John Stone is chief executive of LSN

Most forecasts indicate that FE is entering the perfect storm – an increased demand for skills from those who are un- or under-employed at the same time as spending cuts and the coalition Government's move toward a 'bigger society' and 'smaller state'.

With national agencies such as Ofsted likely to play a lighter touch role in future, staff are looking to their leaders more than ever for strong vision, reassurance and motivation. Yet how do college leaders and managers navigate their way through this storm, keep everyone on board and ensure that they and their college do not meet the same fate as George Clooney and his crew? If the film The perfect storm is anything to go by, relying on charisma and a heroic leadership stance, of stubbornly doing more of the same, is perhaps not the best way to go.

The new 'outstanding'?

Until very recently, FE leaders had focused on 'navigating their ships' to the nearest beacon of an Ofsted rating of 'outstanding'. But what does 'outstanding' mean under the new Government? For instance, does grade 1 actually deliver security in the light of recent changes or is what you deliver more important than how well? Is 'outstanding' still a goal for leaders, managers and staff to aim for? Reassuringly the answer is yes, but what we mean by 'outstanding' has changed: it is no longer just what is required by Ofsted. How your students, staff, employers and the local community rank you is now just as important, particularly as learners begin having to contribute more of their own money to fund their FE studies. To survive and thrive, colleges need to be truly outstanding in the eyes of all of these stakeholders – and that means motivating these groups well enough that they invest their future (and money) in you and are willing to go that extra mile when required. However, in an age of 'bigger society', all of your stakeholders will be looking for a clear return on their investment.

Why invest in leadership now?

For colleges to be truly outstanding in this new, wider sense of the word, they fundamentally need three things: the leadership ability to spot the best way forward and forcefully turn the ship when needed; motivated staff with the autonomy and skills to make these turns as quickly and effectively as possible; and the ability to hear and act on what learners want and to make quick and sometimes tough calls when needed.

All of this needs to happen on top of the day-to-day running of the college, at a time when most institutions are dealing with restructures, mergers or whatever other solution is keeping them above water. On top of this, in many cases, colleges can no longer offer their staff the relative job security that traditional funding provided.

Strong leaders are able to stay afloat during the perfect storm by keeping staff motivated, empowered and engaged.

They do this by asking tough questions:

  • how do you motivate staff when you can not even guarantee them a future beyond the next restructure?


  • how do you tap into and fully realise the commercial potential of staff knowledge of what employers and learners really think, want and need in a way that both drives the college forward and also rewards and motivates this sharing?


  • how do you ask staff at every level to go that extra mile and keep the emotional commitment, so that when changes are required staff make them outstandingly well?

Learners, employers and staff know what an outstanding college feels like – it is clear in its culture, mindset, facilities, priorities, results and values. Just as the template or map for outstanding is changing, so a new map for leadership and management in FE is required, one that helps leaders find their way out of the storm in a way that shows immediate and tangible return on investment. The new leadership solution must also be self-sustained – with value extracted far beyond the initial impact (and cost) of leadership interventions and training programmes.

A new approach to motivation

In his recent bestseller on motivation (Drive – the surprising truth about what motivates us, 2010), Daniel Pink brings together 10 years of evidence and research on what really motivates, engages and empowers staff to become the key drivers to organisational success.

Traditional carrot-and-stick motivators no longer work and, more often, do harm. Instead a new approach to motivation is required that incorporates three key drivers:

  • mastery – the urge to professionally develop and get better at something that matters


  • autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives, and to be trusted and empowered to do so


  • purpose – the intrinsic motivation to add value, to do what we do in a way that makes a real difference, whether that is to learners, to other staff, or to the wider community

As human beings we are all susceptible to making emotional decisions and then rationalising them. Think of the last interview you did, purchase you made, manager you decided to work hard for. Pause for a moment and think of someone who motivated the best out of you, who got you to emotionally decide to go that extra mile. What was it that motivated you to do that?

Almost certainly, words that spring to mind will include trust, respect, clarity of goals and the autonomy to reach them. Organisations that achieve these values (many through working with LSN) enjoy clear delegation of responsibility and accountability – rather than the dumping of tasks – and tend to go on to sustain, develop and empower their workforce through outcome-focused one-to-one coaching.

Being outstanding means giving your staff freedom to master an area of their role that has meaning for them. Only engagement can produce mastery, and as a leader you must align this with other team- and college-wide goals. Again, coaching and Fierce Conversations® training (a powerful people management programme that changes the way conversations take place between managers, staff and teams) are key to helping staff achieve their own goals.

Finally, good leadership provides clarity and achievement of purpose, which should run like DNA through a college if it wants to be outstanding to all of its stakeholders, and to reap the multiple rewards that this brings. This powerful mix of values, mindset, culture, climate and leadership will vary from college to college and region to region – but what remains the same is that strong leaders will be the ones who weather out this perfect storm.

John Stone is chief executive of LSN, the not-for-profit organisation focused on making learning work for further and higher education, local authorities and schools, public services, work-based learning and international organisations


Read other FE News articles by John Stone:

Replacing EMA needs to learn lessons from the past

Reading College: A different approach

Spending review threatens FE participation

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