The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Karen Burns

From headteacher to MAT leader: making my move

Karen Burns describes her journey from headship to executive head and current Victorious Academies Trust chief executive.

The transition from headteacher to executive headteacher and then to CEO has presented professional and personal challenges in a variety of ways. The prime change for me as a headteacher who took a very pro-active role in the school community was the significant change in my relationships with pupils, staff and parents.

As responsibility increases to multiple schools it isn’t feasible for the headteacher to be the point of contact for day to day school eventualities. While it was no loss to miss out on daily ‘nitty gritty’ it was difficult at first to accept and execute a more detached position.

The new rules of engagement

In addition to grappling with the change of role and the initial feelings of guilt and detachment, it was essential that the message of my movement to a new role was communicated to all stakeholders. This was vital in ensuring that all members of the school community were clear on the new ‘rules of engagement’ and that misperceptions weren’t created by my progression to a more strategic role.

It was important for me to pass on responsibility and opportunity to other senior leaders in my schools

The first part of the journey from headteacher to executive headteacher largely centred around this change of relationships rather than needing to undertake any new learning. The usual measures of performance which exist for a single school were simply extended to multiple settings and while this provided greater challenge for me, I felt fully versed in understanding those measures and the methods of achieving them. 

It was important for me to pass on responsibility and opportunity to other senior leaders in my schools, empower them and ensure I had skilled experts driving the improvement in each setting.

I also had to develop a focus on the outcomes of all the development plans presented to me rather than the actions which would secure them. My concern moved to ‘Where are going to get to?’ from ‘How are we going to get there?’

Small changes, big wins

Another change was the removal of the need to be on site first thing in the morning as the responsibilities which dictate this presence are carried out by the senior leadership team at the setting.

Even small changes like not leaving the house until 9.30am provided a couple of hours of quality working time as I then spent 20 minutes travelling to the schools rather than sitting in rush hour traffic for over an hour!

The working day of an executive headteacher or CEO is far more flexible than that of a headteacher. Initially there is almost a guilt presented in this, but the flexibility allowed me to manage the significant rise in workload a and maintain a level of personal wellbeing.

A whole new ball game

My move into the role of CEO was far more of a learning curve… a very steep one! The statutory responsibilities of being CEO of a MAT are markedly different to that of being an executive headteacher and the accountability to the board of trustees and members is a whole new ball game.

The increased level of business, sales, marketing and finance acumen required to fulfil the role of CEO is notable and once again the presence of specialists around me with those specific skills was pivotal to my success.

My concern moved to ‘Where are going to get to?’ from ‘How are we going to get there?’

I believe the key to embracing the role of CEO is to listen as much as you can, speak knowledgeably about the world of education (our area of expertise after all) and be open about requesting, and accepting, help from experts around you to support with the areas of the role which have not been a pre-requisite of being a headteacher.

Where possible, I have broached new situations independently and tackled the matter in hand to the best of my ability, without letting on that at times I felt somewhat out of my depth! 

'What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.'

Ralph Waldo Emerson

There is a personal impact which is unavoidable in transitioning to the role of CEO and this will be different according to the location, number and needs of the academies in your trust alongside its vision.

As CEO of a commercially sponsored MAT, I experienced a significant increase in travel and in the level of personnel with whom I was liaising.

As a headteacher my most ‘highbrow’ meetings would be with local counsellors at the town hall whereas as CEO of a trust sponsored by a FTSE 100 company I find myself meeting with MPs and Lords at Westminster! 

Throughout my career progression, I have needed an inner strength and resilience to combat a natural fear and lack of confidence when presented with new tasks and challenges.

However, I believe that an unfaltering vision, core purpose to make a difference and intrinsic ambition for impact are the key features of success for any individual and the practical elements of their pathway are by far subservient to character and aptitude.