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I first joined local government in a more generalist managerial role. I was both a business and project manager at Surrey County Council, then went on to become the director of central services at Liverpool Housing Trust. But I’d always felt that the success of any organisation was based on its ability to motivate, engage and direct its staff effectively around its core objectives. So I decided to focus more on people management and get my CIPD qualification. I became a business coaching consultant to a number of organisations, and that really gave me a perspective on different sectors and their successful approaches to workforce strategy.
My job as head of strategic HR at Lincolnshire County Council was instrumental. The council was in a period of flux, and experiencing some difficulties in the relationships between members of the council and its officers. Levels of trust were low and there wasn’t a sense of corporate purpose, so one of my immediate goals was to address that and assist in establishing a new management team with a new chief executive. It was a challenging baptism in HR, but that served me well later on in my career.
I took a slightly different direction accepting a job as strategic director at a district council. It was an interesting experience but I missed the challenges of HR in a large organisation. When I joined Barking and Dagenham, it had a sound reputation for HR, but was looking for someone to take the function a step further in terms of its effectiveness and ability to contribute to the overall strategy of the council. Like other public bodies, we are trying to deal with the public-sector spending squeeze in a way that protects services and treats employees fairly. We have a programme called “Supporting staff through tough times”, which recognises the financial stresses faced not only by people who may be leaving, but also by those who remain.
It’s key to get the balance right between empowering staff and being in touch with what’s going on. It’s important to demonstrate trust in those who work for you and to give them space to achieve and perform at their best. You should always be willing to attempt things – the best advice I’ve been given is to learn from mistakes and not let them undermine my confidence. I’m quite a relaxed person, but also determined that any projects I undertake succeed.
I take over as president of the Public Sector People Managers’ Association at the end of April, and I’m a huge believer in our need to collaborate more as public-sector organisations. We need to position HR as a key partner in helping to shape future strategy, and highlight the options available to deliver services through different operating models. Barking and Dagenham is jointly procuring a new enterprise resource planning system with five other London councils, which is quite an innovative approach to cost reduction. We have also recently transferred the transactional parts of HR to Elevate – a joint venture partnership between our local authority and Agilisys. The aim is to deliver efficiencies, but we hope it will be a platform to create more employment opportunities in the borough.
We are at a crossroads in terms of the HR function in the public sector. Its role has certainly gained greater prominence through this period of financial restraint, and become more central to managing change. I don’t like to use the term “support function” as a descriptor for HR because it sounds responsive, and I believe we have a more dynamic role to play. The climate is such that we are crying out for a rethink about what will sustain our staff in the future, and maintain their motivation and commitment to the communities that we serve.
Education: Henley Management College (MBA); Thames Polytechnic (degree in history and masters in historiography)
Previous roles: Strategic director, Boston Borough Council (2007-10); head of HR, Essex County Council (2006-07); head of strategic HR, Lincolnshire County Council (2004-06); business coaching consultant (2002-04); director of central services, Liverpool Housing Trust (1999-2002); various business and project management roles, Surrey County Council (1990-98); executive officer, Department of Health (1987-1990)
Hobbies: Travel, photography, golf, Charlton Athletic