A head for business?
How would school leaders measure up in the private sector? We put three of them through their paces with international headhunting firm Harvey Nash. The results were incredible.
“Those who can’t, teach.” This inexplicable but long-standing insult is still bandied about all too often. The insinuation that teachers would fail miserably if they embarked on another career - in law, medicine or banking - has been nearly impossible to dislodge for decades. Generations of teacher leaders and politicians have attempted to shake off this slur, pointing to the fast-paced and complex lives that school leaders and their staff experience.
But now there is evidence to suggest that high-performing heads and successful senior teachers are the kind of people Big Business wants: dynamic, tough and driven professionals that high-profile corporations would fall over themselves to hire.
In short, those who can, teach.
Over the course of this year, TES worked with a global recruitment and executive search firm (essentially an international headhunter) to carry out detailed assessments of three school leaders, to test whether they would measure up in the private sector. Consultants at Harvey Nash usually assess candidates for positions in fast-growing technology companies and banks around the world, specialising in the recruitment of senior executives and future industry leaders. Although the UK client list is kept under wraps, the US business works with the likes of Intel, Deutsche Bank and BP.
The TES experiment was the first time that the company has put school leaders through its executive analysis tests.
Over a number of days, the two heads and a deputy - nominated by TES - completed psychometric tests and an in-depth “motivational interview” with director of leadership services Lucy McGee.
The results blow the myth that “those who can’t, teach” out of the water. In fact, they prove that the best school leaders are at least a match for the very best in the corporate world in terms of skills, leadership and charisma.
The assessments showed that the school leaders have particular personality traits that help them work in pressurised environments - which will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the unique blend of top-down, ground-up emotional and bureaucratic pressure faced by heads. The exercise found that the leaders’ results compared favourably with those of bankers, lawyers and other high-status professions.
All three school leaders assessed by McGee like autonomy, rather than rules and structure. All are both creative and “action orientated” - if something needs doing they want to get on and start doing it, sometimes in an unorthodox way. This positive combination is not necessarily found in executives in the private sector.
“All have high sociability, are gregarious and like working in teams. They are motivated by working in a collegiate environment. They are, unsurprisingly, open to learning, intellectually curious and seek variety, enjoying being centre stage and the unpredictability of their role,” McGee says.
“They are outwardly self-assured, sure of their own convictions and enjoy leading, but can also be detached and tough-minded about others’ feelings and emotions - a common combination in executive profiles. They are relentless in their pursuit of success,” she adds.
Creativity and integrity
The study also found important differences between teachers and workers in other industries. The school leaders strongly identify themselves with their mission - as one says, “the school is me”.
“Many executives are like this, but the school leaders are at the extreme, and are also more solely interested in the ‘big picture’ than executives in other sectors,” McGee says.
“Two out of the three school leaders are interested in making money, but as part of a morally structured environment,” she adds. “They want to run their schools according to their own values, and only believe it is OK to make profit in a way that’s consistent with this. This is more pronounced than executives in the private sector.”
The findings do not surprise Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT heads’ union. In a previous life, Hobby worked at the Hay Group of management consultants and, in 2000, he carried out a research exercise that was designed to compare heads with those in the corporate world.
The research concluded that even highly successful executives would struggle to exert outstanding leadership in schools and found that headteachers’ strengths lay in developing others.
“I always thought teachers would make the best leaders in industry, but I wouldn’t want that - we need them in teaching,” Hobby says in response to the TES/Harvey Nash exercise. “They bring to the role a combination of creativity and integrity that is rare in other professions. They have common strengths but different ways of going about the job. That’s one of the great things about being a head.
“There are still a lot of stereotypes in industry about heads, but as soon as executives meet them, these disappear. They soon learn that you can’t patronise school leaders.”
Over the next three pages, we outline the headhunter’s findings.
The tests carried out by Lucy McGee aimed to “shine a light” on the participants from three different directions. One assessment looked at the person at their best: the “bright side” of their personality, which they project to others. Another looked at their “dark” side: aspects of their personality that may be glimpsed only under pressure. The test aimed to reveal “derailers”, which can be an overused strength or a self-sabotaging bad habit.
The third test looked at the inner values and drivers that inform participants’ biggest life and career decisions. It explored the kind of environment they need to thrive and that they try to create as managers.
Running these three tests together gave McGee a “3D” perspective on the individuals.
She also carried out an interview with the school leaders, which focused on what motivates them. McGee asked them to describe their career highs and lows, in order to discover what makes them satisfied, frustrated or unhappy.
Andrew Carter OBE
Dr Alan Lee
ANDREW CARTER OBE
Andrew Carter, 63, trained as a secondary teacher at the former Bishop Otter College in Chichester. He started his first job, at a primary school in Basingstoke, in 1971. Five years later, he became deputy headteacher of a primary school in Farnborough, Hampshire.
In 1983, Carter became headteacher of Greenfields Junior School in Hartley Wintney, Hampshire. He has been headteacher of South Farnham School in Surrey since 1988.
ANDREW CARTER’S STORY
When Andrew Carter took over at South Farnham School 24 years ago, it “wasn’t the most successful school in the world”. Then it was a 230-pupil middle school. Now it is a 750-pupil primary academy based on two sites. It is one of the few primaries in England to be granted teaching school status. Carter is a national leader of education and South Farnham is a national support school. Carter’s expertise is recognised by the Department for Education: he advises other schools on the transition to academy status and he is a member of the DfE’s initial teacher training task group.
“At South Farnham, we are in continual pursuit of excellence. We never think ‘Is it just good for us?’ but instead (ask) if what we do adds value to the education system,” Carter says.
He has no plans to leave his post, and hopes to make South Farnham an “iconic” state school.
THE HEADHUNTER’S FINDINGS
Carter sees financial reward as a “useful and valid metric” of success. The assessment highlighted his ambition and vision for an organisation, ability to handle pressure and manage performance, and his inspirational leadership style, which make him well-suited to a business environment. His intellectual capacity, personality, motivation and experience are a good match to a corporate executive. He has “some motivation” to run commercial activities and to see financial gain as a measure of success because he “seeks to create” and is driven by an environment where achievement and accomplishment are emphasised and celebrated.
He is entrepreneurial because he understands how to “leverage strengths to the school’s financial advantage”.
Carter is a “highly rational, curious, positive and extravert individual blessed with abundant common sense. His drive and energy manifests in his relentless pursuit of success and continuous improvement for his organisation, and he has an appetite for hard work which is complemented by his resilience and emotional stability”, the report says. “He has an ability to be fully present in the moment and to clear intellectual space in order to focus on problems as they arise with acuity and patience. He seeks new experiences and variety, is exuberant and probably relishes the unexpected.”
McGee describes Carter as “independent-minded, shrewd, pragmatic and capable of being tough”, adding that he is “socially entertaining and gregarious, greatly enjoying holding centre stage, and an engaging storyteller, which is a key part of his leadership style”. She also points to his spontaneity, independent-mindedness, experience and strong intuition.
“I would be interested to see how well captains of industry would get on running a school. Today I was in school at 7am. By 8.30am I had seen four sets of parents. I then did 15 tours of the school for parents, took an assembly, interviewed applicants for the position of caretaker and, because we don’t have a caretaker, did the bins. This afternoon I met with three different schools about academy status and talked to a member of staff who has been working in another school.”
Di Beddow, 55, trained as a secondary English teacher at the Roehampton Institute in London, qualifying in 1978. After studying for an MA she started her first job in Surrey in 1980. Two years later she moved to teach in Stanford-Le-Hope in Essex. She then taught at schools in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk. She has worked at Hinchingbrooke School, Huntingdon, for eight years, and is currently vice-principal. She was previously deputy head and acting headteacher for the 2012 summer term.
DI BEDDOW’S STORY
Di Beddow prefers working in large schools, as she feels it gives her work more variety.
“I’ve wanted to teach ever since I was small - apparently I used to teach 43 toys, and even mark their work and play rounders with them,” she says. “Teaching is real. I love my subject. I always wanted to go as far as deputy head but I’ve recently felt I wanted to go the whole way before I retire.
“When I was acting head, I had a wonderful summer term; I loved every minute. Now I’m thinking I need to get a move on before the window of opportunity closes. I will need to start putting in some applications in the new year.
“I’m used to monitoring finances, but in the context that they are right by children. Would I do it for the sake of a profit margin in a company? No.
“I feel my strength is in developing others. I find that aspect of the job fulfilling.”
THE HEADHUNTER’S FINDINGS
Beddow was found to be a good match to a corporate executive’s intellectual capacity. She is intuitive and willing to promote others and give them time in the spotlight.
The tests indicated that she prefers short-term goals through which she can find regular gratification.
“Her strong altruistic values lead her to be driven to pass on her own learning to others, and she relishes mentoring and encouraging those in whom she sees potential. She will likely aim to lead by example,” her assessment report says.
Beddow is not motivated by an interest in commercial affairs or making money, and this could be a “derailer” to her success in the commercial world. She can doubt her abilities and she is not inspired to work for financial gain. “Di is a bold and outwardly confident person who comes across as energetic, resilient, very open and direct, and full of humour,” the assessment report says.
“At her best, she shines as a communicator, being a lively, enthusiastic, entertaining and highly focused performer who enjoys being centre stage,” it adds. “She is able to be intensely ‘in the moment’ when the spotlight is on her. She is driven to make a difference, and to contribute.
“She will tend to prefer to build personal connections with people, rather than having a formal management style, creating a work climate where people can be open about how they feel, and self-expression and unconventional ways of doing things are valued. She will be respected for her straight-talking, practical and no-nonsense way of dealing with problems, a pragmatic approach to decision-making and a willingness to get her hands dirty when needed.”
“I think I’m quite good at understanding myself. I know I need a strong team around me who have strengths in finance and data. It was good to hear about my positives and now that I know I need more self-motivation, I will work harder in that area.
“The report has shown my skills which would be useful in industry - teamwork and creativity. It has been very powerful for me.”
DR ALAN LEE
Alan Lee, 47, has been a teacher for 24 years. He has degrees from the universities of Liverpool, Nottingham, Keele and Southampton. He has worked in schools in Warrington, Spain, Cheshire, Kirby and the Wirral. In 2005, he became headteacher of St Thomas More Catholic School in Bedford, and three years ago he became executive principal of the Federation of Bedford Catholic Schools, a group of four schools in the town. He is a fellow of the National College of School Leadership, a national leader of education, a member of the Association of School and College Leaders national council and is training to be an Ofsted inspector.
ALAN LEE’S STORY
Alan Lee admits he wears his heart on his sleeve. He is proud of being creative and innovative and is always striving to do better. In the past, he has left schools in more affluent areas to serve children living in more deprived circumstances.
“I came from a tough working-class background with few positive role models and I’m severely dyslexic. However, that didn’t stop me becoming the first in my family to gain a degree,” he says. “I want children to have the best opportunities and to develop a love of learning.
“I see teaching as a privilege and a noble calling. In that sense, I have never worked a day in my life, because I have a vocation that I tremendously enjoy.
“I am driven by a burning, simmering frustration and anger with the inequality of educational opportunity that continues to exist in our society.”
THE HEADHUNTER’S FINDINGS
The assessment showed that Lee has a strong motivation for commercial opportunities and sees financial reward as a useful and valid metric of success. His personality allows him “to operate at a variety of levels within organisational complexity”, and his ambition and vision for an organisation, desire for challenge and fearlessness around innovation and change make him a “strong change agent”.
“Alan cares about others and will want them to succeed at work, seeking to build a climate of social justice where people ‘do the right thing’. He will set the bar high in terms of expectations, communicating them clearly, and is not likely to struggle with giving people difficult or tough messages,” McGee says.
The headhunter also found that Lee has a clear sense of direction, and is capable of inspiring others. He is unafraid of challenging the status quo and is extraordinarily resourceful and determined.
“Alan’s total identification with his mission and organisation means that he will probably be seen to ‘walk the talk’, leading by example,” the report says.
The assessment shows he is a “charismatic, ambitious, forceful and energetic individual with determination and drive to succeed”. The tests demonstrated that he has a talent for creating a vision and enthusing others, winning them to the cause.
“He possesses a tremendous appetite for learning, pursuing education and staying up to date in his field, and is also energised by fresh challenges that give him the opportunity to stretch and develop through experiential learning. He is undaunted by resistance and good at spotting and exploiting opportunities,” the assessment report says.
But he will “likely need to feel an alignment between his personal values and aspirations and those of the organisation to be really successful in a business environment”, it adds.
“I feel I do have transferable skills: Lucy (McGee) found that I put my heart and soul into what I do. The ethical stance of where I work is crucial. I would be happy to work for an organisation set up for the common good, but wealth creation certainly isn’t a driver for me.
“I’m always looking for what’s next, but I’m not sure what is next for me particularly. I have a fantastic job and I feel privileged to do it. I have no problem getting up on a Monday morning. I love what I do and I wouldn’t want to do anything else. There is no other job that enables you to have such an important impact on people’s lives in such a profound way.”
Photo: Di Beddow. Photo credit: Julian Anderson