Brett Wigdortz, CEO of Teach First

Leading Questions: Brett Wigdortz

02 May 2017

Brett Wigdortz originally planned to take only six months out from his job as a management consultant to draw up the business plan for Teach First, the charity that strives for better education for pupils from low-income backgrounds.

But things didn’t go to plan. That was 2002. Today, he has been serving as founder and CEO for 15 years, and has an OBE for services to education. From accepting criticism as a football referee to making ‘life or death’ decisions as a lifeguard, Wigdortz reveals how his earliest work experiences turned out to be among the most valuable of his career – and why he thinks teachers make the best leaders.

Have the confidence to make mistakes

What kind of work experience did you do when you were younger?

When I was a teenager I was a football referee for six years and a lifeguard in New Jersey for five or six summers. I worked as a teaching assistant in a kindergarten a few times and did some other odd jobs when I was younger. After university, I worked as a journalist in Asia for a while. Then I worked as a researcher before becoming a management consultant.

What lessons did you take from those experiences?

A great lesson from my time as a referee was to know when to ignore criticism. As a ref you’re constantly being criticised and learning how to handle that criticism is a really good experience. I think that is a really important leadership lesson that sometimes you just have to do your job. You have to understand when the criticism is accurate versus when it isn’t – you can’t take it all personally.

Similarly, when I was a lifeguard, I had a bit of ‘life or death’ responsibility at a young age. Those jobs taught me the importance of responsibility early on, and that – in some cases – people’s lives can depend on your work!

Was it important to learn these lessons young?

I think so. It ensures you take your work seriously. As a referee, you have to take it seriously; you can’t mess around on the field. People watch what you’re doing, you’re under scrutiny and you have to be comfortable making quick decisions. I think those are really important for any leadership role, and life in general.

What has being CEO of Teach First taught you about leadership?

I’ve learnt the importance of having a clear vision of what you’re trying to achieve and of having clear values around what you’re working towards.

What advice would you give to an upcoming leader?

Have the confidence to make mistakes. I remember the time I first started as a referee, a senior ref told me: “Don’t worry about making mistakes. Any mistake you’ve made we’ve made a million times already.” It’s that confidence you need to make decisions. If you have a clear direction and a clear value structure that people respect, then you just need to make the decisions basically – and the people you’re leading will want you to make those decisions.

What would you say to your younger self?

Enjoy the process a bit more. Try and be less stressed. There’s something about being open to making mistakes. Good leaders aren’t the ones who are the smartest – the best ones are those who work through failure and the ones who are calm when things aren’t going well around them. I think that’s a really important trait of a leader.

What’s the hardest decision you’ve had to make in your role?

The toughest decisions are usually around people. Strategic decisions can sometimes be easier because you just make a decision based on fact. Teach First has been growing each year – and with that growth comes change – and we’ve had to let people go along the way. Wonderful individuals who care deeply about our mission and worked in leadership roles when we were smaller, but these roles have changed as we’ve grown into a bigger organisation. Making decisions around people is personally challenging and always difficult.

I’ve learnt the importance of having a clear vision of what you’re trying to achieve

Can you teach leadership qualities?

You can teach a lot of it! Not everyone is going to be Beethoven, David Beckham or the world’s best leader. But most people can get pretty good at most things, actually, and can definitely learn lots of aspects of leadership, like simply working hard or not giving up. Thomas Edison, the inventor of the lightbulb, who is from New Jersey where I’m from, said: “Success is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.”

Is there such thing as a ‘born leader’?

Some people are born with more innate skills like charisma, but so much can be taught and so much can change your life. People are born with more, or less, leadership skills – I think that’s true – but people also place limits on themselves too much.

Good leaders aren’t the ones who are the smartest – the best ones are those who work through failure

Do teachers need to be good leaders in the classroom, or do leaders need to be good teachers in the boardroom?

It’s a core belief of Teach First that the main aim of a teacher is to be a leader. Certainly what we’d say is great teachers are great leaders in the classroom! If leadership is about inspiring and leading others to get to somewhere that they themselves didn’t know they could get to on their own, then that’s exactly what teaching is. A teacher doesn’t just present material – a robot could do that. Great teachers lead 30 young people to improve themselves. So, for me teaching is absolutely a leadership role.

What has been your best day at Teach First?

The day we launched 15 years ago was fantastic. When we finally got permission to launch I knew it would be successful and that it would work. There have also been a number of school visits, meeting young people who we've helped, especially at schools I knew were in really bad shape and have improved a lot over time. Seeing the effect we’ve had, with kids getting into top universities, and knowing we had something to do with that is really exciting.

Brett Wigdortz with students

How did the Careers and Employability Initiative with LifeSkills created with Barclays come about, and what does it mean for Teach First?

A lot of our teachers have talked to us about not being sure how to get their kids into jobs, be more employable, and provide better careers advice. So we approached Barclays, and are really excited to be partnering up for a second year with LifeSkills on the employability programme.

Through the initiative, we’re helping teachers gain knowledge and skills to embed employability education into their teaching. Currently a lot of it is in London, but I want it to grow to places like Grimsby, Blackpool and Hartlepool, where there’s an even bigger gap in employability education. We’re really hoping the initiative will grow significantly over the next few years.

Why is career advice so important?

I know a wonderful head teacher of a small primary school based in Hartlepool who is very inspiring. None of the children there had a parent in full-time employment and his point was, a lot of the kids don't have the social or family structures to know about getting a job. We see a lot of examples of really smart kids who are doing well academically, but have no clue how to translate that into a career because they don't have the social networks that middle-class children take for granted. Our teachers are really passionate about bridging the gap for those kids.

How do you unwind?

Almost every good leader I know does some sort of physical activity. I meditate 15-20 minutes in the morning, and I find it really helpful to have that quiet time. I also like to swim and run. Other than that I like to spend time with my family. I have three small children, which is always a challenge.

How important is work-life balance?

I struggle with the term ‘balance’. It’s not work versus life; that dichotomy isn't really helpful. You want to enjoy one without the expense of the other. The truth is, I love my job. But you do need real discipline. We have a rule in my house where we turn off our phones all day on Saturday. Having a day a week where you don’t do any work is really good.

How much has your family influenced your leadership ethic?

My family influences me in a massive way and puts things in perspective. You can’t be a complete workaholic with three small children and be a good parent. So it forces you to work smarter – in a good way.