THE chairman of the new National College for School Leadership chuckles as he recalls his own first experience of management training.
Fresh out of Cambridge, Richard Greenhalgh was thrown in at the deep end and asked by his new employers, the household products and food giant Unilever, to recruit and then lead 60 staff on what sounds like a gruelling three-month assignment.
His mission? To run a "sprout trimming" station on a converted airfield in the Fens. Bird's Eye, one of Unilever's companies, was just entering the frozen sprout market. The vegetables had to be prepared for freezing, and then this embryonic leader had to drive around Suffolk attempting to sell the left overs, or "sprout waste", to farmers.
A far cry from management experiences in today's schools? He grins and won't be drawn, but says: "It was only six months after I left Cambridge, and a bit of a shock to the system."
But the experience does not appear to have done him any harm. He is now 56 and has worked for the company for more than 30 years. He is chairman of Unilever in the UK and now a key figure in the new national leadership college.
Greenhalgh was appointed by David Blunkett, the Education Secretary. The college which he will chair, officially launched by the Prime Minister this week, is designed to bring together a multitude of professional development programmes in a national centre.
Aimed at 100,000 heads, deputies and other senior managers, it will co ordinate headship training, organise international conferences, and act as an online focus for debate for headteachers and aspiring school leaders.
"The chair could have come from the private or public sector," Mr Greenhalgh said.
"What I think was needed was someone who was in a leadership position who was experienced in developing employees' talents."
Having attended the private Bedford modern school, he read history and social anthropology at Christ's College, Cambridge. He and his art teacher wife Annie have a daughter, who is a surgeon.
His other commitments make exhausting reading: he is on the governing bodies or boards of 10 major organisations, including the Oxford, Cambridge and RSA examination board, the International Chamber of Commerce and the Confederation of British Industry.
But what experience of headship can the new chair - whose principal role will be to check director Heather du Quesnay and her staff are fulfilling the college's goals - offer? The question is crucial, for Mrs du Quesnay has also never been a head.
Mr Greenhalgh has gleaned much of his knowledge from nine schools in the east end of London.
For the past two years he has been involved in a Unilever scheme supporting schools in Tower Hamlets. Part of this has involved personally "mentoring" a primary headteacher as they share their experience of management challenges.
The head herself, who asked not to be named, said Mr
Greenhalgh had brought a new perspective to management
problems. She said: "Richard obviously has a lot of experience of leadership from the business world. But he's also now had experience of what's happening at the chalk face."
In common with many business leaders, he feels good school leadership is vital because the basic skills of too many young people as they enter the workforce were still not good enough - a fact which was sometimes
evident in his own employees.
He said: "When we offer, in some of our plants, opportunities for people to go on courses, what we find is that quite a few of them come forward with reading difficulties and numeracy problems, which need remedial work.
"I'd like to get to a situation where that's not necessary."
Whether the solution lies first in allowing heads to familiarise themselves with the intricacies of Fenland agriculture, he would