Developing Voice As A School Business Leader: An Interview with Clare Skinner

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Developing Voice As A School Business Leader: An Interview with Clare Skinner

The school business community is unique in its richness. When we speak to professionals, from CFOs to school business managers, their respective entrance to the sector and subsequent trajectory are rarely similar. This diversity makes for great opportunities to learn from each other, but moreover, it presents challenges in the relationships we build with school leadership.

The impact of school business professionals on school improvement, growth, and broader educational outcomes is self-evident, but SBPs hardly work in isolation. They are part of a team, and often, they are the unsung twin star to school and trust leadership. For our 'Powered By People' week, we wanted to look into the relationships that SBPs build as well as the professional skillsets that make for impactful partnerships.

At the centre of our search, we caught up with King Norton Girls’ School business leader and BASBM network Chair, Clare Skinner. Building effective working relationships has been somewhat of a professional obsession for Clare, who started her career in schools over 9 years ago when she joined a semi-rural setting close to her home.

Where It All Began

Clare had not always had her sights set on being a School Business Manager. From her European Business and Languages degree, Clare cut her teeth in retail management, quickly moving up from graduate programmes to the wholesale management of departments across some of the West End’s most prestigious names in fashion and homeware.

In her thirties, she decided to change career. Three different career paths lay before her, each tapping into the strengths and skillsets developed in retail. The first opportunity was in banking, the second in facilities management and the third in recruitment. Clare ended up joining NatWest where she supported a portfolio of 500 small business owners across London and the southeast, ranging from plumbers and café owners to lawyers and antique dealers. It was around then that Clare had her second child and made the decision to move back home to the Midlands to be closer to family. After having taken some time out, Clare got involved with the PTA of her eldest’s school, and upon realising that her skillsets could be of value, she became a governor there.

Self-Knowledge and Skillsets

This was the start of Clare’s journey into School Business leadership. It was also a defining motif of our conversation, one of Self-Knowledge. Clare’s interest in the field was born out of an acute awareness of her skillsets and their transferability. The panorama of business skills from the graduate scheme, her subsequent departmental management know-how, adding to that her banking prowess and now her insights as a governor, Clare had quite the armoury of experience.

Clare championed self-knowledge as a core component behind her success and growth in her role but also in her relationships with heads, governors, and the wider school staff. Self-Knowledge was not just about what you knew but moreover what you did not know. During the first day of her entry into the profession, she walked into an office overflowing with paper and documents, most of which she knew could be gutted, but it dawned on her, how would she know what was important and what was not?

As the School Business Leader for a semi-rural primary, managing everything from a premises team and cleaning to all the finance and IT, Clare did not have the comfort of the corporate structure. Wasting no time, she built her own network of local experts, from whom, she could quickly learn and grow.

Clare also immediately sought out the right training and accreditation to complement her network building activities. With the support of her school, she quickly secured her Level 4 Diploma in School Business Management and to this day, she has maintained her professional development and is about to start her Level 7 Diploma in School Financial and Operational Leadership. As a champion of wellbeing, Clare also achieved her Level 2 qualification in Mental Health Awareness which put her in good stead to deal with the impact of Covid19 on staff and students.

Upon joining Kings Norton Girls’ School (KNGS), as a school of 800 children with another 200 as part of the 6th form, this represented a significant jump in expectations. To help her acclimatise to the shift, Clare immediately tapped into her network but she also knew that there were insights that only colleagues could give. As such Clare set about engaging her team and colleagues across the school in a conversation on expectations, principally what they, and the head, expected from her role. The exercise of openly redefining the boundaries of your role, relative to the roles of your colleagues, has proven to be very successful. So successful in fact, that Clare now includes this as part of her appraisals.

“You have to understand yourself as a compass in any relationship because there are times when you need to tell your head when something is just not possible.”

The search for the right skills was not just a one-way street. Clare always understood her role as both student and master. In addition to possessing a staunch commitment to upskilling her team, in her relationship with leadership, Clare has always taken the opportunity to impart her experience. Recounting the story of the mutual support structure which she had forged with her current head, Clare was more than happy to support her with the intricacies of management accounts and the peculiarities of supply chain management during her crucial transition from deputy to head.

Speaking Truth To Power

Good self-knowledge also came hand in hand with an ability to speak truth to power. Clare put it best when she explained that "you have to understand yourself as a compass in any relationship because there are times when you need to tell your head when something’s just not possible." Her frontline service in and amongst management, principally during her career in retail and banking, had given her more than enough experience in the art of professional honesty.

She knew that her ability to demonstrate her skills lay in being trusted to get on with her work. In her first role, she’d developed a relationship built on respect and appreciation. From the offset, they had spoken about how their relationship would work. They both wanted it to be about mutual support. She got to understand his strengths and weaknesses, and he understood hers. They openly asked questions like “how do you want to structure this meeting” or “how will we present this complex situation to the board?”.

When she moved to KNGS it was quite scary. She had left a lovely job, with a lovely boss, in a lovely school. The school was small enough that you couldn’t get away with forgetting to say a cheery 'good morning' to each other. In her new role, everything felt larger, and it was. The space between offices created an entirely different culture. The first time she said ‘no’ to her new head, she remembered being utterly terrified. But when her head replied with “OK, I’ll reflect on that”, the ice had been broken, and Clare could tactfully prove that the trust was not ill-placed.

Mirroring her approach to skills, honesty for Clare was a waltz and both partners needed to push and pull. Clare maintains that this needs to be driven by both parties adding that, "as an SBP, knowing how much rope you have to play with is VITAL for an effective relationship!”

Effective Educational Outcomes

A skills-and-honesty-focused mindset has not simply been a useful tool for advancing Clare’s career. We could tangibly point to instances of school improvement born out of the effective working relationships which Clare had nurtured. For instance, she joined her first school with 450 students and through her and her head’s dedication, they had grown the student intake to 560 by the time she left. No small task! 

What is more, early on in her career at KNGS, she had capitalised on her growing trust with her head to ensure that her know-how was put to good use. Recognising her talent for business stakeholder management, she gainfully steered the contractor relationships in the start-to-finish build of the new 6th-Form block, saving the school both time and money in the process.

During the Covid19 crisis, Clare and her head have had moments of horror, both personal and professional, yet their relationship has been more than a rock, it has allowed them to look beyond the crisis. Despite the operational pressures of the pandemic, Clare and the leadership team have been able to collaborate to turn around KNGS' approach to pastoral care during the pandemic. Their joint working has been crucial to the reorganisation of an entirely separate block to support behaviour for learning, mental health and the social needs of students. It has proven to be more effective for both the pastoral and educational aims of the school. 

Nothing demonstrates the power of the twin-star relationship between the SBP and Head like effective outcomes for students and it's fair to say that Clare has more examples than you could shake a stick at. 

If you are interested in being interviewed for the Business and Finance Community, of if you'd like to nominate a colleague, please get in touch by responding to this post or by messaging Austin Earl directly.  

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