Delivering despite difficult odds

By Karen Bradford | 07 July 2020

When I applied for the role of chief executive at South Kesteven DC in November last year, I was excited about the potential the district offered and the chance to play a pivotal role in realising that potential.

I knew it would be challenging, I had two years’ experience as a local authority chief executive under my belt and, after more than 30 years working in the sector, I am under no illusion about how gritty and demanding the work can be.

During the first 100 days as a chief executive you are working under a spotlight. Every meeting, speech, and action is forensically examined by council members, staff, stakeholders, and your peers across the sector. People are watching and will make up their minds about you as a leader and judge you on what you deliver. It is your chance to make your mark, set expectations and understand the culture; the pressure is on.

However, nothing could have prepared me for what was to come as I took up my new post on 2 March, just 21 days before the country went into lockdown and the world changed overnight.

There was precious little time to establish those key working relationships, to get to know the people who would depend on me, and those I would need to depend on as the coronavirus spread. The platform was already on fire and, to put it mildly, it was daunting.

One of the first things I did was organise our response; establish an incident room staffed by two core emergency planning teams, with clear roles and responsibilities.

Initially, I chaired the daily meetings with the council’s leader, Cllr Kelham Cooke. Then I trusted those teams, and the leaders I had put in place, to chair the daily briefings and manage the day-to-day running of those teams.

Together with Cllr Cooke, we set out our three priorities of protecting the health of our staff and our residents, maintaining our critical services and supporting our local businesses. That golden thread has run through everything that we have done during lockdown and remains our cornerstone in terms of policy, operation, and communication. I am proud to say that we continue to deliver, despite the difficult odds.

As a chief executive, you have to embrace challenge, and a crisis can bring out the best in people, as COVID-19 has shown. When I arrived, Cllr Cooke had been leader for just eight months. He knew that strong, visible leadership was crucial, and he has more than stepped up to that plate. He has done South Kesteven proud on every possible level.

It hasn’t been easy to establish relationships with councillors and staff through the prism of Microsoft Teams and Skype for Business, but I hope they would agree that we have really succeeded.

The support and warm welcome I have had from staff and councillors means a great deal. It has enabled me to do my job, and that new corporate plan I promised in my interview is still on schedule, along with an amended budget to take account of the financial impact we are all facing as a result of COVID-19.

The importance of community and teamwork has really come to the fore during the pandemic, and the spotlight has shone brightly on the work of councils at every level.

Through it all, we have to continue to understand the very personal challenges everyone is facing outside of work as well as within. We set up the SK Community Hub and Befriending Service to work alongside our colleagues from the Lincolnshire Resilience Forum to protect our communities’ most vulnerable. But looking after our staff it is important too.

Since lockdown, Cllr Cooke and I have kept our doors figuratively open. We have updated staff daily and members twice weekly on what is happening, and reminded them of the support available.

The key to being a successful leader is having the right team around you. You can’t do it all, and you can’t do it alone. It may not have been the start I would have hoped for, but the team has risen to the challenge and together, we have learned a lot. This will be invaluable as we enter the next phase of this pandemic and fight off this virus, without losing focus on the future. Local leadership has never been under such scrutiny, nor so vital.

Karen Bradford is chief executive of South Kesteven DC

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