Q&A: 'HR skills can make a big difference to school academy boards'

Louise Bryan, head of talent at Lloyds Banking Group, explains how volunteering with a local academy trust has boosted her personal development

People Management talks to Kirsty Watt, head of Academy Ambassadors, and Louise Bryan, head of talent at Lloyds Banking Group, about the development opportunities that serving on an academy’s board could bring for senior HR professionals.

What is the Academy Ambassadors programme?

Kirsty Watt: Academy Ambassadors matches business people and professionals with multi-academy school trusts looking for new non-executive directors (NEDs) for their boards.

It started four or five years ago as a way to help members of the business community become more closely involved in education. The number of trusts has grown from about 200 to 6,000 in the past four years, and there is a huge demand from them for new board members with experience of things such as financial management, change management and people skills. These roles are challenging and interesting, and are ideal for intellectually curious senior leaders who want to give back to the community and also further their own personal development. We’ve had this great coincidence of people wanting to help and academy trusts that need support, and have so far helped to place 650 people on academies’ boards.

Why did Lloyds Banking Group get involved with the scheme?

Louise Bryan: We’re trying as a bank to move away from traditional types of volunteering – spending a day painting fences or digging a community garden – to volunteering that’s more skills-based. In Yorkshire and Humber, there’s a real desire to focus on education. We became the pilot area for our ‘Standing Out’ programme, where we support colleagues to develop their business skills by taking on school governor roles. We recognise that our colleagues’ business skills can help strengthen school performance, which, in turn, gives young people a greater chance of success in later life. If individuals succeed we know that enables families, communities and businesses to prosper.

What’s the application process like?

Bryan: This specific opportunity came to me in a bit of a roundabout way; somebody who was put forward for a role with the academy trust I’m now part of was rejected because they didn’t have the right HR and cultural change skills. They came to me, as the head of talent, and said: ‘Can you think of anyone who can fulfil these needs?’ And I thought ‘I could do that’.

So I put myself forward, and then I had a briefing with Academy Ambassadors to check my suitability. Then I had to send the trust my CV and an application form, and had an interview with their chief executive and chair of the board of directors. It’s a rigorous application process.

What can senior HR professionals bring to NED roles at academy trusts?

Watt: We’re looking for people who can apply some financial scrutiny to the trusts, as well as understand change management and how to grow an organisation. Because there’s real demand and competition to get the best people into teaching; people who can bring an understanding of how to attract and retain talent are very much in demand. HR professionals can also bring valuable softer skills – such as scrutinising work, challenging decisions and offering support. You don’t need any previous experience of education or working with children.

Bryan: As senior HR professionals, we have been around those senior leadership tables, influencing quite powerful individuals – so for me it’s about being able to identify those points that should be challenged. It’s been really empowering for me to use the skills I already have and transfer them to a different business environment; it’s helped to build my confidence and my capabilities in areas such as profit and loss and risk management. It’s all about bringing a different perspective to the table.

Louise, how do you fit the NED role around your other commitments?

Bryan: The academy itself is very accommodating – they appreciate we all have day jobs and tend to schedule their board meetings in the evening, at a school that is near to the majority of us that are on the board. We were meeting once a quarter, now it’s bi-monthly because we have a lot going on. We have also had strategic planning days, and Lloyds Banking Group has been very supportive in allowing me time off to support my activities. Ultimately, it’s about having that conversation with your line manager, and them understanding how the NED role fits into your personal development.

Academy Ambassadors provides a lot of support to help you understand what academies are, what your role is and what you’re meant to do as an NED. There’s an online portal, The Key for School Governors, which has lots of e-learning materials and information about changes in policies you need to know about.

How can readers find out more about getting involved?

Watt: We are always on the lookout for high-calibre talented people who want to step into NED roles. There are some regions – such as the north, coastal regions, and the south west – where academy trusts really need business people with the right skills to help them improve. We've seen the difference that really good people can make when they join trusts; they can help schools to turn around very quickly. Anyone who is interested should start by looking at our website, academyambassadors.org, and have a look at the sorts of roles that might be available in their location.