I left school at 16 – now I’m CEO

In celebration of National Careers Week and to highlight the many and varied career paths available, we asked our own CEO, Lorraine Langham, about her career journey and any tips she has on the route to the top.

“I left school aged 16 in a recession that saw one in 10 people out of work”, Lorraine begins, “no-one in my entire extended family had attended further or higher education so in spite of having 10 O’Levels, and a personal visit from the Headteacher to talk to my parents about the possibilities of staying on – I left.”

It may seem surprising that there isn’t a degree in Lorraine’s background when you discover that her career successes span both the private and public sectors, including local and central government. She held board level positions in four London boroughs and spent seven years working at Ofsted, including as the Chief Operating Officer and right-hand person to Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector.  Along the way, she also built a successful Joint Venture Company providing communications and management consultancy. But tellingly, Lorraine says: “Careers advice at school was a 10-minute chat: ‘you like people – be a bank clerk’”.

With this inspiring advice, Lorraine headed out on her own course: “I applied for many, many jobs before I got one as a junior clerical assistant at the Local Government Training Board. That set me on a career in local government; 13 years later I was on the board at the London Borough of Camden. It made the national press. I was one of the youngest women chief officers in the country.”

It’s pertinent then, that later in her career, Lorraine came to work at Future First where providing state school students access to alumni and relatable role models as well as helping schools achieve Gatsby Benchmarks around career guidance and access to employers is part of its mission.

Now, as CEO – a route usually arrived at from a heavily operational or financial background rather than a communications background – Lorraine is keen to emphasise the importance of work experience and knowing your own worth. In a recent report by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, of which she is a past Fellow, Lorraine explains: “Coming up through communications roles gives someone a broad range of invaluable skills, strategic thinking, crisis management, problem solving, interpersonal skills, wonderful written and oral skills, political nous- reading the room, negotiation and brokering, partnership and collaboration. These are many of the skills needed in senior roles rather than the ‘old school’ finance or legal routes to the top.”

Her tips for others wanting to reach senior positions involve doing your homework and contributing widely, “create a reputation from the inside as someone who can add value, who has something to bring to the table. Put yourself forward internally – take opportunities to get involved”.

“I looked for difficult projects or parts of the organisation that no one wanted, that needed a turnaround or a good manager and sought to take them on… I grew the work and built a corporate role and became seen as a general manager who could drive performance in any service, not just my specialism.” Lorraine also studied at night school and went on to become a Fellow of the Institute of Directors and a Chartered Director.

Crucially, Lorraine explains: “Be good at what you do, deliver what you said you’d do, demonstrate the wider impact, then you can argue ‘if I can do that here, I can do it somewhere else’.”