5 mins read

#DNBusinessTalks – John Rees (CEO DN Colleges Grp)

Finding my part in this


This is a series of stories told by leaders in the Doncaster area (City of). These stories have been curated by me (Kurt Ewald Lindley) as part of a collaboration between Doncaster CouncilDoncaster Chamber of Commerce and other Team Doncaster members to showcase, not just the best of Doncaster, but to inform the development of Doncaster’s Economic Strategy and

“make it the best place to do business.”

This is our bonus story, 11 completed with an aim of 10! Its nice to be over-achieving. Having worked at Doncaster College as a Lecturer in Sport and Exercise science back in 2003-2005, arriving at The Hub was a bit like coming home from Uni but your parents have renovated, and you don’t recognise the place. It’s no longer the old sandstone and greenery of High Melton, but a state-of-the-art learning environment. With modern tech feeding itself through each space, machinery representative of that in the workplace, open plan walkways, even shops and salons. It’s not just a place where people come to learn, but its where they practice, develop, connect and grow….

I met John Rees, CEO of DN Colleges Group at his office, where he was putting the finishing touches to a presentation for the college stakeholder group. One slide struck me more than the others, that being the ‘stakeholder map’. It’s something that came up in our conversation – which provided the following contemplation:

“who is the customer”

It seemed the list was far more varied than I would have first thought, is it students, staff, employers, communities, or regulatory bodies like Ofsted, ofqual, Department for Education, or funding bodies… the list goes on. It’s clear it’s a complicated landscape and can make the role of CEO one of living in tension.

The Journey – attracted by its ambition

At the time of writing John was only 13 weeks into post, so still very fresh and very much seemingly taking every opportunity to learn from those around him. As a person from out of the area I wanted to know what brought him here….

“I was attracted by the ambition and the enthusiasm I could see within the college”

It seemed in listening to John’s drivers, the move here needed to be more than just about the job, but about the place and the people.

When talking about the education ‘ecosystem’ in Doncaster, he referenced “we don’t have to build any institutions (they are there), but I must find my part in this”. I really liked this idea of choosing a role because of the people and place it serves, and the desire to ‘find his part’ not affirm it or take it.

So how did he get here? John’s career path wasn’t the straightest, which is a great illustration I guess that life isn’t linear. The reality is, most of us have a squiggle somewhere in there. At his first attempt he found University wasn’t for him. John openly shared he was a “passenger in the system”– school, college then Uni. But after a period in the working world he found the course and place for him, a BA(Hons) in Sport and Exercise Science at Canterbury Christ Church University. In his own words:

“I fell in love with my subject”

A couple of years later, through a coincidental meeting with an old Uni friend John found himself teaching at Boston College. From there on he never left the profession, saying, “I loved the social element of teaching”. What’s interesting here, is John didn’t know this path was an option until a friend nudged him to give it a go.

Since then, John has performed in a variety of roles, including Deputy Principal at Boston College, then Group Deputy Principal at Warwickshire College where he was responsible for 7 campus’s. His next role saw him move to Principal and Chief Executive at Calderdale College, this was fuelled by a desire to be closer to the point of impact, he mentioned “I couldn’t see the front line anymore, I wanted to see the difference I was making”. Here John stayed for 7 years, immersing himself in college life.

In coming to the DN College Group John was clear to say – “the support/challenge relationship with the chair needed to be right and I knew the role would stretch me. From what I hear, all seems to be working well on this front.

Challenges in Business – decisions are easy, enabling is the hard bit

“two organisations and two cultures coming together” – John mentioned the importance of the two Colleges (of Doncaster and North Lindsey) needing to remain locally relevant, true to the local culture but having the benefit of the larger communities and with it, the resources and people and nuances.

“creating a compelling strategy” – John had a candid message here, one of “we could create a strategy in 10 minutes” but people need to have a stake in its formation. And “we need to make it make sense to staff, so they can identify and relate to it”.

“things are really difficult at the moment, we are all underinvested and this is why collaboration is so important” – We need to be part of the wider system, be an enabler and be enabled. The notion of Team Doncaster is great, “connecting social and economic powers to do good”.

Lessons for others – relationships are personal

“Build the right relationships for you with your board”

It seems, the ‘for you’ is the important bit here. John was clear to share, this lesson is a unique one and specific to each person, their context and their work. So there is no ‘one right relationship’ but there is the right one for you.

Advice to a younger you (and the ones who didn’t choose so well)

“find somewhere to switch off, where no one cares what you do”

John believe strongly in finding a place, people and maybe even a thing to do outside of work. Where who you are is the important thing, not what you do as a job (or where you work).

The Legacy – better lives

John felt strongly that the legacy of the college was one of ‘betterment’ for others:

“the college needs to be a positive contributing factor that facilitates more people having better lives…as they describe it”

John was quick to add the “as they describe it”, as he believes what is ‘better for one may not be better for another’ (its self-determined).

The Call to Action – stay connected

Johns call to action to the business community was:

“get involved and stay involved with the student experience” and to “blur the edge between college and work”

His desire is to work with the business community, to deliver a diverse set of ‘real’ lived experiences for students, through partnerships and collaborations.

Your one ask of ‘Team Doncaster’

“Help us declutter the education stakeholder/client map”

As the CEO of an educational establishment John has found tension in rationalising the quandary of “who is the customer”. At times the drivers and levers of these may be similar and at other times they are pulling in different directions.

A clear answer to, “this is what our place (the City of Doncaster) needs” is required and funders should judge this as the measure of success.

In closing

John has been working hard to “bring people towards” – this seemed important, especially in the early days of arriving in the role of CEO. He has no previous affiliation to either of the colleges – “I’m not from one or the other”, he added “I want everyone to be successful”. John see’s his role in 3 parts,

  1. considering the future (the big picture),
  2. going into bat for his team (having their talents noticed) and
  3. creating a climate for success (for all stakeholders).


John is one of the many people who have been making Doncaster the best place to do business. And it’s from this story and the stories of others that ‘Team Doncaster’ hope to create a robust, prosperous Economic Strategy for our City.

Do you have a story or know of a Doncaster Leader with a story to share for #DNBusinessTalks? Get in touch here.