Reputation is key to our sector’s rosy future

6th July 2018 at 00:00
Establishing a core purpose and forging relationships with prestigious employers will go a long way to enhancing FE’s standing, argues Frank McLoughlin

A positive reputation is the foundation of any successful organisation, but it is often the hardest to gain and the quickest to lose, as anyone senior involved in the recent TSB bank account problems can surely testify.

How we protect our reputation when crisis hits has been under the spotlight recently, but another key challenge for us, as a sector and as individual institutions, is how we build a strong reputation in the first place, so that we are more resilient in the face of adversity. This is an issue that has been at the forefront of my thinking throughout my career.

It can seem that, reputationally, our sector is experiencing a challenging time that is unprecedented. Yet, in the 30-plus years I have worked in further education, I have seen the sector’s reputation wax and wane. And while now is a critical time for us to improve our image, I would argue that it is also an opportune time, as the nation’s employers and government’s goals are aligned with that of the sector for the first time in decades. We should take advantage of this now and tell the story of how FE transforms lives.

Four key strategies

So how do we build a reputation? In the course of my career, I have identified four key strategies in successful reputation building that I’d like to share.

First, though, it’s important to think about what reputation is. In my view, it is the estimation in which the person or organisation is held by the community or public in general.

You don’t own your reputation. It is owned by that community looking into and at your organisation. You can build, shape and manage it but, ultimately, you cannot control it.

To shape and design a reputation, the first step is to be clear about what your primary purpose is. As you develop your organisation’s vision and mission statement, also ask yourselves the question, “What are we primarily known for?”

I think, as a sector, we should be primarily known for technical education. I acknowledge we do great work outside of that and, indeed, this is an issue that garners much debate – as can be seen in our recent publication, The Voices of the Further Education Sector: the purpose of the further education sector now, authored by a range of sector leaders who have taken part in the Education and Training Foundation (ETF) Strategic Leadership programme at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.

The second – critically important – key is alignment. When you are aligned with people who want you to deliver your purpose, you have an even better opportunity to succeed. Back in 2005, the Foster review made a recommendation, albeit buried in paragraph 157 of the report, that principals of the most successful colleges should go out and fly the flag for FE by telling their story. Yet, if people do not want to hear your story, you’re not going to have much success.

And that was the case for many years. For so long, governments and the wider country did not want to hear the FE story. They did not want to hear it because it wasn’t aligned with their priorities. But now that technical education is high up the political agenda, we have a real opportunity. Our moment is coming.

Association is my third strategic key. Whenever I visit colleges, principals will highlight the success of their collaborative work with prestigious employers. This is reputation-building by association. That’s why I’m delighted that, at the ETF, we have built on our relationship with Oxford Saïd Business School to co-design and co-deliver the Preparing for CEO programme, which is developing our sector’s next generation of skilled and visionary leaders.

This world-leading business school is closely aligned with what we as a sector are primarily trying to achieve and, through this association, we are building the confidence, reputation and prestige of further education.

Be observant and listen

My fourth key is acuity. We need to be observant and listen. High-profile falls from grace often occur because people did not listen, or they listened but did not respond.

That’s why the work we do around student and staff satisfaction is so important. It helps to ward off crises before they strike. Also, through listening and responding, you can shape the developing culture of your organisation and get the discretionary effort you need from staff in order to deliver exceptional results. Ultimately, you will not be a great organisation with a great reputation unless your staff are willing to go that extra mile for you.

We are, as a sector, in a promising place reputationally – the stars are aligning. It is tempting to keep looking inwards owing to the volume of challenges we face, but we have to look outwards and tell our story to the world. Reputation is a crucial key to unlocking success.

Sir Frank McLoughlin is associate director for leadership at the Education and Training Foundation

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