If you’ve recently stepped into the role of chair, whether in a trust or a maintained school, it can be daunting. Getting support from someone who’s been there before can be really beneficial.
We recently caught up with Sarah Miller, chair of Central Schools Trust in the West Midlands, to find out about how mentoring from Independent Governor Support (IGovS), a charity offering free and independent support to boards, has helped her in her role as a new chair of trustees.
My background is in teaching and I’m an experienced governor. I’ve been involved in maintained school governance for many years and then in 2017 I joined Central Schools Trust as a trustee. I took on the role of vice-chair in 2020 and then last July I became chair. The trust has two schools currently but is looking to expand.
I came across IGovS through The Hoot and realised their free mentoring is something I might benefit from so I got in touch with them via the contact form on their website.
As vice-chair I was very active, working closely with, and frequently stepping in for, our chair and leading in many different ways. However, it felt like the responsible thing to do when becoming chair of a trust that’s on the verge of expansion, to seek out some guidance and support, especially from someone with more experience.
I was looking for a peer-to-peer relationship where I could be completely open and honest. I was looking for a space where I could let the mask slip a bit and explore some of the challenges in more detail - something that’s not always possible in meetings. You’re the chair, the rest of the board is looking to you for leadership.
Yes. I was assigned someone from IGovS with relevant experience, Sean Westaway, who’d been the founding chair of a trust that had since merged and expanded, so a particularly useful skill set given my situation.
Our initial meeting was really long and we explored what Sean could help us with as well as some of the gaps in my skills or experience and ideas about how we could fill those gaps. For this and subsequent meetings, I would go away and implement some of the things we’d talked about and then we’d have a follow-up feedback session. Although we’ve had 3 or 4 of these longer online conversations, a lot of our communication is over email. The kind of support Sean’s been able to offer me has been huge and very, very varied. It can involve just a quick question on, say, ‘have you heard about this before?’ and if Sean hadn’t, he could go away and tap into his network too to see if anyone else had heard.
When we had our external review of governance, I was able to send it to Sean and say, ‘Well - what do you think about this? How do you think we’re doing?’ I could get an additional layer of reassurance and pointers for the future from someone who’s carried out external reviews themselves.
The support has helped us to become more proactive and less reactive, if that makes sense. So we’re ahead of problems rather than catching up to try to fix them.
Yes, it can be intimidating because it’s a pressurised role and there is a lot of accountability. Your name is out there as the chair of the trust if things go wrong (just as if things go well, as well).
Working with Sean has been a two-way process though. We’ve had conversations where I’ve been able to explain about ways we do things that are new to Sean and he can then take those back to his trust and IGovS. No matter how far into governance you go, you’ll always come across scenarios and ideas that you’ve never heard before yourself. It’s good to know that not only am I benefitting from the support and mentoring, but IGovS are getting to hear more about what is happening on the ground by the people who’re in governance outside of their network.
Definitely. It’s given me the confidence to push on ahead. It’s not so much that Sean has told me what to do. It’s more about empowerment and using his mentoring to reflect on different approaches. One of the biggest challenges I hear from other would-be chairs is that they find the accountability quite daunting, being that person at the top of the ladder.
Yet if more people knew IGovS existed and understood their support, they might not be so hesitant to progress.
I’m doing a chairs course at the moment and there are a few vice chairs who’re considering stepping up but they’re struggling with imposter syndrome and if they knew they had someone they could email or get support from, it would really help.
There are so many resources out there if you look for them and do your research. The key thing is that you have somebody to talk to, somebody who’s willing to be that sounding board. That’s one thing that IGovS has done for me. They’ve given me the confidence to lead with conviction and signposted me to all of the relevant resources.
I have supported numerous Chairs during my time as a National Leader of Governance although Sarah was one of the first Chairs I supported through IGovS. It was the recognition that this type of support was still required that led to the formation of IGovS so it is very pleasing to hear that Sarah found the mentoring we supplied so useful.
As Sarah mentioned this has often become a two way process and the discussions have been mutually beneficial. This has truly been a team effort from the IGovS volunteers who administer the support request, identify who is available and then match their experience to what is required right the way through to our network of governance experts who can always be relied on to supply the last piece of the jigsaw.
Whilst this is an individual experience of IGovS, this has been replicated by my colleagues who have now registered over 900 free hours of support in the academic year to date. Learn about the support that's already been offered to governors and trustees across England.
Get in touch with IGovS