Solat Chaudhry Interviews Colin Booth, Principal and Chief Executive of Leeds College Group

“Culture beats everything”

In this, our second in my one-to-one interviews with people who really make a difference supporting their teams delivering EDI on the ground, I met up with Colin Booth, Principal and Chief Executive of Leeds College Group, to discuss leadership, style and supporting EDI.

SC: Colin, I was fascinated by our conversation whilst we were in Birmingham earlier this year. I’d heard about your legendary management style; where you demand a lot but give fantastic enthusiastic and encouraging support as an enabler to get your teams to succeed. That whetted my appetite and I have been keen to find out more.  Can you tell us about your philosophy and what it means?

CB: Like many people, one learns from various individuals you come across throughout one’s career. You are referring to a story, Solat, I often tell when I was asked by my Principal, shortly after I had started at a new college, how I was going to deliver on a specific transformational change project. I repeat this story many times to illustrate different scenarios.

It’s about how you give people responsibility to get them to clearly understand that they have the power and responsibility. It goes back many years when, as I say, I was just two weeks in to a new position at Newcastle College as Director of School. We had a mock inspection. A plethora of Ofsted inspectors came in to assess us. Although they were actual Ofsted inspectors, we were paying them to do a full internal inspection and one area was my new patch.

I have to say it was awful. At that time, there was a seven-point grading scale. My area was graded 7 and would have probably been an 8 if the scale had gone that far.  The resources we had were woefully inadequate, so Jackie, our Principal, got me in to a room and said “within 6 months I want you to be able to deliver at least a grade 3.”

SC: Ah! I see. How did that land? Sounds like mission impossible to me or did you believe you could make it happen?

CB: Well, it was daunting and I recognised it would be a huge stretch for anybody to achieve such a slide up the scale from where we were. The first thing I acknowledged was I have to be fair to all of the staff. With the current resources they would never be able to deliver a grade 3. I understood that the staff needed to change what they were doing but I could not ask them to change everything and still deliver that rate of progress with the same classrooms and resources. So, Jackie asked me what I needed in order to deliver a grade 3. It’s interesting because it is the second half of that sentence which is important and leads me to reflect on how I developed my management style.  She asked me what I needed. My response was to ask for a complete new set of classrooms and a complete new set of resources. I thought, I’ve been asked so let’s go for it. That was in October and by January she had cleared the whole of the HR department out of their offices and moved them somewhere else, got contractors in, and low and behold, I had a complete new set of classrooms and resources, at which point it wasn’t lost on me that when she asked me what I needed to deliver a grade 3 I told her. I assumed what I was asking for was impossible and I wouldn’t get it. She gave it to me. I found that fascinating because I felt I had promised on something that I was going to deliver and what I promised was impossible as well! Nevertheless, I felt I had to deliver it. I always remember just that simple thing: I am going to ask you what you need to deliver something and I am going to do it.

If you ask someone what is needed to deliver something, it can lead to big ambitions. If, for example, you give me an answer to which I can react unreasonably fast to provide you with all you need, I automatically give you the responsibility of delivering on what we had decided was a really, really difficult thing to provide. It’s not really more complex than that but that in itself very rarely happens anywhere.

SC: That as a manager becomes a game changer, I got better at it on latter in my life especially hearing stories like yours and from others with similar experiences.

CB: I will extend the story as there are a few principles around this that are true every time. If you employ ambitious people who are really aligned with purpose and mission and are here for the right reasons and you ask what their ambitions are and what targets they want to set themselves in terms of how they measure what and how they are going to achieve, I guarantee that whoever is asked, and that’s what I try and do, people who are in the right jobs always set themselves much higher targets than they would ever set.

SC: That’s true.

CB: They will always give you a more ambitious target than you would have given them. If you ask people what are you going to deliver? What’s your ambition for your area of work? It will always be a higher target. If the next question is tell me what it is you need to deliver all of that and then a promise is made to provide everything, you have ultimately given them clear responsibility to deliver. I don’t think people want this, but with no real way of out, they can’t say I couldn’t deliver because of x y or z. That’s because the answer will always be: “I asked you what you needed and you didn’t say that.”

SC: You can hold them to it. Rather like a social professional contract.

CB: Repeatedly in organisations, the thing that is difficult to get right, and I have tried to do the same thing in bigger and bigger organisations, is getting everybody to behave like that. It is difficult.

SC: That leads me on to the next question. Now that you have done all that with Luminate, one of the biggest education groups in the country, comprising:  Leeds City College (LCC), Keighley College, Harrogate College (1 Aug) Leeds College of Music and the White Rose Academies Trust made up of three schools. How do you integrate culture? LCC was born out of the merger of five colleges.

CB: Actually, LCC is large. We are increasingly operating the education side of it under a different brand – Leeds Sixth Form College – which has its own website and we will eventually put it in a separate building.

SC: So, in terms of bringing all these disparate cultures together, I remember working with the college group before your time… The thing about bringing the five cultures together was not picked up as well as it could have been. One could see conflicting cultures going on. What have you done to bring those cultures together to create a harmonised corporate culture, where people can buy into it without losing sense of their own geographical identity?

CB: I first have to acknowledge that it was a far easier job for me to come in to do that. Peter Roberts, my predecessor, brought all those colleges together and subsequently merged them. Peter commented to me one day and he died not long after I had started, in bringing everybody together he had had to make lots of promises he knew he couldn’t keep. If he had not done that, the initial merger would have failed so he admitted to me that for him to do the cultural change would be very difficult. For me, however, it was relatively easy.

SC: Can you elaborate?

CB: I was not responsible for bringing all the colleges together. They were already merged. One of the big advantages, I remember, talking to Peter and various people who wanted to tell me the whole history of it, was the recognition that it was better not to know. I used to say, I know it is probably better I don’t know because if I don’t know who used to work for which college and what they expect, then I ain’t going to treat anyone differently. It’s as simple as that. It’s not because I am being difficult. Why would I? It’s just knowing and starting from a point I would always start from anyway.

One of the areas where there was a real challenge was with governors and lots of other stakeholders asking me for strategies. What they meant by that, of course, was detailed plans of what we were going to do. I only ever had two answers, it was difficult to persuade people. One was: whatever I am going to do I am not going to build it from the top down, so I have no answer at all on the detail of what we are going to do until I have had chance to build that from the bottom up. Secondly: how am I going to deal with quality and finance issues across everything we do? I am going to start with culture. So, the answer to what is your detailed plan, was always I am going to change the culture.

I did not have a detailed plan other than I needed to change the culture. I set about a priority of culture change, I never stopped for a second to think about all the different cultures coming together, because even if there had been one culture, I would still have had a plan to change the culture. It did not really matter to me that there were four different communities that were changing or the one, we just all needed to be in a different place.

SC: So, if I said to you on a grading of 1 to 4 how important is culture?

CB: It is just beyond one, nothing else matters.

SC: Wow! That’s interesting because the CEO of Yorkshire Building Society told us culture is everything

CB: Culture beats everything. I will say culture and purpose. The two things are wedded together. You only get the right culture by having a shared purpose.

SC: In terms of strategy. Same questions on a scale of 1 – 4

CB: How important is strategy? … There will be a long answer to this … strategy as in people at the top deciding what strategy is going to be and driving it from the top down? Just doesn’t work. Certainly not in large complex organisations. To be fair, and I have not worked outside the college sector, all I can really say is it is not the best way to do it in a college or the FE sector. I want managers and teams of all sizes to have clear plans but I don’t think the best way is to drive that from the top down.

SC: Moving on,I first came across you when you were working at Barnsley College as Principal and we started working together on the NCFD Investors in Diversity programme. I think that was about 10 years ago.

CB: Yes, and to be fair, I quite like the NCFD programme which has all the right principles to help embed diversity. If you want to move quickly, using those kinds of tools to move EDI practice along, then it is a really good way of achieving. Otherwise you are asking a team of people to kind of invent something and it is quicker and easier to get them there using NCFD tools and techniques. It is a really good starting point, if you are doing all that, you have moved a long way from where you are now.

SC: Thank you for those words on our Investors in Diversity programme. You came from Barnsley, where you had successfully achieved IiD and been reassessed, reaching a great position in our Top 100 best organisations. Always a long awaited and much coveted publication. Recently, Barnsley moved in to the top 10 for the FE sector. Here at Leeds, you have had to start all over again, what were the differences here in the implementation process in a more complex rather than straightforward organisation?

CB: What I found was that it all centres around the size of the organisation. I was directly engaged in the process at Barnsley because it was a smaller college. Size does that. At Barnsley, because it was smaller, I was more immediately aware of the bits that were going well and what we needed to speed up. Here, at Leeds, it is bigger so less time to spend on the detail of things. To be honest we achieved IiD, it wasn’t easy and there were a few little wobbles along the way. I suspect a few of those wobbles I would have been aware of at Barnsley and been involved in trying to resolve them quicker. Unless they were really bigger ones here, I would probably not have done.

SC: One of the big factors in transforming culture, and there is no doubt that IiD does just that, is people talk about it in the wrong way when they try to diversify the workforce. The first thing to sort out is leadership and culture. When you have done that and not before, you can bring in people. Otherwise you will have an organisation where you have a trampoline effect and the organisation is not fit for purpose. The police force is a classic example… they had a number of diversity drives most of which have been unsuccessful. Fifty per cent of people coming in from ethnic backgrounds were leaving. One of the issues is that certain types of organisations have long held beliefs, especially those recruiting. It is difficult to recruit objectively with those beliefs and unconscious biases so that’s why I am pleased you have it right here at Leeds City College Group, with Dr Shaid Mahmood as Chair of Governor. A fantastic recognition him winning ‘Most inspiring Leader’ at the NCFD 2019 Grand Awards.

CB: Yes, it went down extremely well at the college. It only occurred to me as it had been announced and he got up to receive his award that I need to tweet this success and recognition. Now, I am reluctant to admit this, but I’ve never got my head round twitter, so I was on to my executive team and Bill Jones to tweet just how proud we were.

SC: It’s brilliant to see the top leadership so committed and that is why you have done so well and you can continue your journey and do better and better. Your first set of diagnostics brought you in at number 50 and I remember you saying “we’ve got to half way so how do we get to be number one”.

CB: One of the things I want to see is some kind of big landmark event. It is about the day-to-day stuff and everything else and we all need to send out a strong message.

SC: Indeed, we do Colin. Thanks so much for your insightful comments.