Top tips for career progression

August 7, 2023

Understanding how you can develop and flourish in your job – whether you want to take the next steps forward in your career or brush up on new skills in your current role – is essential for everyone. So how can you ensure that you have access to the opportunities that mean the most to you?

This month, we sat down with ISBL CEO Stephen Morales to discuss his top tips for career progression and the importance of providing employees with the support they need to be able to realise their ambitions and reach their full potential.

Hi Stephen, thanks for chatting with us today. When we’re talking about career development and progression, employers play a huge role in facilitating that. Given the recruitment crisis in education today, how important do you think it is for schools and trusts to support their staff in professional development?

This is a really live issue at the moment. Successful schools and trusts are investing time and energy into developing their people strategies, and part of that should include positioning themselves as the employer of choice by making their organisation look and feel like a very attractive place to work.

One of the areas school leaders will be focused on is how to attract new talent into the organisation and what a modern workforce is looking for from its employer.  Flexible working arrangements are now a key consideration along with the employer's commitment to investing in ongoing professional development.

It is an employee-led marketplace where candidates have choices and a range of opportunities; interviews are now a two-way process. With the current supply and retention crisis, the employee is in a very powerful negotiating position.

In the current climate, schools and trusts are having to work really hard to make themselves attractive to staff – not only in terms of career progression opportunities, but also the environment in which people are going to work and operate.

Staying on that topic for a moment, how do you think a school or trust can articulate the level of support and opportunities that they can provide for an employee’s career progression?

I think it's important to be clear and very explicit about what it is that makes you different from any other school or trust and ensure that the language you’re using reinforces how great it is to be part of your family of educators and learners. You need to clearly set out your values and commitment to your people as individuals and how you aim to help them reach their full potential.

It’s difficult to be absolutely specific because every organisation has its own nuances, but leaders should be thinking about areas such as flexibility within the workplace, the extent to which it’s logistically and operationally feasible, and how easily staff can move seamlessly from one function to another. Also, how do we ensure we make the best use of colleagues' time, and how much do flexible working arrangements help?

Of course, there are other more traditional methods of incentivising staff by paying them more, but I think the gains in productivity are often quite marginal – often pay in the public sector is more about recognition than the cash. I know there’s an important ongoing debate about public sector pay, and when I talk to teachers, they tell me that it's not really about the pay, it's symbolic; teachers feel that if they can’t achieve a settlement close to inflation, then the Government isn’t serious about the value and importance of our education system. That sentiment is then compounded by the fact that a lot of the pain experienced in schools centres around insufficient funding and a lack of investment in education.

Ultimately, education professionals want an environment where they feel fulfilled, they feel comfortable spending much of their time, they can realise their potential, and they’re given the support and the space they need and deserve.

If someone was looking at having a conversation with their employer – or perhaps during an interview – about career progression and taking the next step, what would your advice be on getting that conversation started?

It can be tough to start those conversations, and it often depends on the existing culture; if that’s one where there is a growth mindset and where the organisation embraces career progression and professional development, it’s a lot more straightforward.

It can be helpful to have evidence to support any claim for investment in CPD. Our professional standards describe a range of disciplines, but they also offer tiered career progression. This provides a useful tool to support development conversations with employers. It helps describe what you do and where you are today. From this point, you can begin to plot an improvement journey with your employer.

This is not only helpful for the employee but helps employers better understand the strengths and weaknesses of their teams. It also helps amplify the very significant contribution SBPs are making to school and trust operations including the range of complex functions being managed.

SBPs are able to really showcase their knowledge and experience.

For someone who is thinking about taking the next step in their career, how do they ensure they’re ready? What should they be thinking about in terms of preparing themselves for that move?

There are a few things you need to think about. The first is your own ambition – where do you want to be in three years or five years, or even further along than that? The answer will differ from individual to individual, but it’s important that practitioners reflect on their own aspirations.

The next consideration is how aspirations fit with where you are now. Are you currently on the right path to achieving your ambition? Can you get to where you want to be from where you are now, or is your current context limiting your career progression? Understanding education reforms and the impact locally and nationally is also important. Our system is in a constant state of flux. We are in a mixed economy system where change is the norm – maintained to academy – SATs and small MATs being encouraged to grow, and the largest trusts acquiring schools up and down the country on a daily basis. As these structures grow, their operational teams are evolving with a mix of local generalist, specialist, and central team executives.

The generalist will usually have a broader portfolio of responsibilities but perhaps not be required to have the depth of technical knowledge required by a specialist. The specialist is expected to have technical mastery in a given function such as finance or HR. And the central team executive will have oversight of multiple departments and make significant contributions to strategic planning. These roles sometimes overlap; for example, a finance director might be described as an executive specialist, whereas a COO might be described as an executive generalist.

When thinking about your future, understanding these distinct flavours of school business leadership might help plot your career development plans.

More than anything, I think it’s important to be continuously curious by scanning the horizon. Whether or not you think your current environment offers what you need, continue to explore further afield. Look beyond your school or trust, look beyond your region, look at international comparisons, and even look beyond education.

Finally, how is ISBL supporting members in their career progression?

This is at the core of what we do – it is our overarching purpose. ISBL's mission is to clearly define the expectations that we have of school business practitioners, from entry level to executive leadership. We use professional standards as a reference point to inform all curriculum content, training and resources.

But practitioners have different needs and respond differently to training resources and content. Some are attracted to longer academic programmes, whilst others prefer less formal bite-size information and guidance. Some have an appetite for technical knowledge and specialism, some are more interested in developing their leadership skills.

Some are happy with the remote learning environment, whilst others enjoy face-to-face interaction. Sometimes it just comes down to time and cost. We need to be ready to cater for all of these needs and scenarios.

Here at ISBL, we try to help practitioners improve their own self-awareness so that they can better understand what learning and development conditions work best for them. Once we establish the most optimal learning pathways for a given individual, we can start to shape a personalised development plan.

Historically, this was a little more difficult because opportunities were limited and the role was more defined and narrower.

Today, it’s different. I often talk about a metaphorical bus that starts a journey at point A with a destination of point Z. You can attempt to take the fastest route to Z and skip all other stops or decide to get off at any letter of the alphabet. You can quickly get back on the bus or decide you want to stay and hone your skills at stops E, F & G if you like. Indeed, you might travel to stop M and decide to stay there for the rest of your career.

There are many roles and many managerial/leadership levels encompassed within school business leadership – finance officer, HR assistant, SBM, head of finance, HR director, operations director, head of procurement, estates lead, director of resources, CFO, COO, and even CEO. Some represent a stop on the journey from point A to point Z; some are the final destination.

We at ISBL help you plan the journey and prepare you by explaining what to expect along the way.