Steve Smith joined SIAS as the new Managing Director earlier this year. We caught up with Steve to find out how he’s found his first 3 months in the role and what plans he has for the future….
So Steve, welcome to SIAS! Can you start by telling our readers who you are and what your role is?
“I’m Steve Smith and I’m the Managing Director at SIAS. I’m three months into the job after being appointed in January of 2022. My role as MD is ultimately about being responsible for the development and execution of a strategy for profitable growth and greater social impact, and to enhance the influence and success for the SIAS brand. I’m also very focused on continuing to build and manage strong teams across the business.
“I’ve spent the last 20 years in the skills and Ofqual regulated awarding sector where I’ve held senior leadership positions for global brands like OCR, who are part of Cambridge Assessment, NCC Education and then ABE, where I was Deputy Chief Executive for the past seven years.”
With all of that experience, what’s your view on how the skills and awarding sector is evolving and some of the challenges that organisations are facing?
“I think one of the challenges in the sector, that’s pretty consistent, is that we are influenced at all times by Government policy and often by decisions around funding mechanisms as well, so that means there’s always change or potential change. As an organisation within the sector we have to be able to have a strong upstream view of those potential changes in policy and funding direction. And, we need to be able to adapt and be agile and make sure that we keep our product and service offer relevant to our customers and markets.
“I think the other thing that I’ve seen over my career is digital having more and more of an impact. It was starting to have a big impact anyway but Covid has accelerated that. So, when I talk about digital, it’s more about the way people are digesting learning and skills development. The way that they want to engage with that learning is changing very quickly, there’s been a shift towards more on-line learning, more bite-size learning, real-time learning, digital badges, stackable micro-credentials. So that whole digital revolution within education is something that is with us and is going to stay with us and become more of a narrative within the sector.
“And, for me there’s a requirement for awarding and assessment organisations to diversify, to continue to look for ways to evolve and future-proof.
“I also think customer’s emotional attachment to brands is less strong than it was 15 years ago and I think people and organisations are now making decisions on who they work with based on other factors like their customer experience and value proposition and how working with an organisation can improve their business model and it’s all making the market more competitive.
“What that means is that organisations like SIAS really need to be on point in terms of how we build and maintain relationships and partnerships because that’s what’s driving buying decisions. The days of being complacent and having a position to mark and being able to sit back and rely on that – those days are gone; you have to be more proactive and put customers very much at the heart of what you’re doing.”
You’ve been at SIAS for just over 3 months, what are your observations so far?
“The business was formed in 2015 and has enjoyed strong growth, year-on-year, since then. So I’ve come into a business that has a good financial base from which to continue to invest and grow, and I’ve also come into a business that has incredibly strong industry links. SIAS was created by industry, for industry through the sector skills landscape so we have strong, deep emotional connections with industry across the technical, science and engineering space. And, I think that’s really important; it’s something that I value hugely because apprenticeships are an employer led model, as it should be, so the fact SIAS has such strong employer relationships is a real plus, we work with some incredible global brands, like Astra Zeneca, Pfizer, Glaxo, British Steel, Kellogg’s, Exxon to name just a few.
“I also know that I’ve come into a business that’s got a fantastic track record. We recently completed our 1000th EPA which is a really big milestone and a testament to the fact that we’re good at this. But we are not complacent, and we’ve got a really strong focus in terms of continuous improvement and an ambition to continue to grow and have more impact.
“I’ve also been really pleased with the level of quality I’ve found throughout the business, the fact that good governance and quality is very much in the DNA here, our recent successful Ofqual approval and recognition was testament to that.
“I’m really excited to have joined such a strong business, with a platform to be ambitious and deliver further growth”
What are your immediate plans for SIAS?
“In the short- to immediate-term, plans are very much about some key priorities like the transition to Ofqual as the new regulator for the sector. We’re also going to be launching a new EPA system this year which will strengthen SIAS even more in terms of our operations and provide our customers with an even better experience.
“One thing that’s a real priority for me personally in the short-term is to build on and further strengthen our employer and provider partnerships to make sure that we are even more joined up and aligned – and to ensure that we are consistently providing our customers with the very best in service, experience and value proposition, working strategically together for future growth and mutual benefit.”
And, longer term what can we expect to see from SIAS? If we were having this conversation in five years’ time, what’s the vision for the organisation at that point?
“There’s some things about SIAS that we will never want to change. For me, this isn’t about revolution as such; it’s more of an evolution but at pace! Being an end-point assessment organisation is always going to be central to what we do.
“Our social mission is also always going to be at our core and that won’t change either. Unlike some of our competitors, we’re not privately-owned so the surplus that we create always goes back into supporting industry and to support employers.
“We play a really important role in the skills agenda for a very important part of the economy. The pandemic was obviously terrible in so many respects but I think the one thing it has reinforced for us all is the importance that science has in our lives, and both this Government and future Governments in this country I believe will have science and STEM very much at the forefront of their agenda and I think that’s really exciting for SIAS. It’s a real opportunity for us, but one that comes with a responsibility, I feel, to make sure that we are a really strong player in that sector and can deliver the positive impact to people’s lives that I know that we do and that we want to continue to do.
“So I think those things will never change but one thing in the longer-term vision is around a targeted diversification. There may be opportunities in the future around widening our Ofqual recognition and moving into developing and awarding qualifications. I’m also keen to explore the digital side that I mentioned earlier. So, diversifying our portfolio, perhaps introducing digital-based professional development learning, which might be able to provide extra positive impact to employers in our sector – these are some early thoughts around longer term direction.
“As you can imagine, just 3-months into role, the longer-term plan is still being shaped but by the end of this year, we’re going to have a three-year vision so I’m looking forward to sharing that with you.”
So, just for a moment can we move onto your life outside of work… tell us a little bit about Steve and if there’s anything that maybe people might be surprised to hear about you?
“People are always surprised that I’ve got eight children! It’s great, we’ve got a big family, it’s chaotic and a bit crazy, as people would imagine, but also brilliant.
“I grew up in Australia, I was born in Adelaide and spent the first half of my life there. I’ve been in the UK for 22 years and I come from a professional sporting background. I played cricket professionally in Australia and in England when I left school and did that for a number of years. That’s how I first ended up in the UK and then moved into a career within awarding and within the commercial side of education.
“I think a lot of what I’ve taken into my business career and what has made me successful has come from my experiences within a professional sporting context. You learn a lot around discipline, organisation, trusting in the process, hard work and the importance of team and leadership. I firmly believe that you get the best out of people by understanding them and by making sure that you can get people behind a vision and big ideas, create that feeling of energy and intensity that people can buy in to. Whatever I’m doing I want to be the best, I want to win, I want the organisations that I’m involved with to be the best and set great standards, and so I do tend to live and breathe that.”
As a business leader what are the things that drive you to succeed?
“I really enjoy the journey so what really energises me in a leadership sense is the opportunity to shape and influence a business. Seeing the potential, the opportunity to grow and pushing that business forward to achieve is what I’m always focussed on.
“I think I’m at my best when I’ve got a target in front of me and I’m challenged. SIAS is a really successful business but my role is to challenge how can we get even better, bigger and bolder. That’s just my mindset and I think that’s a mindset that’s served me really well within this sector. I firmly believe there’s an opportunity for SIAS to set a gold standard within the market which will very quickly differentiate us in a positive way.”
So to finish off, what’s your final message to all those people and organisations you’re working with?
“I am really excited to be leading SIAS on the next stage of its journey. As I said earlier, the fact that we are market leading in the technical, science and engineering space, are Ofqual regulated and approved, that we have this brilliant track record and strong industry links puts us in an amazing position with a huge opportunity to build on all of that.
“My message to all those organisations we work with is that I want to lead through collaboration; I want to lead through partnership and through building stronger relationships. I also make a commitment to all our partners and stakeholders that we will put you at the heart of everything we do, support you in the way that you deserve to be supported, and provide you with the very best in experience and value to create joint opportunities and sustainable partnerships.”