Ellen Thinnesen

Chief Executive, North East

Sector: Education

After comparing herself to children’s TV character Mr Ben, Ellen Thinnesen tells her story of being the chief Education Partnership North East and the obstacles she faced getting there.

Where do you call home? 

Having lived and worked away from my birth home for many years, I tend to view home as the places where my loved ones can be found. That’s because I associate home with feelings of family, love and a sense of deep connection to those with whom I share my life story. 

Tell us about your role?

I am chief executive of Education Partnership North East, an ambitious and large multi-campus college group situated entirely within the North East of England.

Practically my role includes being chief accounting officer with responsibility for the solvency and sustainability of the business. Of equal importance are my responsibilities for the provision of ‘quality education’ and its positive impact upon our diverse urban and rural communities, each with differing socio-economic need. In doing so my role can be best described as ensuring the strategic and operational performance of the college group has a strong connection to the wider ecosystem and in particular those priorities relating to people, productivity and place. 

How did you get to where you are today? 

For anyone old enough to remember, you may recall Mr. Ben, a TV character (created by author and illustrator David McKee) who also appears in several children’s books.

Mr. Ben was a very ordinary office worker (with a bowler hat) who, when trying on costumes in a costume shop, suddenly found himself in different times and different roles. I laugh as I write this because there have been many moments along the way when I have most definitely felt like Mr. Ben. 

I started my career as a registered general nurse predominately in critical care and have worked in several acute care settings across hospitals in England. Later I also worked in end of life community care (a job I loved), and to this day, I still draw upon the rich learning that I gained from both differing sectors.

My career in education really started in my nursing career at the bedside of critically ill patients along with their families. Eventually I ended up teaching at a local college whilst also continuing my nursing practice. And then after a lot of hard work juggling two jobs, progressing my post graduate studies, and bringing up a young family as a single parent at the same time, I moved full time into further education and the rest is history. On reflection I got where I am today through hard work, resilience and tenacity to navigate through and around many hurdles and challenges. 

What struggles or obstacles did you face along the way? 

Achieving my career journey to date was not easy. I would attend classes for my degree when the kids were at school, and then after they had gone to bed, would head off for a night shift as a nurse which allowed me to balance progressing my career and maintaining the demands of a home. I have a lot to thank my parents for. Equally working my way through the notorious glass ceiling at a time when most leadership posts in education were not populated by women was at times, very tough. I could write a book about this!

Describe the moment you first got a feel for success? 

There have been lots of successes along the way, and in the last year some major strategic accomplishments for my college group. However, when reflecting on this question, I can’t help but automatically gravitate to those very human moments. For example, a moment when I’ve seen a young person’s confidence grow because they have accomplished their first ever achievement. It’s that very moment when you know the college has positively changed the course of a young person’s trajectory. I’m very privileged to experience this every day I come to work.

Do you have any advice for aspiring young females? 

– Find a job that you can love and then get to really know your job = this means watching listening and learning from others and continually improving what you do.

– Exceed expectations = this means expending discretionary effort, going above and beyond to achieve high standards and positive impact.

– Manage your emotions = there will be times when others will upset you in the workplace, find an informal sponsor, a coach or a mentor; if this is not possible,  dedicate some time to learning how to build your self-resilience and confidence.

– Always think about the bigger picture = this means being open minded and willing to be part of the solution, especially in change as there will be lots of it.

– Remember that leadership is not about the role a person holds in an organisation, it is about action = this means take time to focus on developing your leadership at every opportunity (but remember stay humble and self-aware too). 

What advice would you give to your younger self? 

Never allow yourself to be deviated from who you really are. 

What three words inspire you and encourage a positive path?

Service, humanity, potential.

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