This month we say a fond farewell to GovernorHub founder Alex Robinson.
I first met Alex when being interviewed for a job on the GovernorHub help desk. To test my suitability for the role, Alex asked that I imagine he was someone who’s never used the internet before and I should talk him through how to buy train tickets online. Alex knew that working on the GovernorHub help desk is as much about mind-reading, patience, appropriate questioning and gentle guidance as it is technical prowess. He certainly put me through my paces – deliberately jumping to the wrong conclusion and misinterpreting what I said. Meanwhile I was just thankful I’d bought train tickets online the day before!
This interaction typifies Alex and what we shall miss about him; his deep understanding of what the real issues are and what’s needed to solve them. Alex really knew and understood GovernorHub customers and what was needed to help them. Alex’s contribution to GovernorHub cannot be underestimated. He’s been our accountant, our lawyer, our complaints handler, our school governance guru, our data protection officer and overwhelmingly our voice of reason. Most importantly, he’s worn these hats with ease and humour.
So what’s the best way to honour him? With a Q&A in the GovernorHub blog of course!
Alex, firstly – tell us a bit about your history as a school governor?
I became a school governor in October 1994 when my eldest daughter started school (a maintained primary school in Norfolk). I was approached by the Headteacher in the playground and I honestly hadn’t thought much about it before then. My father had been a school governor so I had a little idea about what it might entail – but I did want to be part of the local community.
Quite quickly I took the role of Chair of the Finance committee. I worked in financial services and at that time schools were just getting to grips with having their own budgets. There was pressure on boards to improve their skill set and I think the Headteacher at the time was quite insightful as he realised he needed some non-executive support and challenge in this area.
When did you become Chair?
I can’t remember when I became Chair… One of the rules I always had as a school governor, and also to lots of things in life, is ‘if there’s an opportunity, take it and see what happens’. So I did. There’s that moment when the chairs’ vacancy is being discussed at the board table. I said, ‘Oh OK – I’ll do it.’ I remember hearing the sigh of relief around the table.
I think we can all relate to that! Your governance experience has widened a fair bit since then. You’ve sat on numerous panels and you’re now a National Leader of Governance?
Yes I got the NLG designation three or four years ago. Early on as a school governor, I joined our local voluntary governor network. Then I put my hand up as a volunteer to join The Schools Forum, a statutory body which acts as a consultation group for schools within a local authority. I thought it would be interesting so I submitted my profile and was elected to join as a primary school representative.
Being on The Schools Forum meant I had more interaction with other governors, Head teachers and people from the local authority. Through that engagement I was visible as a governor who could make a contribution and was periodically approached by the local governor services team to assist if governors were needed to sit on panels or help out in various situations when a board was struggling. That led to becoming a National Leader of Governance.
At some point in this journey, you met Neil Collins and founded GovernorHub?
I met Neil in the late 2000s when I was involved with the local governors’ network. Neil and I were both on the county committee for the local network. At that time, we were similar voices on the committee, quite practical and not too embedded in the historic procedural way of working as governors. Often suggesting idea changes, ways of doing things differently.
You identified an ally perhaps?
I think we recognised we were like minds. We weren’t the only ones. I think the GovernorHub moment came when we were both at a conference organised by the local association. We were talking at the event about how technology wasn’t particularly well used by governors. I think it was Neil who said, ‘there must be a better way to do this.’ That was the moment – the start of the collaboration. Probably in Autumn 2011.
And did you think anything would happen following that conversation?
Yes I did because I knew Neil well enough by then to know he was extremely tenacious and determined. It was a good thought, a good idea and he was tenacious enough to follow it up.
Neil was the driving force. I was thinking of all the reasons why it might not work and Neil would look at the same reasons and say, ‘yes but here’s a way we can overcome that’, so we had some good ‘yin and yang’. Neil at the time worked in a telecoms software business. I had been, just at that time, Chief Executive of the National Skills Academy for IT and prior to that IT Director in an insurance company, so we were both coming from strong IT backgrounds.
Were you clear that an IT product for governors might need to be different?
Yes because we were governors and we knew what it was like on a governing board. I think we had a good understanding of the range of IT skills and abilities amongst governors.
And we knew that a lot of the technologies that already existed hadn’t been adopted by governors and it was reasonably clear to us that part of the reason was they were too complicated and difficult. They hadn’t been picked up and embraced on any scale.
We knew anything we did would have to be much more tuned to the needs of governors.
As someone who has worked in a very large organisation, what have you learnt about running a really effective small business?
The most important lesson I’ve learnt is that you really have to understand and be close to your customers. As I’ve said at GovernorHub over the years, we need to love our customers. Our customers are us – the only reason we exist.
Coming from a very large business background, I realise that affinity and closeness with customers gets easily lost and that’s a problem for large businesses. That’s the biggest lesson – understand, stay really close to and interact with your customers every single day. You can’t be aloof in business.
That’s the human side I guess….another way of thinking about that might be, never forget the humanity of the organisation?
I think it’s that but I think it’s more practical than that. You can only really understand your customers’ point of view if you know your customers, if you are really close to them or even if you’re a customer yourself.
As a governor, I used GovernorHub all the time. But I was also talking to lots of governors, to clerks, to trust boards. All of that was filtering through into the product. There wasn’t a single day when I didn’t answer customer queries on the help desk or interact in some way, face-to-face or on the phone.
I would like to finish by asking you a question that you asked me in my job interview. It was quite a curve-ball to be thrown in the interview at the time and I have a vague recollection of answering with some feeble ramblings about Brexit.
So here we go, ‘Will there be school governing boards in 50 years’ time?’
(Laughs)… OK. So governance generically – if we take it out of the context of schools – has been around a very long time. There’s documented evidence of governance going back 3,000 years, right from the structures of society in Ancient Greece through to corporate governance of business in the developed world.
So governance will of course exist in 50 years’ time because the ability of a non-executive group to hold an executive to account to provide, support and challenge, is a fundamental building block of civilisation. Governance is secure.
School governance has a strong and continuing role. The reason I feel confident about that is because the structures of education in this country, whether it’s managed through a local authority structure or academy trust structure – both are set up on the same principles of governance – the checks and balances you have when non-executives hold an executive to account. The dynamic of governance works and is necessary. It could only be displaced by a much stronger system of centralised control. I don’t see a prospect of that on the horizon, particularly in any use of public funding. The nature of democracy requires the executive to be held to account.
And an answer like that is exactly why we will miss Alex! Thank you for everything you have given GovernorHub Alex and good luck for the future.
Jo Phillips, GovernorHub.