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5 lessons on college transformation

Matt Hamnett reflects on the most important factors in a college transformation – from looking at 'the man in the mirror' to focusing on a mission

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Matt Hamnett reflects on the most important factors in a college transformation – from looking at 'the man in the mirror' to focusing on a mission

I'm starting with the man in the mirror
I'm asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change

Michael Jackson

In the days following my resignation as CEO of the Hart Learning Group (HLG) at the end of last year, I wrote a list of all the things I wanted to do during my "gap year". The list was eclectic in composition and included, for example: “run another half marathon”, “learn to bake”, “paint the house” and “climb Mount Fuji”.

It also, however, included a commitment to properly reflect on my experience at HLG. We achieved a lot in a short space of time from a difficult starting point – including an Ofsted judgement that we were "good" with "outstanding" features last autumn - and I wanted to give some proper thought to how colleges could most effectively be transformed. I knew we’d done a few things that ran slightly against the sector convention. I also knew that we didn’t get everything right.

I have been asked by the Further Education Trust for Leadership to undertake a substantive piece of work on the topic over the next six months – interviewing colleagues from within the sector and beyond to test my experience against theirs in pursuit of some common lessons. My starting point, from my own experience, is that five lessons are particularly relevant to college transformation:

Mission, strategy and values matter

My most important lesson by far is that – done well and taken seriously – a near-religious focus on mission, strategy and values is the silver bullet of transformation. At HLG, I linked every conversation back to our mission, strategy and values: “How does this help us deliver our mission, and how do we do it in the right way?”

It’s important to say that we agreed our mission and strategy in the context of, but not as a simple function of, government policy. Operating within the prevailing rules of the system does not mean being a slave to the latest press release from the Department for Education. 

By making sound strategic judgements and holding our nerve, we created an umbrella under which colleagues could stay focused on what’s important: students. Coupled with that strategic continuity, our focus on values helped us make sure that our expectations reached all parts of the organisation – and that folk worked together in the right way. With those things in place, it's actually quite hard for things to go badly wrong.

Invest in programme management    

Whole-organisation transformations are complex tasks; more so in a sector as changeable and challenging as further education. Understanding the baseline position is itself a substantial and necessary piece of work.

Whilst it doesn’t particularly play to my personality type, I have learned the hard way that proper programme management is a necessary overhead. Indeed, I have learned that – applied adeptly and proportionately – programme management needn’t be that painful, and can be a real positive force. Its value in providing structure and clarity across a multi-faceted, dynamic effort is huge.

The most fun I had at HLG was the piece of work we did to create a set of what my old PwC colleagues would call “summary operating procedures” – i.e., a map of all the things we did to manage, monitor and assure the quality of our provision. The process of creating the summaries helped us to refine what was already a robust approach; and the clarity we gave colleagues by producing a simple, accessible map of our approach was priceless.

Simplicity drives performance   

We work in a desperately complex operating environment. Policy changes constantly. The rules and requirements imposed by the Education and Skills Funding Agency are vast and intricate. The common inspection framework is talked about as if it was some ancient religious text.

It’s not reasonable to ask colleagues to work wonders with students whilst also staying on top of all the complexities of the sector. Carving out some strategic continuity in the ways described above is an important antidote, but is not enough on its own. I’m a firm believer in simplicity of organisational design – creating business units, teams and individual job roles with the narrowest possible focus. If the job is deliverable, you can expect people to deliver.

At HLG we also created a single monthly cycle through which we monitored all aspects of performance at all levels. Conversations between tutors and department managers rolled up, level by level, to the senior team and me. This process replaced a raft of other meetings, giving staff some time back to get on with the job. 

Contain commercialism

A consistent theme of the past decade has been the drive for colleges to become more commercial – and I agree very much with the sentiment. I have real reservations, though, about the way in which many colleges have reflected the need for commerciality into their structure and ways of working.

I take the counter-cultural view that colleges should employ the smallest possible number of the most commercial people they can find. I don’t want college teachers to be commercial; I want them to be incredible teachers. Nor do I believe that colleges can exploit the commercial opportunities that exist in the apprenticeship and wider learning and development market if they attempt to do so through college curriculum teams.

For me, that means establishing a discrete commercial business unit, staffed with commercial and programme-management experts, as well as a dedicated curriculum team to do commercial work.

Start with the man in the mirror

Leading any big transformation is tough. It's also a lot of fun. I’m an addict, no doubt. CEOs play many and very different roles at different points in the transformation journey.  

In the early months at HLG, it was all about engaging and galvanising colleagues behind a new mission and approach. I also had to do my fair share of heavy lifting. Over time, I felt myself becoming more cheerleader than manager. It was my job to keep spirits up and minds focused. Colleagues needed my advice rather than my direction. 

You must also challenge every decision you take and look for lessons. What we got wrong at the first attempt I was always determined to get right at the second. That is to say… you must be prepared to change your ways.

My focus over the coming months will be to talk to and debate with colleagues across the sector, so that I can refine or redraw my hypothesis before publishing my conclusions.

Matt Hamnett is the former chief executive of the Hart Learning Group. He is director of Matt Hamnett & Associates and tweets as @matt_hamnett

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