Nav Sanghara, chief executive officer at Woodland Academy Trust, speaks to us about starting her first trust CEO role in the midst of the pandemic, creating diverse teams and why it’s important to take a breather.
Please can you tell us about your journey to becoming CEO of Woodland Academy Trust?
I began my journey in education as a teaching assistant in Deptford. After realising my passion for teaching, I pursued a PGCE at Goldsmiths, University of London. I spent about 6 years in the classroom whilst taking on various middle leadership roles and eventually becoming a headteacher.
Following this, I became an executive leader and with others formed a multi-academy trust that eventually grew to 9 schools. During the pandemic, I applied for and became the CEO of Woodland Academy Trust in January 2021. My first meeting was following the decision that schools were closing again, so it was quite an interesting time to join!
How would you describe Woodland Academy Trust?
Woodland Academy Trust comprises 5 primary schools, including the recently opened Lime Wood Primary School. We are located in south east London and also have schools on the Kent border, and serve vibrant and diverse communities.
Our focus is on creating a community-based trust that values and prioritises the uniqueness of each school which is underpinned by a strong connection as a wider trust. While there's always work to be done, this is our aspiration.
As a leader, how do you foster a culture of collaboration and continuous improvement across the trust?
To foster collaboration and continuous improvement within the trust, I believe culture is key. Communicating this vision and culture consistently is essential to give substance to these concepts.
For continuous improvement, we make it explicit through our processes and school improvement priorities. Heads work together, analysing data to inform priorities, and staff receive professional development to implement improvements in the classroom. Simultaneously, meaningful collaboration is emphasised, focusing on purpose and impact.
My journey, especially during the pandemic, has taught me the importance of collaboration with purpose and meaning. We want collaboration that moves each school and the trust forward, not just for the sake of it. It's crucial to avoid overcomplication in collaboration, ensuring that the primary focus is on the impact on children in the classroom.
My journey, especially during the pandemic, has taught me the importance of collaboration with purpose and meaning
We use collaborative working groups, identifying key work streams for the trust and bringing together leaders and experts to work on them. Sharing INSET days, conducting leadership symposiums, and establishing headteachers' working groups contribute to thoughtful collaboration. The goal is to ensure that collaboration is purposeful and has a positive impact on classroom learning in each school.
Can you share some of the key initiatives and strategies your trust has implemented to support the academic success and overall wellbeing of pupils?
To support academic success and overall wellbeing, our trust focuses on cultivating a culture that prioritises individual needs over a checklist of processes. Leaders and teachers first understand their communities, identifying children and families requiring additional wellbeing support. Tailored opportunities and support are then aligned with the curriculum, integrating themes into learning sequences.
Therapeutic interventions include wellbeing coaches, counselling, coaching plans, and even therapy dogs in some schools. We ensure the meaningful application of these resources, maximising their impact on holistic support for children. Professional development also keeps staff updated with research and sector trends. This is exemplified by one school's recent accreditation as a trauma-aware school, showcasing the ongoing commitment to improving the wellbeing of children, families, and staff.
Starting your role as trust CEO in the middle of the pandemic must have been incredibly challenging. What would you say are some of the most significant challenges you faced, and how have you worked to overcome some of those?
Joining as trust CEO during the pandemic presented several challenges and a lot of those challenges still persist now. Balancing the aftermath of the pandemic’s impact on communities, mental health, and staff perception of their roles whilst tackling improvements continues to be a challenge.
The recruitment crisis, exacerbated by the pandemic, has made securing the right people for roles difficult – however, we have focussed tirelessly on this as we firmly believe our journey to improvement lies with values-based, skilled colleagues who are the ones who make a difference to the children every day. Financial challenges, coupled with workload concerns, also added complexity. Addressing these required strategic thinking to ensure capacity across the trust.
We've come out the other side now, but some of these challenges run deeper and will continue across the sector. I don't think that any of the challenges are particularly unique to me, other than the fact I started my first role as trust CEO during a pandemic. My first ever introduction to the trust was an INSET day to hundreds of boxes on a screen. As hard as it was, it taught me different skills and the ability to quickly adapt.
As you mentioned, there is currently a recruitment crisis in the sector, so what advice would you give to other trust leaders when it comes to effectively managing and empowering your staff?
To retain teaching staff, it's crucial to establish and communicate a shared vision. Leaders must ensure daily implementation of this vision by creating a culture that empowers senior and middle leaders. This involves nurturing talent, identifying the leadership pipeline, and providing opportunities for those aligned with the vision. Empowering teachers includes giving them decision-making space in teaching and behaviour management, fostering a sense of ownership over their work.
Empowering teachers includes giving them decision-making space in teaching and behaviour management
Investing in professional development is key, and our trust provides coaching for middle leaders and above. This investment extends beyond trust leaders, aiming to sustain leadership and build a robust leadership pipeline. Positive feedback on the coaching initiative highlights its impact as a powerful professional development tool. Acknowledging and acting on such feedback is essential for staff retention, as we celebrate successes and milestones, fostering a culture of continuous growth and investment in our educators.
What would you say good leadership looks like to you?
Good leadership, for me, is fundamentally relationships-led. Enjoying interactions with people and developing connections is essential, to inspire them to follow a shared vision. Having a strong moral purpose and vision form the core, providing a direction for the team. However, building a relational and compassionate culture is equally crucial for success.
Integrity is a non-negotiable aspect of leadership, rooted in principled, ethical behaviour – doing the right thing even when no one is watching. The challenges faced during the pandemic underscored the need for adaptability and courage. Leaders must know when to stand at the front and guide the way, and when to be adaptable and lead in a different way.
Integrity is a non-negotiable aspect of leadership, rooted in principled, ethical behaviour
Communication is also paramount in leadership. Effectively conveying the vision and expressing emotions, both verbally and non-verbally, is vital for engaging and motivating the team. Being an excellent communicator contributes to the success of the leadership approach.
And finally, for me, something that's always come through in my leadership is the concept of service. I was brought up following the Sikh religion, and the concept of service, learned from Sikh culture's Seva (selfless service), has deeply influenced my leadership style. This means sacrificing for the greater good, prioritising community benefit over personal gain. Leadership, for me, involves not seeking power for oneself but serving others, creating a culture where everyone can flourish.
While there may not be a one-size-fits-all approach to leadership, authenticity is crucial. It's about finding your genuine style. A quote I resonate with is, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists; when his work is done and his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves” (Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu). Balancing this with moments of necessary leadership intervention, especially during challenging times, is essential. As a trust leader, my focus is on creating an organisational culture that enables everyone to thrive, emphasising the collective contribution rather than individual success.
“A leader is best when people barely know he exists; when his work is done and his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves”
Looking ahead, what are some of your long-term goals and aspirations for the trust, and how do you plan to achieve them?
Our long-term goals involve adapting to AI and technological advances. We've already focused on our digital strategy and are an Apple-accredited training centre, but we anticipate increased importance in the coming years. The impact of AI on education, particularly in community-based trusts like ours, will be pivotal. We aim to leverage AI for community understanding and curriculum innovation, ensuring we teach relevant skills.
Additionally, we're committed to strengthening community ties and fostering inclusive environments. Emphasising diversity as a strength, we seek to celebrate various perspectives and experiences. It’s crucial to value differences and utilise them to drive curriculum advancements.
Our approach involves staying ahead in technological integration, promoting inclusive practices, and embracing the potential of AI for the benefit of our community.
Your central team is predominantly made up of females in leadership roles. This isn’t always reflected across the sector. Is this something you've consciously tried to do as a female leader?
So, on the team front, I'm always mindful of diversity, partly because of my own experiences. We had a board meeting recently where we looked at the protected characteristics and assessed any shifts since I joined. The thing is, one might have an idea of what you want your senior teams to look like, which lived experiences they might bring and which diverse thoughts and attributes they might have, but we're also working within certain constraints in the sector where the talent pool isn't always huge.
Being aware of what you represent to others is crucial. It could be your background, appearance, gender – things people notice. This has been my reality since I was interviewed for a piece called ‘Brown Face, White Space’. While my personal life was diverse, the minute I entered the workforce, it hit me differently. Early in my career, I learned to navigate these dynamics to do what's best for the children. As I gained confidence in leadership, I started embracing my true self more.
Being aware of what you represent to others is crucial
It's been a nuanced journey – adapting to different spaces, finding common ground even with those I thought I had little in common with. Over time, I've noticed a shift in leadership dynamics, albeit not massive. The first step is awareness, and once there are conversations happening, change becomes possible.
I'm proud of the progress we've made, flipping the narrative a bit. What I stand for attracts people who feel a connection with our values. Ultimately, it's about having open conversations on how we can better represent our communities and ensure our networks and training programmes are reaching the right people.
I think that’s very important because it’s sometimes hard to be what you can't see.
Absolutely, and you know, it's interesting because sometimes there's this perception based on physical traits, but someone's life story can be totally different from what you see.
In my case, there was nothing in my journey that hinted I would be in the position I am. My parents came to London from another country, worked hard, and believed in creating new opportunities. Like many other leaders I know, I didn't have any family connections or a background like, “My mum's a teacher, why not follow that path?”. It wasn't really my reality. This part of my story might resonate with people who aren't necessarily female, Asian or British but can connect with the journey.
Community is at the core of what I believe in, and it's a big part of my personal journey. Serving communities similar to where I grew up is crucial. I want our pupils to be proud of their roots, contribute to the world, and feel successful in their own way, whether it's becoming a CEO or pursuing other paths where they feel successful. There isn’t one definition of what success is and it is important to remain open-minded and pragmatic about this. The key is looking for opportunities to unlock the children’s potential early on, so they can find what they enjoy and what they're good at before heading to secondary school.
Community is at the core of what I believe in, and it's a big part of my personal journey
Ultimately, it's about instilling pride in their identity, whatever that may be, and the common ground is the school and its location. If they're proud of being part of it, I believe they become the next generation of innovators and leaders. When I talk to young people about their dreams, it gets me excited and hopeful. Despite the challenges, the recent opening of our new school showcased a community effort, from architects to the project management team to the local council. Everyone was invested in celebrating a new wave of leaders and innovators, and that truly excites me.
What are some of the things you do to switch off and enjoy the other parts of your life?
It's been a journey for me, realising that it's okay to take a breather. The job, societal expectations, the nature of the sector, and that immigrant work ethic turned me into a bit of a workaholic when I first became a headteacher. My self-worth was perhaps tied to how much I got done. To tackle that, I delved into personal development and connected with inspiring women in different spaces that I could learn from. They helped me see that my value isn't solely based on productivity – it's fine to rest and find joy in other aspects of life.
For me, staying active is a must. I enjoy strength training, yoga, dance classes – whatever gets me moving. Even a simple half-hour walk helps clear my mind. London's cultural scene is a bonus, and I love exploring new restaurants and cuisines. Planning outings and travelling with friends and having a good time are essential.
Having a support system of people who genuinely care about you, irrespective of your role in life, is crucial. Good sleep and regular exercise are non-negotiables. During lockdown, I added meditation and breathwork to my daily routine to find stillness amidst the chaos. It's incredible how these practices contribute to mental wellbeing.
Having a support system of people who genuinely care about you, irrespective of your role in life, is crucial
I make it a point to incorporate a new positive habit into my daily routine every few months. Leadership demands self-care, and while having a reliable team is essential, the responsibility falls on you to be emotionally intelligent and self-aware. If you're leading others, you need the energy and confidence to inspire them daily. Burnout isn't an option. From my coaching of headteachers and from everything we see and hear across the sector, I know we still have work to do here - and I'm committed to doing my best to share my learnings when I can.
I'm really passionate about this because it's been a significant part of my journey, and I believe taking care of yourself is a fundamental aspect of effective leadership.
If you’d like to find out more about Woodland Academy Trust, visit the trust’s website.
To find out how The Key can support your trust's current priorities and long-term goals, contact our team.