Why become an academy trust non-executive? STEP Academy Trust case study
Isabelle Dennigan, Head of European Operations at a leading financial institution and Academy Director for the STEP Academy Trust, talks about why she became a non-executive director and her experience of the role so far.
So, tell us a bit about your background and why you chose to get involved in education.
In my current role, I oversee European Operations where I am responsible for about 160 staff. My mandate is to ensure that the European operations strategy is aligned to the business strategy. I am responsible for the delivery of the global change mandate within the region and I face off to the regulator in my control function. A big part of my role is to look after people, which is about communication, learning and development and how to develop people so that they are the best.
I’ve been in the finance industry for seventeen years. I’ve developed myself throughout my career but I would say that I’m not a specialist in any area. I’m not in finance, I’m not an accountant, I’m not in HR. I have acquired multiple skills and competencies which I wanted to be able to use outside of the finance industry but I wasn’t sure what would interest me. I am a member of Women in Banking and Finance and was invited to attend one of their events, which was about encouraging women in the finance industry to apply for directorship on academy trust boards. At the event, we heard from the Department for Education and also Sir Rod Aldridge who sponsors multiple academies. They spoke passionately about education and the need for people to get involved and the difference they can make. It just struck a chord with me.
I have an eight year old daughter and often think about what I want to give and leave her. What could be more important than the education you provide a child? So, it really interested me on that point and since being involved, I have met some very fascinating and interesting people.
Why did you decide to become a non-executive director? You talked before about the two sides of it - the ability to give something back and also the ability to enhance your own skills.
When I was considering a non-executive directorship, I was mindful of the time commitment, so it had to be something that really interested me outside of work. After attending the presentation by Sir Rod Aldridge and the Department for Education, I decided that Education was right for me. I had also reached a point in my career where I started to think “how do I stretch myself, how do I acquire new skills?”
There were the two reasons why I wanted to do it. One: giving back to the community in an area that really was of interest. The second one was about developing and stretching myself. By being involved in an area which is so different to what I do at work, I thought this would be the right way.
I provide support to the Trust but I have learned a lot as well from the people who run the trust. For me, the benefits of being involved with the trust have come my way as well.
Why do you think people from the world of finance, business, and industry are important to get in to education and in to trusts?
I think it’s a similar debate to diversity. When you have a challenge or problem; if you bring people from a diverse background, different ways of life, people who work in different industries and bring knowledge and different competencies, it’s a lot more powerful. Boards are effective when they have diverse groups of people, each bringing a different mix of skills and knowledge. I believe the more diverse, the better it is.
Can you tell us a little bit about what the day to day world of being a non-executive looks and feels like and the decisions you have to make. Could you give us a snapshot of what’s that like?
It’s very interesting - when I attended the first board meeting in March, I was looking at how the meeting was being run and what was being discussed. I realised that there was a lot of documentation to be read beforehand. The meetings are really about discussing points of importance, ratifying any content, making decisions or questioning if there is anything that doesn’t sound right.
I then asked myself: How am I going to be able to make an impact if all I do is attend our meetings once a quarter? Interestingly, at that time, the Trust took on a new school and I was asked to become its Chair of Governors. I naturally became a lot more engaged. Now, I wear two different hats. Obviously, I work closer to the school that I Chair and it’s helping me understand how the Trust works overall. In other ways, it’s helping me in my role as a community director.
In addition, the trust is setting up an audit committee and I’m actually going to be part of that as well. Whilst it is going to be stretching from a time commitment perspective, it is important to be able to contribute to an area where you can make a difference as part of the Trust.
It sounds like you have a good relationship with your head teacher. How does that relationship work?
I think very few people realise that to be a head teacher you need to have business acumen. Whilst you are responsible for the education of all pupils, you also need to ensure that the school is run effectively and efficiently and that includes the management of staff, policies, financial management, premises, etc….A lot is being asked of head teachers so providing support and advice is very important. Head teachers I have met would do well in the corporate world.
And in my case, the head teacher manages a school which is part of the Trust. The Trust provides a lot of support and a number of services. The Trust currently has five schools, soon going up to seven. As the Trust grows, it builds scale and improves or increases the number of services it provides. Head teachers from each school don’t have to start from scratch. They can benefit from the infrastructure provided by the Trust and they get a lot of support.
Can you start to see the difference you’ve made to the school yet?
It’s too early to say and I’m not sure I’m the right person to answer the question. The staff, across theTrust, is very knowledgeable.
Can you tell us anything about any visits you’ve made to any of the schools?
I attended a parents’ evening when the school opened. I met some parents and children and that’s great because, it’s all very well to attend meetings and read documentation, but one thing we should not forget is why we are doing it in the first place. It’s about the children and their education. As you go in to the schools and see the children, it reminds you why you are getting involved. It reminds you that everything you do is for the children. Apart from their well-being, what could be more important than their education?
You must feel you reflect on your own daughter…
You do, you look at how it was for you and how it was for her. I believe that the only thing you can really leave a child that is of value is their education.
What happens next for you? You’re chair of governors for a year…
I’m chair of governors until the first Ofsted inspection, I‘m a member of the Audit Committee and I’m a community director on the trust.
I have every admiration, you do a lot.
I always think I don’t do enough.
How long would you say the time commitment of trusteeship is? We say you can make an impact in a minimum four hours a month. Some people have said ‘that’s fine’ and others have said ‘that’s unrealistic’.
Four hours a month? Surely people can give four hours a month? Really, it’s difficult for me to say because I’m doing more. But I don’t think four hours a month is unreasonable. I would say that preparation for a meeting requires between 5 and 10 hours of work - reading and preparation and understanding the content, especially when you’re new.