Op have invested £3.6 million into our trust at a time when they’ve taken £100 million pounds out of the business, so they’ve made a big commitment. The CEO of Co-Op, Steve Murrells, was on BBC Radio 5 yesterday morning, explaining why they made the decision to sponsor us (you can listen here). We’re hoping that this will be a model that other ethically-minded businesses (of which there are some!) may want to follow.

The Inside Job

James has invited me today to share a little bit about our culture here at the Co-Op, but I want to start by talking about the financial crisis of 2008. When the crisis came about, I was fascinated in finding out why banks like Northern Rock, Lehman Brothers, RBS, Britannia Building Society & the Co-Op bank all fell over during the financial crash, and the reasons why no-one’s been sent to jail for this.

And so I’d like us to watch the trailer for the film “The Inside Job”. Now, none of you are going to be earning the sorts of salaries that you’re going to see in the clip below, and I’m not suggesting that any of you are, but there is a reason for watching it, which I’ll explain in a second:

I would urge you to watch this film in full, because it highlights the reasons why things went wrong. I came across a bit of research by someone called Marianne Jennings, who is professor at Arizona State University, who also looked at the reasons why those major companies went down (bear in mind the Co-Op Bank was one that nearly went down!). Her research showed that actually, you only needed a combination of the following factors for your business to go down, and I think we can relate this to the MAT world, too:

1. Pressure to maintain numbers:

There is always a pressure to maintain numbers. In MAT terms, that could be GCSE results, KS2 results, or how many schools you’re going to get to by the end of the year.

2. Fear & silence

Some boards are completely scared of the trust’s CEO. I can safely say that if this is the case, no effective decisions are ever going to be made.

3. Young ‘uns, and a bigger-than-life CEO

Young people in the business world often think they have the silver bullet. I’ve seen young CEOs with a larger-than-life character that could railroad the entire business forward, but this then sets up a problem for the board who are unable to confront that person. It’s dangerous territory.

4. A weak board

If your board isn’t pushing back on you as a CEO at least 3 times in a meeting, they’re not doing their job. So think about the last trust board meeting you had. How many times was your CEO challenged about an issue? We’ve got a trust board meeting tomorrow, and trust me, it’s a tough day!

5. Conflicts (of interest)

We don’t buy any products or services from the Co-Op, and there are no third-party transactions between us and the Co-Op. It would be easy and we’d probably be able to save quite a lot of money, but we don’t do that because we can see the difficulties that would emerge over time. It’s a cultural thing.

6. Innovation “like no other”

Lots of people think that they have the answer, because they’ve innovated somewhere else and it worked. 9 times out of 10, they’re wrong.

7. Goodness in some areas atoning for evil in others

People have been willing to overlook bad behaviour in lieu of other good qualities. This can’t be allowed to happen.

To sum up, you only need 2 or 3 of the issues above on your board, according to Jennings, and you are looking at a big problem. Those are the reasons why the banks went down. The chairman of the Co-Op Bank was a methodist minister, who knew nothing about finance, but nobody on the board said anything. They were scared, and they were under pressure to get the numbers.

The moral of the story here is that if you don’t get the culture of your board right, your trust won’t survive. In the Co-Op Trusts’ case, the strength of our Trust is down to the quality of the people that we have on our board.

For more tips on creating your experience and skills criteria for MAT board members, you can read Sarah Pittam’s speech from our last MAT conference. To find out more about the demographics and performance of your Trust, log into your free ASP Group Insight dashboard here