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Being The CEO - Marino Charalambous, Cuckoo Hall Academies Trust | Destination Website

having an open-door policy where no problem is too small, and listening to people and really caring, has helped me change the culture of the Trust to one where we are ‘all in this together.”

Tell us about your career before becoming CEO

I worked for some of the biggest organisations in the UK, including HSBC and Siemens, gaining experience in senior management roles in business development, marketing, strategy and planning. I then decided to venture into business and became the owner and managing director of a multimedia marketing and design agency servicing some very high profile corporates. I also invested and became a director in other business including a software development company, a cleaning company and a property management company.

 During this period I also volunteered as a mentor with the Prince’s Trust, and as a school governor- becoming an academy trust trustee for over 12 years. The combination of these experiences has provided me with a wide range of skills to be in a position to provide solutions and develop strong teams whilst always putting our people first; from our students, their families and the wider community to every member of our staff.

What attracted you to apply for the CEO role?

I was attracted to the role when I was asked to be the interim CEO at the Trust during a difficult period and found that many of the skills I contributed were essential to the stability of the organisation. I was able to provide solutions to problems quickly and effectively whilst always looking for the best deal and value for money. 

 Analysing data and identifying issues quickly was vital in making key decisions to help improve the quality of education in the Trust.  School data is not too dissimilar to business data which helped me to understand the expectations, progress and targets we needed to achieve, and the gaps we needed to address.

I am also passionate about ensuring that in running five schools in the poorest parts of the UK our children will not be judged on the basis of their postcode, or that they themselves feel disadvantaged by where they live. This means, in part, securing the best teachers and using our resources wisely to provide the children with the best possible facilities and experiences while they are in one of our schools.

What are the main differences between the CEO role and your previous role?

One of the main differences has been working with government agencies such as the DfE and the Regional Schools Commissioner’s team as well as the ESFA. There are additional layers of compliance that are required, which is understandable considering the task ahead. 

Another key difference is how many lives you influence with the decisions you make, especially those of our young learners and their families. It is a very rewarding role because you are really making a difference to the community you serve.

 What have you enjoyed most about the CEO job so far?

Making an impact on, and increasing the confidence of, our community. This was achieved by providing support from the community outreach team which I instigated when I arrived, and the many courses available for self-improvement.  I have also enjoyed working closely with Save the Children, and becoming one of their flagship Trusts, delivering and supporting families from disadvantaged backgrounds.

I am also proud of the progress our schools have made with the leadership of our headteachers that I have appointed since joining the Trust. We have some absolutely fantastic headteachers with great talents and skills. I had a very high regard for the teaching profession generally but the way in which our teaching and learning staff have coped with the demands of Covid-19 has been nothing short of astonishing.

I also believe in equality, equity and liberty for all people. I am proud of the values, ethos and vision we instil in all at the Trust. I love our ethnic diversity – if you go into any one of our playgrounds or staff rooms you have the privilege to see the world reflected in the nationalities we have. As one of our headteachers says, it’s like we are a mini United Nations.

Where do you feel you have had the greatest impact so far, and why have you been so effective in this aspect of the job?

Walking into one of the most challenging periods in the Trust’s history and bringing stability, direction and accountability has been the biggest success.

Having self-confidence and belief helped reassure our staff and the parents of our pupils that we would get through the challenges we were facing. I must also say, though they were very challenging indeed with us at times, the staff at the DfE, ESFA and the Regional Schools Commissioner were critical in helping us to make the improvements we needed. Frankly, we had to put aside our personal feelings about criticism and engage fully with them. They worked tirelessly with us to help to bring us to a position of strength.

I always had a vision of how our schools should work and how important it was that each school was at the heart of its community.  We have achieved this now, although I believe we can still do more to keep the improvement and engagement going.

Having the support of your team is essential. Also, having an open-door policy where no problem is too small, and listening to people and really caring, has helped me change the culture of the Trust to one where we are ‘all in this together’.

 What have you learnt most since becoming CEO?

Be reflective, be decisive and don’t be afraid if you believe in what you are doing.  People may question or challenge you, but if you can communicate well, and be open and listen, then I believe people appreciate what you are trying to achieve and are more likely to follow you.  Surround yourself with the best people. Recruit well and allow time for things to embed and flourish. Communicate with all staff regularly and consistently and put people first.

 What has been the most challenging aspect of the job? How are you overcoming this challenge?

Not being an educationalist was difficult in the beginning as people were resistant to change, and it took time and perseverance to get buy in from existing staff. This was especially challenging as we had to make rapid change with an FNtI (Financial Notice to Improve) imposed on the Trust. The backing of the Board helped me to make the necessary changes and implement a new culture of transparency and trust through communication.

 What has been your greatest source of support and advice in taking on the role?

The board of Trustees have been immense with their knowledge and support. The Chair, Dr Donald Graham who was a CEO of a local authority was always available to support and advise.

My wife and children have been incredibly supportive, especially when I have to work long hours and on weekends at times. They know the vision better than most!

What is your top advice for those about to become CEOs?

Have a clear vision, communicate that vision with everyone from the bottom up, don’t assume anything, and take your time to make a decision. Be reflective, be calm and trust your gut feeling.

Use the people around you but make sure you are the one that makes the key big decisions. Sometimes you won’t be popular but if you are doing things for the right reasons you can sleep at night knowing you have the children and the community at the forefront of your decisions.  Always ask yourself ‘why’, ‘why are we doing this?’

Never be afraid to make mistakes and learn from them. If you are a new CEO you will make mistakes! Learn, change, move on.

Marino Charalambous is a member of the national #TrustLeaders CEO network. Find out more

This interview is taken from the Being The CEO Report 2020,. The full report will be shared with all #TrustLeaders members on 22nd October 2020.