What does it mean to be a good chair of the board?

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Jon Coles , CEO of United Learning

Sir Jon Coles is CEO of United Learning, the largest Multi-Academy Trust in England. As well as answering to his Chair of Trustees, Jon is also a Chair of Trustees himself – for the charity, Challenge Partners.

Jon made some interesting comments on twitter in the summer about the role of a chair, suggesting sector-specific knowledge isn’t as important as some might think. He said of his chair, “I don’t think he has any interest in golf, but I’m sure that if he was forced to chair a golf club, he’d do it extremely well.”

Jo from GovernorHub has recently completed the NGA Development for Chairs programme and effective chairing has been on her mind (…could she chair a golf club well?). She caught up with Jon to talk more about chairing, notably what it means to chair ‘well’ in these uncertain times.

So Jon, how important is it for a chair to have sector-specific knowledge in your opinion?

Well obviously it depends on the circumstances. There can be circumstances – a crisis for example – where knowing the detail of an organisation and its business is hugely important. As a chair, you need to show interest in the topic but you’re fundamentally a non-executive and therefore it isn’t your job to run the organisation. It’s the job of the chief executive or the headteacher to run the organisation. As a chair, your job is to run the board. It’s quite a fundamental distinction.

It’s not useful to have a chair who second-guesses all of the executive judgements. It is useful to have a chair who asks good and penetrating questions. Equally your job as a chair is to challenge and support across all aspects of the role and being highly expert in finance or HR is a very valuable skill-set to have. You hope to have on your board a really wide range of skills and one of the things you need to do as chair is make sure the skills of everyone on the board get used and everyone gets heard, which I think were some of the other things I was saying on the Twitter exchange?

Yes that’s right, you were talking about the skills of listening well, of asking good questions of fact and clarification..

Yes, those kinds of points about listening properly, drawing people in, making sure everyone’s voice gets heard seem to me to be pretty fundamental to the job of being a chair.

(At this point we had to temporarily break off the call – Jon was delivering his Year 7 son’s PE kit to school and had arrived at his destination; the school office. As a parent of two former, forgetful-yet-panicked year 7 children this put a familiar smile on my face… now back to chairing and we resume the call.)

Jon, do you think those skills you mention – listening well, making sure everyone’s voice gets heard – come from experience or can they be taught?

(pause) Well, good question. I think with most things – there are some things which come with experience that are quite hard to teach. I guess the things I really appreciate in my chair are his experience of being involved in leading large organisations and really having a clear sense of what it is to be an effective non-executive.

With school governance, there are two common ways of not being an effective non-executive. One is by getting too involved in trying to run the organisation and the other is by thinking your job is to be completely hands off. The first can lead to a lot of second guessing which makes it very difficult for an executive team to function properly. The disengaged approach doesn’t create accountability or effective support. Somebody who really understands the pressure on the people who’re running an organisation, is hugely valuable. I chair things as well so I try to be a useful, engaged and critical friend – the sort of person who is good to talk to about something because they’re very honest and they listen well. Someone who’ll tell you the truth, ask you the challenging questions and help you to clarify your thinking but at the end of a discussion will leave the management to manage.

I guess my point is that having been there and done it in some context, knowing what the pressures are of leading and managing and knowing the sort of conversation that’s valuable to have are quite hard to train in the end. Lived experience has great value.

Thinking about this in relation to the current situation. It’s quite hard for boards to walk that line, isn’t it? To get the right balance between challenge and support. Would you agree?

Yes…. I mean in the sense that everything is quite hard at the moment, isn’t it? (laugh). There is no experience any of us has which is directly applicable to this situation. But you know, our core purpose hasn’t changed. We are still trying to provide something excellent for children and yet our circumstances have changed completely.

When I think of my trust at the moment. We’ve completely changed our approach to target-setting, performance-management and accountability and moved into a very ‘nurturing’ mode. I mean, not that we’re not always nurturing, you understand, I mean that we’re looking at our heads and thinking that everyone is under tremendous pressure at the moment. There is nobody who’s not flat out trying to do the right thing. There’s nobody who’s not reaching out to help other people and provide school-to-school support within the trust and beyond. We’re all groping in the dark to understand what children have and haven’t learnt during lockdown. I think we’ve done a good job of providing online learning but equally we can see quite clearly that some children have engaged much better with it than others.

So in that context, we’re just looking at the situation and thinking, well – we’ve never been here before. Staff are wrestling with very different challenges to anything they’ve faced before and in light of that we simply have to change what we do. As a trust, our approach to challenge and support has changed completely and who knows whether that’s right or wrong? I’m sure it’s right to respond but have we got our response right? It’s hard to be sure so we have to continue to look, learn and listen. We have to monitor the effect of our decisions and be willing to be agile and change direction.

Financially, we’ve done some things which are potentially quite interventionist. I think when you get that right, typically you know because you can tell whether somebody’s relieved or not that you’ve stepped in. Sometimes in a crisis, it is right to be more directive and make clear and rapid decisions because that’s what people need.

But it’s important not to make that the default setting. It would be very unusual for a chair to be publicly and visibly stepping in without the agreement of the head or chief executive unless the chair’s fundamentally lost confidence. You need to have absolute confidence in your leader, unless and until you don’t have confidence in them, in which case you need to take some action. I think that, as a rule of thumb, is pretty good.

And I guess in these times, you can afford to provide more support and less challenge if you have that absolute confidence in the leader?

Yes and lots of our headteachers inevitably feel quite vulnerable at the moment. They’re making decisions which step outside their normal range of expertise. They feel as if they’re making – maybe life or death is an exaggeration, or maybe it’s not – they’re making health decisions about people without necessarily having training and experience which equips them to feel confident in that.

We’ve been very clear with our heads, “We’ve got your back. We’re here for whatever you need and it’s our job to get behind you at this time.”

I think that’s been appreciated. I think that’s a good thing for boards to try and do, just notice that at times of great challenge, even the most competent and effective leaders can feel quite vulnerable.

Where do you see the role of the clerk in all of this?

I think where a clerk really helps is with process and procedure – helping the chair to understand where to be and where not to be in the discussion.The lines that should be drawn between governance and management.

I think sometimes both chairs and leaders in schools can get a bit exercised about where the line ought to be drawn. I’ve seen it a couple of times in the last year around accounting officer-type issues. Where a board may feel that on a particular issue – it’s their decision and a head or chief executive might say hang on, I’m the accounting officer here and I don’t believe that’s value for money. That’s an example of a really difficult sort of pinch-point where a clerk can be useful in helping people to see where to draw that line.

Crucially though, a clerk shouldn’t get in between the relationship between the head or the chief executive and the chair.They need a personal relationship which is functional and can help when problems need solving. Obviously, there are rules, requirements and legalities which have to be satisfied. But in the end, if you’ve got a good relationship and you’ve got the kind of depth and breadth that in the relationship you need, you should be able to solve most problems together. The clerk should do things in a way which supports effective and functional relationships as well as help boards observe the correct processes and procedures.

To finish Jon, if you had one piece of advice to give a chair at the moment, what would it be?

I think a slightly more general piece of advice might be to try to see things from somebody else’s point of view and try and walk in their shoes, particularly when you can’t quite see why something is difficult or someone’s being difficult or an issue isn’t resolving in the way you think it should.

Obviously that does apply quite a lot at the moment, but I think it applies a bit more generally as well. Sometimes a person’s reaction to things is driven by anxiety, uncertainty or a feeling of vulnerability and it’s worth considering that’s what’s behind any behaviour you don’t immediately understand. I think that’s a useful thing for all chairs to bear in mind.

When people are under great stress and maybe feeling vulnerable, trying to make them feel safe is an incredibly powerful thing to do.


You can find out more about the United Learning group of schools here.

This year we also talked to the Chief Operating Office of parkrun, Tom William, about becoming a school governor and what it’s like to be the one asking the questions, when you’re used to being the one held to account. You can read more here.

The government’s currently funding training for those in leadership roles on school boards such as chairs, vice-chairs and committee chairs. You can find out more here.

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