Russell Hobby is CEO of Teach First, a charity that is working to tackle inequality in education and to ensure no child’s success is limited by their background. A few weeks after taking up the role in September 2017, Russell took us up on our offer of a bespoke CEO Transition Lab to help him set his priorities and create a plan for his first 12 months in the job. Here, Russell talks about his passion for the work of Teach First, the challenges of being a CEO and how the Lab has helped his transition.
You’ve gone from the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) to being head of Teach First – what made you want to take the leap?
When I was General Secretary of the NAHT, I kept hearing the same concerns from Head Teachers and other school leaders. Funding was a recurring issue, recruiting and keeping talented staff was another, especially for those schools situated in some of the most disadvantaged areas of the UK.
Teach First acts at the heart of this challenge – getting great people who might not have thought to teach, into schools who might not get them. This is one of our most important levers for ensuring fair access to education, and I was really excited to have the chance to lead the very organisation that could tackle the concerns I’d heard during my seven years at the NAHT.
You became CEO at Teach First, one month later you took up the offer from Deloitte to participate in our CEO Transition Lab. What were your expectations?
I didn’t really know what to expect but the Lab came along at a good time for me. I’d been in role for a few weeks and I’d had the chance to have a lot of conversations with stakeholders and schools and I had many ideas and thoughts bubbling around.
The Lab was well-structured and having a whole day with several people focused solely on supporting me and talking about my issues felt quite indulgent! I had the freedom to explore ideas with people unaffected by my decisions, so I could really test things out. The Deloitte team were objective and gave me valuable input and constructive challenge to instil my ideas into a plan of action.
How useful was the Lab in helping you face the challenges of being a new CEO?
Before I even arrived at their offices, the Deloitte team had already spoken to eight of my stakeholders at Teach First, which meant they had a good understanding of my qualities but also the areas I needed to develop. For me, the best bit was being able to talk about time and talent.
I could share my thoughts on how to structure my senior team and discuss how to target my time to different areas of the role, from designing strategy to ensuring good governance to driving performance. Because I had the time and space to formulate my thoughts it made my ideas more coherent, and as a result I can move more quickly and decisively.
You make an interesting point about targeting your time. How has the Lab helped you here?
During the Lab, the team shared the framework of the five dimensions of the CEO: ambassador, strategist, driver, architect and guardian. Each CEO will operate across all these dimensions, but how much time is needed on each will depend on the company’s situation, the expectations of the board, as well as the CEO’s experience, style and skill set. Having that lens was helpful for me to strike the right balance in terms of where I should focus my time and efforts as the role progresses.
After the session, the team gave me a report on everything we discussed and I still refer to it to make sure I’m not neglecting any critical areas. The team also arranged a follow up session a few months later to see how things were progressing, and I was pleased to see how much I’d started to put in place since the Lab!
Every new CEO faces their own challenges. What’s been the toughest aspect of transitioning to the role?
Moving into the CEO role from outside of an organisation presents inherent challenges. Not moving too fast or too slow is a balancing act – as CEO, you need to be able to stamp your mark and vision on the organisation, but at the same time give yourself the time and space to gather all the facts.
People want a sense of who you are, the type of leader you will be, and so you do need to be decisive but you have to recognise that you can’t (and shouldn’t) do everything at the same pace. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity of the Lab, the conversations and the interaction with the team to help me with the transition – it’s made a big difference.
Deloitte has been working with Teach First for over ten years, delivering an education programme designed to raise aspiration, support achievement and provide opportunities for students in low-income communities. The programme aims to improve social mobility and support a fairer society by helping young people from under-represented groups develop their ambition and skills whilst giving them the opportunities they need to access professional careers at companies like Deloitte. Our partnership with Teach First is part of One Million Futures, Deloitte’s ambition to support a million people by raising aspirations, improving skills and developing leaders.