7 Questions with Prof Adam Boddison

Name: Prof Adam Boddison

Current title: CEO

Current organisation: National Association for Special Educational Needs

Professor Adam Boddison is the Chief Executive for nasen (National Association for Special Educational Needs) with responsibility for strategic direction and operational delivery across the full breadth of nasen’s activity. He is also the Chair of the Whole School SEND consortium and Chair of the National SEND Reference Group.

Adam is a National Leader of Governance and a Trustee at two Multi-Academy Trusts, spanning primary, secondary and specialist settings. Adam is a Trustee of the Potential Trust and a Fellow of the RSA. Prior to this, Adam held a number of senior education roles including Director of the Centre for Professional Education at the University of Warwick and Academic Principal for IGGY (a global educational social network for gifted teenagers). He has published a range of education books and is a qualified clinical hypnotherapist.

Follow Adam on Twitter: @adamboddison

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1. What have you found most challenging as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise?

As the CEO, you are accountable to the board, whilst also expected to lead the Executive Team. The result is that the CEO role can be a lonely role within an organisation. In my case, I addressed this through a conscious effort to develop my peer network of CEOs. We share challenges and successes as well as taking on the role of a critical friend, which benefited both my personal and professional development.

2. How did you become a CEO or executive of a large enterprise? Can you please briefly tell the story?

In my more junior roles, I developed a reputation as a trouble shooter and a risk taker. The result was that I was actively approached to lead challenging and failing areas of the organisations I worked for. The success demonstrated in these roles accelerated my promotion opportunities, so that I secured my first executive role by the age of 30 and my first CEO role by the age of 35.

3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?

I am fortunate that my CEO role has a lot of variety, so there is no such thing as a typical day. That said, there are some common features to the way in which I structure my working days. In the morning, I typically undertake a review of emails to check if anything urgent has come through that might impact on my priorities for the day ahead. I always make time for lunch (even if it’s a working lunch!) and I try to get a sensible balance of paperwork and people over the course of the day. Late afternoon and early evening, I tend to make time for my family, but then I make up for this by doing some work in the evenings once the children are in bed (typically this is when I do any necessary reading).

4. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?
Leadership is not about perfection; it is about the clarity of the vision and integrity of the journey. Being explicit about what success looks like at all levels of the organisation and supporting others to achieve that success helps to drive rapid progress. I have led a number of staff reorganisations in recent years and I have learnt that they are most successful when they present opportunities for professional growth that are aligned to organisational priorities.

5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?

This is a tough question as I’ve read a lot of books! I have narrowed it down to two. The first is Infonomics: how to monetize, manage, and measure information as an asset for competitive advantage by Douglas Laney. Whilst I have always used data to measure organisational performance and to drive strategic decision making, this book helped me to take that a stage further and to consider how even the simplest of data can provide a commercial advantage. The principles have broad applicability across the public, private and third sectors.

The second is Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed. The mantra of failures being an important part of the learning process is not new, but this book explores and encourages a more forensic analysis of failures to achieve high performance through successive marginal gains.

6. How do you build leadership capacity in a large enterprise?

At the heart of capacity building is having faith in the wider workforce. I have sometimes been criticised in the past for giving people opportunities well beyond their comfort zone and encouraging rapid progression. I see this approach more as a ‘hand up’ than a ‘hand out’ and it means that talent can emerge quickly from any area of the organisation. This also presents some risks, which need to be mitigated. Ultimately, capacity building has been successful if you manage to create an organisation that can function successfully without overly depending on you.

7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise so far?

The nature of strategy, vision and organisational devilment is that it is often forward-looking. In my current CEO role, a significant factor in the growth and success of the organisation was ensuring that I remembered to look backwards too. The importance of institutional memory should not be underestimated and in my case, the active re-engagement of former CEOs and Presidents proved to be essential both commercially and reputationally. In the words of Isaac Newton, ‘if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants’.