6 ways remote leadership can help MATs scale

This blog has been written for Arbor by Dr Vanessa J Ogden, CEO of Mulberry Schools Trust

Dr Vanessa J Ogden, CEO of Mulberry Schools Trust, spoke at our MAT conference about scaling culture and maintaining your sense of identity across your MAT as you grow. During the first half of her talk she stressed the importance of creating a set of values that is shared by everyone in your MAT in order to maintain your trust identity as you scale. In this blog, we’ve picked out the key pointers from the second half of her talk, which focused on the importance of ‘remote leadership’ when bringing about changes in culture in schools to align with the values and identity of your trust. Read part two below:

‘Remote leadership’ is a term used by Tim Brighouse to describe his approach to education leadership at scale. I think it is highly applicable to MAT leadership, and I have found it incredibly useful when thinking about the importance of the CEO as a leader of outstanding education provision. 

It is important to note that culture and identity in MATs applies here. The Mulberry Schools Trust’s model is premised on the CEO being a leader of education expertise. Business acumen is important, but knowing how to create outstanding schools in contexts of challenge is the focus and so education leadership expertise – with it being the central business product, if you like – is what is needed in the CEO. There are other MAT models where business skills are at the forefront of the CEO’s leadership and education expertise is held in the roles of directors of education – and this can also be very effective – but for us, the view is that if you want universally outstanding schools, the top job is to know how to do it and what this looks like, providing you have skilled financial, legal, estates and HR leaders working closely to you that you can properly hold to account.

‘Remote leadership’ of school communities thus becomes very important for a CEO. How do you bring your practitioners with you? How do you ensure they buy in to the vision, values and culture of the work in hand?

Remote leadership for a MAT entails a number of things:
  • Understanding in depth the context and history of the schools that are coming into your MAT
  • Spending time talking to stakeholders of the school’s community: pupils, parents, staff and wider partners
  • Imagining the future for the school community and communicating it – painting that picture of success – a vision that moves people on from the past and making a brighter, more exciting future seem possible
  • Building a team of strong leaders that share the vision and values you have in your MAT
  • Having attention to detail, being able to anticipate and being reflexive and adaptable to your school system’s dynamics
  • Giving time to legitimate stakeholders who will help you in your work
Securing a strong and widely shared commitment to the MAT’s purpose and values across a large group of people requires close communication, despite being more remote, and commitment from practitioners to a vision. One of the lessons I have learned about education and the implementation of any initiative at any level is that those who have a fairly autonomous position e.g. as a classroom teacher – in that they are individually responsible for pupil outcomes and the quality of their practice – can destroy it by simply not doing it or doing it differently. To be a lastingly successful initiative, they must agree with its importance and find its implementation rewarding
Getting that commitment means two things. First, if your leadership is more remote, the immediacy of your communication is less and so every contact is vital. The authenticity of such communications is important and so linking them to genuine passion and values is essential.  

Second, understanding and using the power of story is a key aspect of remote leadership in the task of scaling up culture and retaining identity. Stories of success create energy and when bringing about change in culture in a school to align with the values and identity of your trust, the use of supportive, affirming and speculative language is helpful - as well as finding those with a can-do philosophy to help you yield the buy-in from the community that you need in school transformation to align with the MAT.
It needs to be recognized in scaling up culture that in this task perhaps more than any other you cannot enact your leadership alone. If successful change in this respect is going to take root for the long term, you need to develop a team around you that can replicate this work and a central infrastructure to enable faithful development. And so we are back to my first point about the structural things you need to do to enable your identity to go to scale.

I have seen this model of remote leadership enacted elsewhere in recent times in diverse fields of business and government: once on a visit to the Dyson engineering plant in Malaysia last month and 2 years ago on a visit to meet Barack Obama’s administration team at the White House. The recruitment and staff development process that supports scaling up culture and identity was plain to see in both cases. After all, what could be more important than the work Obama did to address inequality and social justice in the US? 

So, I conclude by going back to the photograph above, as it has become symbolic and powerful for us as a Trust. It both shows the context of our work and the social justice issues we need to address about inequality. A great education is the key to a better and more prosperous future. It is also the means of providing greater social harmony within communities and human enrichment where the obstacles prevent engagement with the resources around you. The rainbow, therefore, is the promise. It is our Trust’s promise and it is the vision you buy into when you join our schools. 

There have been some very difficult moments along the way, and there are more to come I am sure, but it is an expression of what we believe to be possible – a vision of hope for continued improvement in outcomes not just amongst the pupils within our family of schools but, through partnership and school-to-school support, improvement across the system. It is not growth for growth’s sake but a considered and thoughtful response to educational change and the requirement for us to support – along with Challenge Partners – a great school-led system.
Recommended reading:
How to build MAT central teams and services
Hugh Greenway, The Elliot Foundation: my guide to running a successful MAT (part I)
Why you need an operating model for your MAT (and 6 steps to build one!)