4 mins read

An Hour Well Spent with Janet Foster CEO

Leaving the Role, Lessons from her Journey

The why behind this…

For those who dont know, an hour well spentis just that. Its an hour sitting with a business leader and letting the natural narrative appear. There are no set questions, the script is created in the moment, and we see what comes. Each conversation in this series has its own melody. Why am I doing this – to learn more about leadership from those doing the work now. The stuff you dont read in the books.

Meeting Janet

Yes, thats Janet Foster in the picture with me, CEO of ‘Partners in Learning’ a Doncaster based school improvement organisation. First up it must be noted that Janet did not and does not call herself the CEO. That title just kind of arrived at her door as the organisation she leads grew. In July of this year Janet will leave this role in the trusty hands of another (tbc).

Today (12th July 2021) I spent a little over an hour with Janet, exploring what it is to be a senior strategic leader. During the chat we wondered between personal and professional life, and I saw clearly how entwined these were. I was really keen to speak to a leader from a school context given the year weve had. Covid has presented schools with a daily challenge of which Janet and her team have been at the forefront.

How did I ever get to this point”

You dont just become a CEO, its something that happens over time. Something you either choose or it kinda chooses you. It seems for Janet there was a bit of both. I asked if she ever saw herself as a leader and she responded with NO”. To offer some context, this wasnt something she saw overtly within herself but something others drew to her attention. It seemed as though these trustedothers gave Janet the nudge to move along this path. And believe in the affirmation I can do so much more” (illustrating the power of supporters).

When I asked what the most powerful turning point was in her thinking, she expressed that it was the unintended consequence of becoming a supply teacher. In her early days working in just one school, she had built an established view on what good looked like. However, when life reasons led her to doing supply work she suddenly realised theres more than one way to do a great job.

Working across different schools in different postcodes opened her eyes to the many possibles out there. And this led to her internal voice speaking up this is what I believe in and this is definitely not what I believe in”. Her clarity of what good could be was forming.

I think the lesson here being, until we have been exposed to multiple contexts can we truly have a view on the multiple possibles out there. Perhaps we should all be a little more deliberate in seeking out different places of work, different perspectives, and different ways of doing things in order that we can benefit from a more rounded view (a broad foundation).

Ladders and the steps on them

In this journey, Janet has had to climb a number of ladders’. Some of the steps on these have been supported by her ‘inner circle’ (they know who they are) which has made life easier at these points. However, some of the steps have been barriers to overcome. Either deliberately placed there or simply not removed when maybe they could have been. I asked what drove her on in these times of challenge… two things popped up

moral purpose….” And if you say I cant and I know it’s the right thing to do I will”

What was more revealing in our conversation here was Janet’s reflection on ladders climbed vs ladders created. She was once asked who are you creating ladders for”. This seemed to stick with Janet and in her role at Partners in Learningthis is something she is conscious of doing. Creating steps and supporting people to take them.


In a strategic leadership role, there will be times you disagree with partners and others who have leadership responsibilities. I asked Janet her advice for others encountering this situation – her answer SWOT.

Yes, when challenged on her direction of travel Janet steps back and undertakes an analysis of the situation. What are the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Janet was humble enough to express that if during the assessment of the situation she saw that the positive impact wasnt as she expected she would take this on board and alter her direction. Its about what’s right for the organisation, not about trying to be right.

When I asked how she found the courage to do this it seemed to lay in the network of people Janet had surrounded herself with. They are not an echo-chamber, simply in agreement with her view but a collective of individuals she trusts and respects with different skills and perspectives. I ask whos in your support team?

Some parting thoughts as she leaves her role

What one-liner do you gift to your team as a leaving lesson:

“regularly step back and ask why. Evaluate, reflect and identify the impact”.

She did offer a second line:

“dont get dragged into things outside of your mission”

What advice would you give your younger self:

“give yourself more space and time for you to think”

And her second point:

“not everything is your problem to solve”

What 3 guiding sentiments would you like to share with the new CEO:

  1. Collaboration – you cannot do this on your own
  2. Relationships – trust doesnt just appear, build this
  3. Moral purpose – be led by your passion and purpose


You can see a theme here, Janet still has more to offer

In closing

Our conversation included much more than you read here, such as not sleeping for 3 days because of Ofsted inspections and theatre events (being in them). It’s clear that Janet spins many plates and by her own admission will find the freedomof retirement quite strange”. But once she has given herself the time and space to think (advice offered earlier), she will be back to contribute in some way.

Her final thought – “listen”. Be that to the young people you teach or the staff you employ. Listen to their story, dont just consult.

Kurt Ewald Lindley – learning from leaders