Zoe Lewis

College Principal, Stokesley

Sector: Education

Zoe Lewis stuck by her own advice “stick to your values”, after leaving a successful role running a large, outsourced contract as she disagreed with their approach. Today she is the principal of Middlesbrough College and in 2013 became the first female principal in the college’s history. 

Where do you call home? 

I was raised in Saltburn, but home is now Stokesley.  

Tell us about your role?  

I am the Principal / CEO of Middlesbrough College Group. 

How did you get to where you are today? 

Whilst I achieved good qualifications at school, I was always eager to work from a young age so left school at 16 and studied on an evening for 7 years – becoming a CIMA qualified accountant and gaining my master’s degree in business administration. My career took me around the public and private sector of Teesside and North Yorkshire in finance and systems implementation roles until I had the opportunity to run a project to develop a number of new police stations. Throughout my career I was given many opportunities some of them extremely challenging – and looking back those were the ones that developed me the most. I then saw the role at Middlesbrough College for a vice principal corporate services which excited me as it would lead the relocation of the four college sites onto one site at Middlehaven. Once I arrived here, I got the ‘FE’ bug and have never looked back, becoming deputy principal and then principal / CEO in 2013. The first female principal in the college’s history. 

What struggles or obstacles did you face along the way?  

Two moments stick in my mind.  

There was a moment in my late twenties when I was asked to run a large, outsourced contract and ultimately left the role on a point of principle – taking a large pay cut to do so. The role essentially was tasked with lowering wages, deskilling people and measuring things that didn’t add value to the client and I firmly disagreed in that approach. I was proud that I had stuck to my principles and have no regrets, though I think many around me at the time thought I was a little crazy! 

The second challenge was a two-year period in which I had both my children, did my master’s degree at university and led the £70m college relocation project to completion. This was ‘juggling’ to the extreme and really did test my resilience – but I managed it, completing my dissertation two weeks after my first child was born (and receiving an award for this!) and managing to mix maternity leave with work and study successfully. It certainly highlighted to me the challenges that women face during that period of starting a family – which also sadly coincides directly with the period that many careers are taking off. 

Describe the moment you first got a feel for success? 

I don’t think I ever had one moment, but I do think I have learnt more about life and people in the last ten years than any years before that. Partly through the responsibility associated with being a principal / CEO, managing 1000 staff and supporting 12,000 students each year; but also, through the learning you do every day as a parent. Using different ways to motivate and develop our staff as well as my own children with their very different drivers and personalities is something that I will never stop reflecting on and ultimately this helps to make me both a ‘better’ person at home and at work. 

Do you have any advice to aspiring young females? 

Your mind is like a spring. You can stretch it, but it will always try and revert back to its standard shape. To really develop yourself, you need to push your own boundaries, get outside of your comfort zone and do things that your instinctively try to avoid. Only by doing this will you truly develop your skills, ‘stretch your spring’ and become a more rounded individual and more skilled employee. I still to this day – write myself a note of the things (no more than 3) that I will work on each year to develop myself which push my own boundaries. This has served me well over the years. 

What advice would you give to your younger self?  

Work hard, keep developing yourself and stick to your values and principles and you will never go far wrong.  

What three words inspire you and encourage a positive path?  

Energy, enthusiasm, empathy. 

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