IWF UK Leadership Stories: Elizabeth Sidwell

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This month's Leadership Story is by Dr Elizabeth Sidwell CBE, an educational strategist and consultant. A former Schools Commissioner for England, Liz’s goal has been to raise standards, tackle underperformance and champion the growth of Academies. Liz writes about the importance of handing the next generation an organisation that can flourish.

What does being a leader mean to you?

Understanding that I have influence, and with that comes significant responsibility. I am committed to collaboration and see leadership as working with teams to build sustainable organisations. I set myself high standards and expect the same commitment from my staff. Working conditions must be good in return.

Being a leader has given me opportunities to work with like-minded people from other disciplines as well as my own. It is also part of a leader’s remit to identify and encourage the next generation of leaders. I don’t believe in the lone leader – it’s hard to ensure your legacy is sustainable if you are not bringing on younger people to take over.

What have been the one or two biggest challenges in your life and how have you overcome them?

One was moving from private to state education with a brand new vision. I was Principal of one of the first 15 state schools to be free of local authority control. They were known as City Technology Colleges, and our brief was to work with business and focus on innovation to raise standards. Opposition had to be overcome with patience, firmness and early small successes. We had lots of face-to-face meetings to build confidence in our proposals.

Having succeeded with this challenge, the next was to scale up by establishing a Trust of sister organisations, of which I was CEO. We invited a number of schools facing challenge to join our Trust and so formed a federation of what were by this time called Academies. All this involved being approachable, outwardly confident, and visible, and establishing a trusted senior team who took the agreed message out to staff.

Another big challenge was moving from my role as an independent CEO to become a senior civil servant. The Civil Service has its own long established ways of doing things. Despite my seniority, I was a medium-sized cog in a very large wheel. I needed to use all I had learnt over the years to give confidence and carry the team with me and show my peers I was a serious force. I had to learn fast, listen, and respect different ways of doing things while maintaining a focus on my role and the reasons for my appointment.

What do you regard as your greatest successes, and why?

Realising the vision I had set, which was to make a difference to the life chances of others, especially young people and those from deprived communities. Leading my team, I was able to extend opportunities and develop self-esteem among young people, initially in inner city and then in coastal and remote communities across England. Recognition of my contribution with a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours of 2009 was a proud moment and endorsed the success of my national as well as local role.

I was also able to establish a successful group of organisations in a unique way, which took courage and belief. I was prepared to stand up for our proposals and face the objectors. None of this is easy and that’s why you need support and loyalty from your closest advisers. The vision has proved sustainable and after my departure my successors are achieving even greater things. This is the mark of successful leadership in my book: to leave a flourishing organisation that can become independent of you as leader and even stronger after you depart. It is not about you but about the organisation you lead and build – the people and the context.

How has your leadership style changed over time, and why?

A leader’s style changes over time as confidence grows, but it never pays to be over confident! Early on, I set myself targets and read widely about leadership and management. I worked out what was needed for success on my terms, how to get there and at what pace. I was not afraid to go against the crowd if it felt right. I had informal mentoring from a leader in industry, which was invaluable.

Thinking things through is crucial. I was advised early on in my career to make time for work and leisure (no brainer) and (this last one gets forgotten at your peril) for thinking. Walking or driving alone are fertile thinking times.

Once I had a proven success record, I could make quicker decisions. The next step was to mentor others. Now I am in a trustee position and so have a less hands-on role and take a wider perspective. This can be a hard transition. You need to remember your brief and position in the organization.

I moved from principal to CEO to senior civil servant to trustee, all of which require different approaches, but I kept faith with the same firm leadership principles that have served me well over time.

What advice do you have for younger women aspiring to leadership roles?

Seek out a mentor.

Listen to others and watch how they perform, what works and why. You need to be able to inspire in order to carry people forward – a leader is not someone who maintains the status quo.
Planning is important. If something goes wrong, admit it and find a positive way forward.
Don’t be bullied into doing something that feels wrong.
Build a team around you that you can trust.
Enjoy your work and care for those who work with you, as they are the ones to deliver at ground level. You need to be human.
Understand the legal and financial contexts within which you operate.

Hold your head up and don’t forget to smile!

‘It’s hard to ensure your legacy is sustainable if you are not bringing on younger people to take over.’

Liz Sidwell CBE

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