Building rockets: a view from the outside by Hilary Goldsmith

Building Rockets: A view from the outside by Hilary Goldsmith

I’m really happy to be moving on from my brief 6 months as a Chief Executive Officer (CEO), it wasn’t the right role for me, but over the last few weeks I have been reflecting on what I've learnt from being a CEO. The lessons I’ve learnt have been many, but what I will take away the most is that being a Chief Executive is not something that anything can really prepare you for. I took on the leadership of some aspects of the organisation’s work of which I had never had any working experience. And whilst it’s certainly possible to lead and direct strategy and accountability in any area, without that hands-on experience of having done it, having learnt your trade, it can lead to feeling far less qualified and knowledgeable than the teams and managers that you are leading, and that’s not always an ideal place to be.

However, much experience you might have, whatever skills you excel in, there will always be things that you’re not going to know how to do and challenges you're going to face that you never expected. And I've been reflecting on that a lot over the last few weeks, and about what I can take away from this experience and take with me back into the world of education.

An SBL can bridge those skill gaps in the SLT

In terms of the school business leadership role, what's been most valuable to me is to gain a sense of perspective and understanding of how Headteachers and CEOs - who have perhaps come up the ranks from classroom teacher to head of department or subject specialist, to assistant head, deputy head and into headship or CEO roles, via the traditional road, have probably been given a job description where they have never done 20 or 30% of the role before. The legislative stuff, the compliance stuff, the legal stuff, the finance and the health and safety stuff - it's daunting how much responsibility goes into that one post, and if you have never really led those areas before, other than a few day courses or an NPQH module, suddenly having all that thrust upon you is pretty huge.

Having now been in a similar position, albeit with skills gaps in different areas of responsibility, my understanding of the importance of the school business leader role has developed even further. That's where the School Business Leader, Chief Operating Officer or Director of Finance can step in - that’s our job, that’s what we should do, and what we can do to support the person at the top. We, the SBL profession, are experts in all of those fields and I've been lucky enough to have been in a position where I did have, and used those skills, extensively. But imagine if you hadn’t, if you didn't have a scooby about complex HR processes or about corporate Health & Safety, about organisational risk assessments, other than a school trip or classroom activity. Or imagine if you knew nothing about building maintenance, or the horror of what actually goes into managing functioning school toilets!

The SBL is there to give support and advice

The School Business Leader is there to provide all the support and expertise a new Head or CEO will need. They have learnt about all of those things through training and through years of experience. School Business Professionals already have those skills instinctively and are already looking at the world through a risk perspective, from a financial perspective and from an HR perspective. So for every idea or strategy that the CEO or Headteacher might come up, in the SBL’s mind they will have already gone through all of that checking process, all of that risk analysis, all of those business evaluations, which aren’t the first things you think of when you’re coming up with a great idea. Headteachers, School Leaders & Chief Executives of trusts should be able to come up with fantastic, wonderful, invigorating and energising ideas for teaching and learning; School Business Leaders should enable those ideas to happen.

And that's the main learning point that I will be taking away from my experience as a Chief Exec - that someone needs to make ideas happen for you, and that strong, principled business leadership and adherence to protocols and legislation are essential to organisational success.  And as I head back into educational leadership, that will be my guide; that Heads and CEOs should rely on their School Business Leaders and trust them to deliver. The SBLs themselves understand that the top boss is in post to be the visionary, to set the strategy, to lead the really exciting life changing thinking that will benefit childrens’ lives. School Business Leaders enable them to do that. They don’t find ways to stop them, to frown or flinch, or suck their teeth. Instead, they say:

“Ok, so this is the vision? - I'm going to think about the reality of getting us there, and I'm going to build you something that will get us to that fantastic place. I'm going to build a car, a plane, a rocket if that’s what it takes to get to that magical place where you want us to be. That's my role, let me build it, it will work, it will be safe and no one will get hurt. I don't expect you to be able to build rockets, I expect you to captain the ship. When it’s ready, I’ll let you test drive it”

So now, along with the fairy dust and magic wand, my school business essentials toolbox also contains a map of the heavens and a book on building rockets…

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This article forms part of our Smarter SBM series, which supports the launch of our new Smart Ordering tools. Informed by, and created for SBMs, Smart Ordering is range of great online features and tools that can transform a school’s office with a smarter way of purchasing. It has been developed by the team at GLS Educational Supplies to help save schools money, by making the process of buying school supplies faster, smoother and more affordable. Find out more about how Smart Ordering can save your school time and money here.