Being a first-generation CEO

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Date published 25 April 2018

Like many other first-generation CEOs, I fell into the job by accident more than design. My first job was to write my own job description.

When introducing myself at various conferences over the past few years, I’ve gone for, Good morning, my name is Stephen Tierney, CEO of the Blessed Edward Bamber Catholic Multi Academy Trust in Blackpool and one of an increasing number of people who are totally confused about what I should be doing.

The role of CEO, executive director or executive headteacher is still hugely varied across the country. Often, the reality of what the role entails isn’t reflected in the job title, and the titles themselves have become confused and interchangeable.

So, the first significant change came for me when we appointed a new headteacher at St. Mary’s Catholic Academy which I had led for 14 years. I was now responsible for three academies, but led none of them. In the beginning it was just plain odd; I missed the cut and thrust of the school day and the lack of staff at my door asking, Are you busy?”

It took over a year to really establish a sense of what my role was in a small multi-academy trust. From the start, I was determined that the role would be about ensuring the standards and outcomes were good or better and that my core business, along with the headteachers and their senior leadership teams, was school improvement.

As I said a number of times to them, “There is no definition of me being successful unless you and our schools are”. One of my early tasks was to develop and implement a quality assurance framework and to ensure that we could identify, discuss and act as soon as there was a concern or indication that standards were at risk. The framework is in the trust’s business plan if you would like to look at it.

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School improvement is intertwined with the professional development of teachers and leaders. I continue to take a keen and active interest in this aspect of the trust’s work. I deliver development programmes for interested people from across Blackpool's schools, successfully applying for St. Mary’s to become a Research School; engaging with the Teacher Development Trust (TDT) from its inception and more recently as a TDT CPD Centre of Excellence and simply reading various books and papers with the headteachers to help us reflect upon our practice.

The better the teachers and leaders around you, the easier the job of CEO becomes. Other aspects of my role evolved during those first two years in post: I developed our outward-facing element, helped by social media and my network of leaders built up over the years, and introduced mentoring and coaching for the school leaders.

However, more than anything my role is now about building the culture. A culture that is ethical, focused and informed. It’s a culture in which staff and pupils can thrive and flourish. It’s not simply what you do, it’s also what you decide not to do.

We binned annual performance pay and lesson observations early doors and tried to remain focused on a few key priorities. This was a real challenge with so much concurrent curriculum change, and I continue to strive to address workload issues, while the budget is shrinking and the support that used to be wrapped around a school disappears.

No-one ever promised me it would be easy, but they were right not to.

Stephen Tierney is the CEO of the Blessed Edward Bamber Catholic Multi Academy Trust in Blackpool. He is the Chair of the Headteachers’ Roundtable and author of Liminal Leadership (published by John Catt Ltd). He is on twitter as @LeadingLearner. He regularly blogs at

Click the links to find out more about our leadership development programmes for executive headteachers and CEOs.

This article originally appeared on the website of Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019, the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.

Stephen Tierney
Stephen Tierney
CEO of Blessed Edward Bamber Catholic Multi Academy Trust

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