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My path to CEO

Posted on 18/05/2016 by

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An Interview with Caroline Davey, CEO at Bliss TPP 

TPP introduced Caroline Davey to her role as CEO of Bliss, a UK charity working to provide the best possible care and support for all premature and sick babies and their families.

Rob Hayter, TPP Director, caught up with her to find out how she made the journey to CEO and to learn her top tips for others looking to do the same.

Caroline joined Bliss as Chief Executive in November 2014; she also now sits on the Executive Committee of the British Association of Perinatal Medicine, and is a member of the Independent Advisory Group for the Maternal, Newborn and Infant Clinical Outcome Review Programme. Before joining Bliss Caroline was the Director of Policy, Advice and Communications at Gingerbread, the single parent charity, where she led on policy and campaigning work as well as overseeing the delivery of multi-channel information and advice services. Caroline was previously Deputy Director of Communications, Policy and Campaigns at housing charity Shelter. Caroline is also a trustee of Crisis, the national charity for single homeless people.


How would you summarise the challenges of stepping up to CEO?

It depends partly on what exposure you’ve had in previous roles to SMT (Senior Management Team) and the board, and I found I had had really excellent exposure at Gingerbread after being on the SMT for four years; it was an SMT that covered all aspects of the business and the organisation. I was fully engaged in that and it enabled me to think organisationally and contribute to different areas of work, which has stood me in really good stead.

I was already a trustee at Crisis too, and that was brilliantly useful in terms of understanding how boards work, what trustees are looking for, the kind of split between executive and board, and the broader governance responsibilities you take on as a chief executive.

The biggest difference was being that person who was ultimately responsible, as well as the subtle differences in how people treat you. It takes some getting used to that, even though you’re the same person you were when you left your previous role, once you become the chief executive people will interact and communicate with you differently, as they react to the role, not the person. It takes time to develop those relationships so that they react to me as Caroline, not just as a chief executive.

That also highlighted for me that there’s a transition in the way you have to act once you’re a leader and ultimately responsible for the organisation.


How has being a Trustee helped that transition?

I think probably in two ways: firstly in seeing boards in action and understanding the level of discussions they have and the type of issues that come up, and secondly, having that understanding that as a Trustee you tend to only have brief periods where you’re involved with the organisation and you don’t necessarily know what they are doing on a day to day basis.

As Chief Executive it’s important to acknowledge that Trustees have the commitment and engagement but much less knowledge than you. You need to find a way to bring out the best in what they can contribute, while remembering that they haven’t been there every day for the last six weeks since the last board meeting.

So being a Trustee has really helped to inform how I communicate with my trustees; I communicate with them between meetings rather than just seeing the set piece meetings as the big moment of interaction. I introduced monthly email round ups for trustees just to let them know a bit about what was going on, so they can come to a meeting knowing more than just what they have read in the papers, and I think that’s really helped. I’ve also brought trustees in individually to do Q & A sessions with staff, so that they each get to know each other a bit better – this has worked really well to break down some of the ‘mystery’ amongst staff about who the trustees are and what the board does; as well as enabling trustees to get more of an insight into our work on the ground from the members of staff who deliver it, not just from the senior team.


What initially attracted you to the role? And how did you feel that your background met the requirements?

I think the role for me was a great fit as I had come across lots of issues that touched on Bliss’ cause throughout my career: parenthood, single parenthood, sexual health and childcare. Premature birth was an issue that I knew was important, powerful and compelling but not one I had previously worked in, so that was attractive.

The size of the organisation was also attractive for me as a first chief executive position; big enough to be a challenge but not so big to be unmanageable.

As I went through the process and learned more about where the organisation was at and what they were looking for, I found that my combination of experience across service delivery and policy, communications and campaigning was a good fit.

I think at every step of the way I was more drawn to it. Meeting the trustees for the first interview, I really liked them and highly rated their combination of skills, passion and approach. Going into the office was a really critical moment for me too; doing a presentation and a Q&A session with staff was the final part of the interview process and allowed me to really get a sense of the vibe in the wider staff team. They asked good questions and I got good energy back from them; ultimately I thought there was a lot going for the organisation, but also thought I could add real value.


Did you use any formal career support? Have you had a mentor or life coach and how did you source that?

I got a coach soon after I started at Bliss, which was a recommendation from one of the other CEOs I spoke to who had started about 6 months before I did.

We probably only had three or four sessions in the space of a year but I have found that really useful to have someone completely external to talk to and get a sense of perspective from.


Is there any advice you’d give to those wishing to start moving up to CEO?

I’d say become a Trustee; it gives you great experience and the opportunity to make sure you’re exposed to other aspects of an organisation’s work. Organisations are falling over themselves to recruit young, aspiring Trustees so it’s a win/win from that perspective too. I’d also suggest people take every opportunity available in their day job, particularly in terms of exposure to different departments and functions outside your own - the earlier you can be exposed to and engaged in those other areas and learn from your colleagues the better.


How did TPP help you secure this role?

I only have good things to say about TPP. What helped most was getting good honest feedback all the way through the process. It felt like a relationship where you were equally engaged with both parties. Bliss was your client but I wasn’t just treated as a candidate; you had my interests at heart as well.

There was good communication all the way through and even after I started, which really made all the difference. 

TPP are specialist recruitment consultants for the charity sector. If you’re trying to work out the best career route for you, contact us for an informal chat at or 020 7198 6060.​