We placed Mike Ashton as Chair of The Henley College in the summer of 2021. Two years into his role, I asked him a few questions focusing on his advice for people considering becoming the Chair of a further education or sixth form college. This is what he said:
Mike, tell us about The Henley College and why you’re proud to be its Chair.
The Henley College is a sixth form college with a long and proud academic heritage dating back to 1604. Today, we have transformed our curriculum and offer a diverse range of A Levels and vocational courses to 2,000 students aged 16-19. We’re collectively proud of our shared vision – to be an exceptional college that positively transforms the lives of our students.
Whilst you have a great deal of both executive leadership and non-executive leadership experience, this was your first exposure to governance in the FE sector. Tell us about that, and how you had to learn what your priorities were, early on.
I became Chair of the College in June 2021, and my first two years have been both challenging and immensely rewarding. As an experienced NED but a ‘new boy’ to the sector, my learning curve has been steep and my early priories were to:
- Build strong chemistry and establish credibility with the Principal/CEO, the leadership team, and our Director of Governance (the Chair’s right hand).
- Get to know the College (people, culture, strategy, operations), and be visible and available around campus.
- Get to know the board, build relationships and establish priorities.
- Immerse myself in the sector and build a network — LOTS of reading!
- Meet a diverse range of stakeholders and influencers in the community.
If you could translate your own priorities into a few tips for others, what would they be?
- The key priority is building a solid working relationship with the Principal/CEO. Frequent 1-to-1s and college walkarounds together really help build credibility and trust.
- The flow of data is significant. A good working relationship with the college Director of Governance will help focus on the key priorities – along with solid personal admin!
- Spend as much time on campus as possible in the first year – meeting staff, joining a few lessons, attending events and chatting with students all help accelerate immersion.
- Read, read, read. Investing time early to get on top of sector policy and process pays dividends. The Association of Colleges and the Sixth Form Colleges Association are great data sources.
- Get to know the ‘rhythm of the college year’ and spot the peak business times for senior staff. Try to align your agenda with the peaks and troughs and test the water with ‘bite-size chunks’ of new stuff.
- Take a look at the board governance framework (committees / link governors etc.) and data flow (KPIs/Finance & Risk reports etc.). Make sure the jigsaw pieces fit together and work properly.
If you could offer a couple of pieces of advice to candidates considering becoming an FE sector Chair, what would it be?
It would be easy for even the most experienced private sector NED to underestimate the complexity of the education sector and intricacies of college operation — and what a mistake that would be! Unsurprisingly, there’s a steady flow of information to absorb on sometimes unfamiliar topics such as sector policy and direction, college strategy, operations and KPIs, financial performance and governance process. That said, an effective Director of Governance can help ease the flow by prioritising and focusing attention where it’s needed — and there’s an ebb and flow to time commitment through the year.
Also, get a personal mentor as early as possible. The ETF can connect you with an experienced Chair as part of a structured support programme – all on Zoom which is absolutely invaluable.
This might be a silly question but two years in , would you recommend becoming the Chair of a college to others?
Would I recommend becoming chair of a college? Absolutely and unequivocally yes!! The satisfaction derived from playing a part in the success of young people as they progress on their journey is simply immense.
Let me try to make it a bit more real. Summer term is my favourite — in just the last couple of months, I was fortunate to attend our superb college dance show at the local theatre, participate in our student awards ceremony and speech day, celebrate the contribution of our incredible staff at the end of another highly successful year, and help to welcome a new cohort of students at one of our open days. It doesn’t get much better!
And, it would be remiss of me not to ask you how you found working with the recruitment team at Peridot Partners?
The Peridot team are sector experts – they really know their stuff. They give no-nonsense advice and support throughout the recruitment process and are always on hand for a quick chat or to act as a sounding board.
I find them to be honest, straight forward and transparent. They talk about building long-term relationships and in my experience, their actions match their promise. It’s refreshing to work with a recruitment company that is genuinely concerned about what happens months and years AFTER an appointment is made — Peridot are great people to work with as an applicant and as a client.
If, after reading Mike’s experience of becoming a Chair you’re inspired to find your next board or leadership role in the FE sector, get in touch with Drew Richardson-Walsh for an informal chat or check out our education home page for more information on how we can help.
Drew Richardson-Walsh is the Director of our Education Practice. With a wealth of expertise having previously worked in further and higher education leadership roles and first-hand experience of being a deputy chair of a thriving multi-academy trust, Drew passionately believes that access to high-quality education is the key to true social mobility, and he works tirelessly to support our clients to secure exceptional talent for their leadership teams, executive roles and non-executive board positions. You can connect with Drew on Linkedin.