MAT culture: When to celebrate and when to act
Across the UK economy, there has been an increasing interest in the way organisations behave. With culture now widely accepted as a board matter, ICSA: The Governance Institute (ICSA) and the Confederation of School Trusts (CST) have published a report looking at the issue of culture in academy trusts. Louise Thompson, ICSA, draws on this report to highlight when trusts should celebrate versus when they should act.
The report highlights a number of proxies for poor culture that a board should interrogate as part of their oversight and challenge. These include:
Complaints: The number of complaints received; themes covered; any trends that warrant further investigation.
- Staff turnover: Is it high or low? Does it mirror strategic aims to refresh staffing levels or retain existing staff? What needs to be done to address any issues?
- Staff satisfaction surveys: Does the board see them? Are there recurrent themes that need to be addressed or has something new come to the fore? What may be driving staff responses?
- Safeguarding: How many incidents have been reported to the board and/or external agencies? How many individuals does that statistic represent and what were the general issues?
- H&S incidents: Can anything be deduced from the number of health and safety accidents recorded in a given period? If there are none, does that represent a safe environment or a lack of commitment to agreed procedures? Do too many suggest a lax attitude to the welfare of pupils, staff and visitors or rigorous reporting?
- Stakeholder engagement: Is it meaningful or cosmetic?
- Regulatory infractions: How many times has the trust been subject to formal regulatory oversight?
- Absence of whistleblowing policies: Are ‘speak up’ policies in place, are they effective and followed up by an independent person?
- Policy infringements: Are there individuals or departments that regularly ignore or override agreed trust policies? How are they dealt with?
The report also highlights a number of cultural markers that academy trustees should be attuned to in order to assess the organisational culture. They are divided into those areas that should be celebrated and those that should be acted on.
Indicators to celebrate:
Boards should celebrate leadership and governance practices that outline a clear purpose about the trust, the role of the board and the responsibilities of staff, and indicate a willingness to provide accountability to a range of stakeholders. In order to fulfill these objectives, boards should demonstrate:
- Clear understanding of key stakeholders’ demands and how these are balanced to deliver the organisation’s aims.
- An awareness that the culture will need to change as the organisation evolves and that change can take time.
- An appreciation of the challenging external pressures that undermine the aims and values of the academy trust.
- A willingness to engage with regulators and others to share good practice.
- An interest in learning from mistakes.
- Strong, productive relations with stakeholders.
- Communication and information flows that travel bottom-up and vice versa.
Looking for the following operational markers will support trustees in assessing management effectiveness within the organisation. These include:
- Stretching, realistic and relevant key performance indicators that support the academy’s purpose.
- A willingness to share success and challenges with other academies and learn together to improve the situation for all.
- Strong ‘speak up’ or whistleblowing policies that are viewed as opportunities to learn and improve.
- Evident respect and honesty between the board and the chief executive, and senior leadership team.
The behaviour of the trust, in the boardroom and beyond, matters and sets the tone. Some of the indicators to look for here are:
- Clearly articulated and demonstrated values, ethos, expectations, and behaviours for the board, staff, pupils, and others involved in the daily life of the academy trust.
- Living the values and ethos of the academy trust from top to bottom and side to side.
- Consistency in the way everyone is treated.
- Honest, transparent, two-way communication.
- A willingness to embrace accountability from every source.
Indicators to act on:
Executing robust leadership and governance is paramount – the identification of any of the following markers within a trust should inform the board’s scrutiny and action.
- Poor governance and a lack of understanding of the need for robust governance arrangements supported by a suitably qualified governance professional.
- A board focused on compliance and regulatory requirements at the expense of delivering the trust’s aims, vision, and values.
- Dysfunctional board dynamics, including an overly polite, fractious or hostile board.
- Board turnover, or lack thereof.
- Inappropriate or no response to regulatory interventions.
- A ‘we’re unique’ mindset when challenged on performance and the delivery of aims.
- Lack of focus, or a focus on the wrong things.
- The ‘vampire board’ – lacking in self-reflection and unaware of their adverse impact on the schools in the trust.
There are a number of operational indicators that suggest challenges to an organisation’s management effectiveness. These include:
- Poorly thought out key performance indicators resulting in unwanted, unintended or unforeseen outcomes.
- Turnover of staff at every level.
- Poorly qualified, or inexperienced and unsupported key personnel, such as chief executive, chief finance officer and governance managers.
- Weak or inappropriate management systems.
- The regular use of compromise agreements and ‘gagging clauses’.
- Overly powerful individuals dominating decision making or otherwise exerting undue influence.
- A tolerance of small breaches in agreed protocol.
Unchallenged, poor organisational behaviour can quickly become problematic. Trustees should be mindful of the following markers:
- A fear of upsetting the ‘powers that be’ or significant stakeholders rather than focusing on the needs of pupils and delivering the academy trust’s aims.
- A lack of challenge, inquisitive thinking, and courageous conversations.
- Stressed boards, staff or pupils.
- Complacency and an overweening belief in the inherent good of the work being undertaken.
- Turning a ‘blind eye’ to the behaviours of favoured or influential individuals.
- Welcomes secrecy and obfuscation.
Download "Organisational culture in academy trusts: When to celebrate and when to act" today for more information.