Thought Leadership

College Leadership: Is it Fit for the Future?

This is the first of a series of thought pieces on the role, shape and design of leadership for the future in Further Education (FE).


The results of a project commissioned by the Royal Navy to gaze into the future and design the warship for the year 2050 have recently been released:

The output is pretty amazing.

The predicted warship of the future ‘just about’ looks like a ship as we know it, but any further resemblance to current warships ends there. It is very clear that every element of a traditional warship has been considered and radically re- designed to be fit for future purposes.

So, the question we would like to pose is this: should College Corporations be adopting a similar approach, and critically appraising every aspect of what they do now and measuring it against the likely future requirements of further education, albeit on a shorter time frame?

The answer must surely be ‘yes’, if FE (in anything like the form that we now know) it is to survive.

A good starting point is surely to consider the requirements for leadership in colleges of the future by posing the challenge:

What will the chief executive/principal role look like in the future and what skills and attributes will they need?

As the person primarily charged with adapting and flexing the College to meet the environment and challenges of the future, it’s clear that the chief executive of the future will, at the very least, need the following in abundance:

  • They will drive forward an organisational culture which challenges sacred cows and the “we’ve always done it this way” thinking. They will promote innovation and creativity. They will harness cross cutting teams of staff at all levels, linking with service users, partners and other stakeholders to develop an ethos of collaboration. They will be comfortable with flat structures rather than building empires.
  • Their modus operandi will be collaboration, willing to work with complex (and at times overlapping, as in federations) governance arrangements, well networked and with deep and informed insight on the regional and national agenda.
  • Their management style will be one of strong and transparent upward communication with governors, a managed risk taker, and ‘ruthlessly’ focused on outcomes.
  • One of their key skills will be as an exceptionally shrewd recruiter. The CEO of the future will invest in hiring, building, promoting and growing the right people and teams, and not settling for second best or mediocrity.
  • They will galvanise the workforce, building on a sense of urgency, energy, hope, aspiration, purpose and clear direction.
  • They will build organisational values and a positively empowering culture, which permeates throughout every layer of the organisation. They will walk the talk on modelling required behaviours, respect for people and the power of diversity (using the widest possible definition of the latter term).
  • They will need to be entrepreneurial, with an ability to analyse and assess commercial opportunities and a willingness to go for them, whilst understanding the importance of accountability and value for money.
  • They will take a long term and strategic view of future-shaping and, to the extent possible, future-proofing the organisation. They will create a sense of pride in the organisation but will be flexible in their approach and recognise the need to be just one part of an overall pathway linking all elements of public service provision for the benefit of the community. The traditional view of a college as a stand-alone and autonomous provider of services, often fed by the ego of the Principal, simply won’t work.

So, what are the implications of the above for Governors?

Many corporations are understandably, like rabbits trapped in headlights, preoccupied with the immediacy of forthcoming ‘area reviews’. And many (if not most) may take the view that now is not the time for crystal ball gazing.

Sadly, the truth could not be further from the case, for this stance is likely to doom many a college. Preparing for, positioning and responding to the reviews, requires exactly the skills and attributes of leadership we have talked about above. And being in control of one’s own destiny (being run over by the car, or getting out of the way) requires action – not inaction or indecisiveness.

That said, and looking ahead, if new structures do emerge from the reviews, this will surely be an opportunity to review, redefine the need, and in some cases, refresh the leadership of the newly emerging organisations.

For those colleges who emerge unchanged (or should we say ‘unscathed’ – and we doubt there will be many) from the review process, there will still be the need to deal with an unprecedented degree of change, a significant reduction in funding, and on-going uncertainty over Government policy.

For the vast majority, however, the case for new approaches to leadership and direction in the sector seems stronger than ever. The stark reality (and this should really come as no great surprise) is:

  • There is much evidence pointing to the fact that too many colleges are simply not coping in the current environment.
  • Government is unconvinced of the “value add” of colleges in addressing the skills shortages in UK plc.
  • With a few notable exceptions, there is little evidence of any apetite for ‘radical’ approaches and new ways of thinking within the sector.
  • The process of change (transformation hardly seems appropriate given the pace of change, regardless of any fancy job titles), is inevitably and increasingly leading to tension and breakdown of trust between boards, senior leadership and their staff.

So what do we need?

Maybe we need some genuine ‘anti-chief executives’, who think the mirror opposite of the current cadre. That is not to say they will always be right, or that current thinking is always wrong, but surely this is the time for some totally radical thinking – and for whatever the reason, the current set-up is simply not producing enough of individuals capable of literally re-inventing what FE is about.

Look at the example of Steve Jobs going back to Apple and how he turned around an organisation that was just about ‘okay’ and sort of addressing the future, into on which was pretty quickly ‘shaping’ the future.

Many will argue that to be successful, a college Principal must be passionate about teaching and learning, and committed to providing students with the best possible experience. We have no reason to disagree. However, that must not be at the expense of not being able to “look over the fence” into other sectors and areas, and learning from and applying best practice.

The fact is that many (probably most) principals and Chief Executives simply haven’t experienced the scale of contemporary challenges, and frankly, neither have their role models.

The question has to be asked – can FE rise to the challenge of designing new modes of leadership that are fit for the next decade, or will it slowly sink beneath the surface, inundated by change?


The next in this series will deal will the challenges faced by Colleges seeking to recruit the best leaders.

Colin Horwath is a partner in Davidson and Partners and deputy chairman of an NHS Foundation Trust

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