How to step up from head to MAT CEO

Sept. 8, 2017
James Toop

James Toop

CEO at Ambition School Leadership

Sir David’s excellent blog yesterday highlights the myriad of challenges facing any new MAT CEO, especially those moving into the role for the first time. Given the newness of the role in the system, this is true for most CEOs.

What makes it particularly challenging is three things: the complexity and scale of the role; the need to master new technical skills; and understanding your new identity and the mindsets and behaviours of CEO leadership compared to headship or executive headship.

Complexity and scale

Moving into the CEO role multiplies your challenges. You are leading across multiple schools, often in different geographic locations, across phases, and the issues and challenges you face will grow exponentially. 

You’ve also multiplied the number of relationships to manage internally and have new stakeholders externally such as trustees and RSCs.  Plus you have the dual challenge of balancing the current performance of your academies with the future objective of growing your trust.

Technical skills

Success before was defined by being a strong leader of school improvement and teaching. 

Success now will be shaped by your ability to lead an organisation with new central functions, managing strategic growth, financial sustainability, internal communications, corporate governance and risk management. You will need a strong team around you to manage this but you will need to grow your knowledge of these areas quickly to ask the right questions and monitor these areas.

Identity and mindset

You are no longer the headteacher. You have to let go of your old identity, everything that made you successful and the accompanying ways of working. All new CEOs find it difficult to let go of their old headteacher identity to lead effectively as a CEO.

What got you to headship is not what will make you successful in the new role. Taking the time and space to think about what that means for the way you lead and how you behave is critical for future success.


At Ambition School Leadership, we believe that formal training is critical for aspiring and new executive heads and chief executives. Our Executive Educators programme has trained over 200 participants for current and future MAT CEO roles. Across residentials, coaching and MAT learning visits, participants will learn alongside a network of other executive heads and CEOs who will form an important peer network. They will also benefit from our alumni network and ongoing support beyond the formal programme.

Created using the latest research, experts from public and private sectors, as well as leading MAT CEOs, Executive Educators directly targets the challenges of stepping into the executive head and CEO role. Feedback has been excellent and we believe in creating a powerful alumni network who can support one another.

Andrew Mackereth, Regional Educational Director for E-ACT describes it as “the best professional development I’ve engaged in in the last decade” and Jon Lovatt, CEO of The Societas Trust said that “it’s both enlightening and empowering for anyone in the role of chief executive of a multi-academy trust, or anyone aspiring to it.”

There are two programmes to choose from depending on your role, priorities and therefore your learning needs. For the new cohorts, we are investing in large scale research with Education Policy Institute and LKMCo to better understand what the most effective MATs and CEOs are doing.

"What got you to headship is not what will make you successful in the new role. "

This year’s cohort will benefit from a new design based on quantitative and qualitative research with over 50 MATs which will generate new case studies and learning expeditions. 

And because we know that participants will be developing in the role, this year we are introducing coaching into the programme for the first time, from a roster of experienced executive coaches from inside and outside education.

Each programme will also focus on a targeted project to help participants grow their impact in the role and show the value of the programme to trustees.  For example, this might include development of a sustainable strategic growth plan.

If you are interested in finding out more, please head to our website and register interest.  And if you’re already into your first 100 days, it’s not too late because the programme will still help you develop in your role.  Our next cohorts start in January 2018.

As an experienced CEO, I have worked with many heads and executive leaders, and I know we can spend all our time thinking about how we can develop our staff, but rarely about how we develop ourselves.  With the leap into executive headship or the MAT CEO role, consider investing in yourself. 

Our alumni have found that by putting on your own oxygen mask first, they are in a much better position to lead their organisations and teams, enabling them to deliver improved school performance and ultimately transformative outcomes for pupils.

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