6 secrets to being a great college leader

The scale of demands faced by a college CEO are huge. What are the best ways to find success in this high-pressured role?
18th November 2019, 4:25pm


6 secrets to being a great college leader

Fe Leadership: What Makes A Great Leader?

On a warm summer’s evening in June 2017, leaders from colleges across the further education sector met for the first time for the inaugural Further Education Strategic Leadership Programme.

Those on the Department for Education-funded programme, developed by the Education and Training Foundation (ETF) and Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, reflected the broad spectrum of the sector. The 28 attendees in Oxford included representatives of multi-college groups, heads of large general FE colleges, principals of agricultural colleges, heads of adult learning services and a number of chief executives of independent training providers.

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That evening, Professor Michael Smets opened the programme with a session on the chief executive officer role. Insights were gleaned from a major research project based on interviews he and his team had conducted with more than 150 CEOs from companies around the world. There was immediate recognition within the cohort of many of the issues identified that FE CEOs face daily, in particular: 

  • The complex nature of challenges.
  • The bearing of the external environment and the visibility of the role of CEO.
  • The ability to diagnose situations that may vary enormously in speed, scope and significance.
  • The critical leadership task being that of determining whether technical or adaptive responses are required.
  • The ability to harness the “power of doubt” in making critical decisions.

We already knew that the range and scale of demands of the college CEO role were comparable to other chief executives. An extensive needs analysis had been undertaken by Roffey Park and the Association of Colleges prior to the programme’s design, which highlighted the multidimensional qualities of the role: a college CEO needs strong commercial skills and financial acumen, as well as the ability to maintain high standards of teaching and learning across the curriculum; they need to be able to respond to short and medium-term funding opportunities and regulatory imperatives; and they must drive the innovation and strategic thinking that will lay the groundwork for the future. This is to ensure FE organisations are resilient and adaptable, as learning needs and communities change and evolve. 

We also observed the strong sense of purpose that drives many of the leaders in this sector.

Since that June evening, more than 147 college principals and CEOs have completed the programme, and further companion programmes have been developed. These include the preparing-for-CEO programme, designed for those intending to step up to the chief executive/principal role, and, more recently, the chairs’ leadership programme, launched to support leadership development at the governance level.

The ETF and Oxford Saïd Business School have, over the course of the past two years, forged a deep partnership, bringing many reciprocal benefits to both FE and higher education. The joint work on leadership-development programmes for the FE sector has brought into combination leading-edge thinking and research from Times Higher Education’s top ranked university, with leaders from a sector that are at the vanguard of delivering the vocational skills and learning that the nation needs to remain resilient and competitive. 

This is what we have learnt about what makes a great FE leader:


Leadership is all about relationships: the chief executive role has to be seen in a broader leadership context that is a complex geometry of internal and external relations. The relationship between CEO and the chief financial officer and chair is particularly critical, as well as the leadership culture and the distribution of leadership throughout the organisation.

Adaptive leadership

Throughout our leadership work, we draw on the concept of adaptive leadership - something that is embedded throughout Oxford’s reflective-practice tutorial system. This includes the ability to take a higher-level view, “on the balcony” of what is going on, as well as getting immersed in the work itself, “on the dance floor”. 

Space for innovation

The future is already here, it is just unevenly distributed - to use a quote from the science fiction author, William Gibson. While the current environment can be challenging, there are leaders within the sector who are leading innovation and entrepreneurship, and creating the space for bold innovation and experimentation.


There are some remarkable stories to tell - and reputation is a key component in the mixture. Many leaders see opportunities to forge more positive narratives about the sector. This can be done by highlighting successes and strong performance while creating agency across the sector to influence the way it is seen. This is supported by Rupert Younger’s Oxford Centre for Corporate Reputation.

Size and complexity

The job is getting bigger and more complex: with more mergers taking place in the sector, the total number of colleges is getting smaller, and the average college is getting bigger in size and complexity.

Balance and creative tension

The role of the CEO is one of continual calibration, straddling the financial and educational domains, the external and internal environment, and the strategic long and short term. The task of delivering public value to communities while remaining sustainable and resilient makes this one of the most demanding and rewarding roles in education today.

Sir Frank McLoughlin is associate director for leadership at the ETF, Louise Watts is client director at the Oxford Saïd Business School and Steve Mostyn is an associate fellow. On 19 November, they will run a breakout session at the AoC Conference, titled “Sharing our leadership learning”. The session aims to give attendees insights, knowledge, understanding and confidence to look at their own, and their organisation’s, leadership needs

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