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Katherine Fairclough: Sparsity tests your leadership

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Having a clear vision, a motivated leadership team, an engaged workforce and a good old-fashioned hard work ethic will get you a long way with meeting challenges. Combine this with the right culture and I think you’re on to a winning formula for success when it comes to good, if not great leadership.

Being the chief executive of Cumbria CC is the best job I have had so far, and I am very proud to be part of the team driving change here. It’s also the most challenging role I’ve had to date. When I joined two years ago I was lucky there was a good foundation for me to build upon, but there was also a long way to go. And there still is.

Every day brings a new challenge but one thing Cumbria has in abundance is great people. The county has a vast range of third sector organisations, and diverse, varied and strong communities. The commitment to excellence from the staff to the politicians is second to none.

And that’s just as well because the challenges we face due to the size and our predominantly rural nature are immense. Cumbria’s beauty hides some issues such as deprivation, obesity, its size and complex governance arrangements including the county council, six districts, two national parks and two health systems. There are a wide range of long-term ‘legacy’ issues to overcome.

It can take two hours to travel from one end of Cumbria to the other. Our workforce is 6,000 strong and located in multiple locations often many miles apart, despite a very successful initiative that saw the total overhaul of our offices and working styles. It costs us significantly more to provide services due to our rurality and our ‘sparsely’ located population. Picture our care workers travelling from one home to another with a journey time that can take say 45 minutes – one way. Cumbria is the second most sparsely populated county after Northumberland. Our population density is 0.7 persons per hectare, compared to the England average of 4.3. And one of our districts, Eden, is officially England’s most sparsely populated with only 0.2 persons per hectare.

The rural nature of our county also means that it’s hard for our staff to interact with their leaders or managers on a regular basis because of the distances involved. This means we have had to embrace new technology such as skype for face-to-face contact and robust, flexible IT systems that can be accessed anytime, anywhere.

All of this mean that your leadership skills can be tested to the max. But it also offers a real opportunity to shine and make a difference.

So what do I think is key to successful leadership in a place like Cumbria? Well what I can tell you is that there is no secret recipe, but there are some guiding principles that I like to follow.

Since starting in Cumbria I have focused on a number of key areas. These included changing the organisation’s culture. I wanted to ensure that our employees are engaged and understand what is needed. I wanted to provide focus to the right organisational priorities and build strong relationships across all aspects of the job, from partners to politicians and MPs.

I was also very clear about my personal expectations. This was and remains very important to me as a leader. The expectations I laid out at the start of the journey, are in fact still the same now. Again, I feel it is very important to remind and be clear and consistent.

These were, and are: to provide leadership at all levels, be intelligence-led, focus on the right things, respond to change well, be accountable for performance that we would all strive for and ‘personal job satisfaction’.

Two years in and I feel that there is definite change, and this perception is not only my own.

Cumbria is enjoying some real success and progress has been made on some of the trickiest of agendas. We have attracted £345m to the Borderlands Deal as a result of strong collaboration and partnership working. We have rolled out our successful health and care board, a model which is now being looked at by other authorities. Our children’s services have continued to improve, as has our culture. Our relationship with partners is strong and challenging. Professional standards are high, we have received several successful inspections and we have undertaken our first ever Local Government Association peer review.

So, what have I learnt from these challenges about providing leadership in a rural county?

Firstly, be Brave. Paint a picture. Use storytelling to describe what the future will look like and the journey of how to get there. Focus on performance, delivery, impact. Take a strength-based approach. Ensure you have shared values, confidence and trust. Nurture leadership at all levels. Really listen. Be guided by your customers and your staff – put them at the heart of what you do. Help others grow. Invest in relationships. Build confidence.

And finally find great people who make things happen. People you can share ideas with, share problems with, people who can help you find new ways of doing things and importantly people who can support you.

Katherine Fairclough, chief executive, Cumbria CC

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