Sue Prickett, chief finance and operations officer at Priory School in Bury St Edmunds, describes her leadership style and how stepping into a new role has changed her perspective
Tell us a little about yourself and the pathway to your current role.
I’m CIMA qualified with BP Oil; I took career break, to raise the family, but was always interested in education. I considered a career in teaching as a school leaver, but the accountancy role came along first. I was treasurer and chair of PTAs at my children’s schools, on the set-up committee for a new pre-school for my youngest child and, eventually, became business manager there. After living in Singapore for a few years, I returned to the UK as an SBM in a local rural primary school, learning to juggle all the roles and responsibilities as both the only admin support person and also a member of the SLT. That gave me a good grounding in all things primary which has translated well to my new role, but I’m still spotting and learning the many differences of a SEN school!
I first read an advert for my current role in December last year. The trust was going through a period of change and expansion, and so postponed movement in the role till later in the year, but I made contact with the CEO, popped in for informal chats and got a real feel for the school. I was delighted to be offered the role during the May half term after a rigorous interview process.
How is the new role going?
Exciting, challenging, daunting and rewarding all at the same time. I’m learning on the job by the minute – it’s a big shift from primary to all through, and another change between mainstream and SEN. SEN funding is like a non-exact science, so finding the pockets of available funding is the challenge.
Have you learned anything about yourself/the job since the shift?
I think I’ve learnt that, when confronted with complex tasks I’m not familiar with, I can push myself to learn them and seek the support I need to complete them. Frankly, I was concerned that I wouldn’t have the fortitude to quickly acquire the knowledge base needed to carry out this role effectively. I believe I’ve learnt that I can operate outside my comfort zone for extended periods of time, even though it’s, initially, incredibly daunting in the abstract.
Explain your input into the development, strategic planning and communication of your school’s vision.
I’m part of introducing and developing the processes that we want across all our schools in the trust. We have two new schools joining our MAT this autumn and have a weekly trust leadership group meeting to talk over the vision and planning for the schools in the trust. I am in the process of revamping the website and making our brand visible across the county and nationally. I work closely with the CEO, partnership director and headteachers, as well as managing a small team in the school where our HQ is based.
My role in future planning is to ensure the leadership team, as a whole, has an up-to-date and accurate view of our present and future finances, and that we are able to use this information to develop our provisions compliantly and cost-effectively. Young people with moderate and complex learning difficulties find it difficult to access mainstream learning and that’s where we come in. The people I work with are visionary and passionate about supporting the young people and their families in our schools to achieve the best outcomes and that is infectious. The leadership team has excellent relationships with other provisions, the local authority and mainstream schools. I try to enable our trust to move forward and continue to deliver the best possible education to our student population.
What’s the biggest professional challenge you’ve experienced – and how did you overcome it?
I think the biggest professional challenge recently has been learning the difference in responsibilities from SBM to CFOO. It’s difficult to stop focusing on the day-to-day, operational stuff, sometimes, and to look at the bigger picture. I saw my previous school through academisation into the diocesan MAT and have learnt very good practice from being part of that trust. I have been able to translate these to good effect in my new role.
Another challenge was to use my colleagues who I work with more, and not feel like I have to work through everything on my own. I was welcomed into the team by my incredible finance officer, who has been part of the school we are currently based in for a number of years. Accessing support and knowledge from external colleagues has also been invaluable. The autumn term for MATs is full of deadlines and to start this new post at that point in the year was/is challenging. Not only did I have to learn the science behind SEN funding, I had to quickly get to grips with what had happened in the school year, report on it and jump into the academisation of the two new schools – starting with us – mid term.
How do you evaluate success?
Success, for me, is having confidence in what I am doing and the decisions that I’m making. This followed closely by my team and the directors having confidence in me.
What – or who – motivates you?
Watching the staff with the children. Hearing about their days and the way they’ve dealt with challenging behaviour and situations, the wins they’ve had during their week and the way the staff in each of our schools know the children and their families. Also, listening to the admissions and inclusion teams talk about the best way forward to support the needs of the individual child; without question, that’s why I’m here.
A massive part of leadership is motivating your team – how do you ensure the support of yours?
I bake on a regular basis! I try hard to pop in to the see the front office and kitchen staff who are part of my team. I have regular meetings and site walks with my site manager so we have a chance to catch up with the bigger jobs as well as all the bits that have been done during the week. My finance officer is invaluable and I remind her of that regularly! This weekend I participated in a mud run with her and some other support staff from one of our schools – wicked fun and a great bonding experience. Possibly one of my more extreme team building experiences…
I like to talk, listen and build relationships face-to-face. Hopefully, if my team feel I invest in them, they’ll feel valued, supported and motivated.
How would you describe your leadership style?
A work in progress – I think my leadership style is still emerging! For me, a large part of leadership is being inclusive and managing change positively and effectively. Leadership is also about owning a problem and not passing it on. I like to think that I enable my colleagues to handle problems effectively as they arise without my input but, essentially, if needed, I have to come up with the solution or have that difficult conversation. I try to bring people together and, ultimately, my goal is to be proactive rather than reactive.
I do also like to have fun, so count me in for pretty much anything!