Colleges will prosper with a commercial approach

27th May 2016 at 01:00

In a recent TES editorial, Ann Mroz prompted us to consider what makes a great leader ( The focus was on the challenge of developing future school leaders, but it’s a pertinent question in the context of change in further education, too.

Numerous studies have explored this over the years and highlighted a number of significant attributes for successful leadership: vision and strategic thinking; the ability to grasp complexity; innovation; effective people management; and distributed leadership.

Research undertaken by the 157 Group and partners has also put the spotlight on a range of attributes required within teams and across organisations for effective leadership – including resilience, self-awareness, political skills and a systemic mindset.

However, the current scale and pace of change within FE, driven by funding reductions, area reviews and apprenticeship reform, is giving rise to a growing recognition that a further set of skills and attributes are required to successfully lead and develop organisations for the future.

A recent report by the Gazelle Colleges and Wickland Westcott ( provides a valuable analysis of the implications of the profound changes taking place in the sector, its leadership and its capacity to change. It concludes that colleges need to adopt more commercial approaches to survive and prosper.

At the 157 Group, we wholeheartedly agree. For us, this means the application of commercial financial skills to diversify income, generate efficiencies and effectively manage the top and bottom line. It also means proficient risk assessment and management. It means effective system leadership across institutions and sectors, building relationships with key partners. And it means developing entrepreneurial capabilities, enabling innovation and continuously striving to improve. No mean feat, but remember these are the skills required by the leadership team, not a single figurehead at the apex of the organisation.

Through our conversations in the sector, it would seem that there is a growing consensus about what is required. The harder question is how these skills can be developed in leaders and leadership teams.

There is undoubtedly still a place for online and face-to-face workshop approaches, but the core of any future leadership development activities will need to be experiential learning, through secondments, mentoring or project-based activity. While these are logistically harder to organise, they provide maximum benefit through exposure to new ways of thinking and behaving – even more so if they are undertaken outside the FE sector.

One answer may be to seek individuals who already have a commercial skillset. Recruiting senior managers and leaders from the private and non-education sectors is a trend that the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) and the 157 Group have explored in a project supported by the Further Education Trust for Leadership.

We also need to ask how these same commercial skills can be nurtured in managers throughout the organisation to ensure a sustainable pipeline of talent with the necessary set of (evolving) skills. How can colleges and training providers be convinced to invest in the development of these leadership skills, given all the other draws on their pressured finances?

These are the big questions that the 157 Group – together with AELP, Pearson and others – is keen to explore. Leadership development needs to be redesigned to ensure leaders are best equipped with the necessary skills to lead the scale and pace of transformation required. Let’s put our partnership working skills to the test and do this together.

Kate Green is head of business development at the 157 Group

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