Dynamics Matters Podcast Ep 69: How to be a great leader by doing one thing differently

With special guest Susie Kemp, Chief Executive, Swindon Council

✔ What does it take to become a leader?

✔ How to manage a large team

✔ What questions a good leader asks of themselves

Transcript

Welcome to episode 69 of the HSO Dynamics matters podcast.

Your regular sonic dive into the world of Microsoft technology related matters and much more besides.

I’m your host Michael Lonnon, and in this episode, I met up with the fabulous Susie Kemp, Chief Executive of Swindon Council.

A thoroughly interesting lady who’s backstory of how she has reached the dizzy heights of Chief Executive will prove inspiring for anyone wondering how they too can scale the ladders at their organisation.

So, grab a brew, sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.

Michael Lonnon

Process over people or people over process

Susie Kemp

People every time.

Michael Lonnon

I’m glad you said that. Susie, thanks for joining me you’ve been in local government for 24- 25 years, something along those lines, and you’ve been working as the Chief Executive at Swindon Council for the last four and a bit years, so how generally have things changed in the time you’ve been chief executive of Swindon? How were things when you started to how they are now in terms of local government?

Susie Kemp

Well, firstly I would like to say, Michael, an absolute pleasure to be talking to you this afternoon so thank you for asking me. I was a local member, I was an elected councillor for 10 years so more of my career now as an officer, but that’s how I started out as a counsellor. How things have changed, I think it has got tougher in local government because of their financial situation and it is hard in local government at the moment, because there is a huge amount of call on our services, lots of demand, and an ever-shrinking pot of money to deal with that demand. I am a firm believer that in the public sector, so with all the different agencies, health, police, for example, and local government, there is enough money, I just think we have to get an awful lot better at working together in partnership and making that huge pot of money go further for our residents that we all collectively serve. So, I’m quite energised by the agenda because I love doing change. I love making things more active, more improved. I love working with people I love seeing people when something has come together and has got better outcomes as a consequence. I love supporting people, because that is quite a hard gig to do, so that’s why I’m here and that’s why I think it’s an interesting and albeit challenging situation at the moment, but very much driven by the finances.

Michael Lonnon

I’ve got to ask you how you got to where you are today, but something I want to pick on first is you’re clearly very energised, and I love speaking with you, but how do you cascade that energy down to the people delivering the services that you mentioned there?

Susie Kemp

Carefully. I am hugely aware that I have got energy, I’m blessed with that, but I do know that can be daunting for some people. So, with some folk, calmness, it’s listening, one of the best bits of advice I was ever given was when I ran my business at the tender age of 25 and somebody said to me, Susie, you have one mouth, and you have two ears, use them in that proportion. That was a really sound piece of advice for me and my job as chief executive here is to make sure that people have got hope, that they’ve got support, that they’ve got guidance in the sense, we all need guidance, I need guidance and I take that from my colleagues here, but I feel really very strongly that everybody is as important as each other. And one of the things I find very difficult is hierarchy. There has to be a hierarchy, there has to be a structure and inevitably there are folks, like me, who have a huge amount of responsibility compared to other folks, that’s just the way of the world. But that makes me no less or more important than anybody else and it makes them no less or more important than anyone else. I think we forget that sometimes and I think we do so at our peril. So one of the things I love doing is chatting to staff, and what I love doing is walking around the campus here and particularly now because people are are beginning to come back into the office which I’m pleased with because I’m a people person I need people around me. So being sat in here all by myself during the summer has been quite hard but just walking around the estate, talking to people, finding out how they are, how they’re finding the new way of working, because that’s all changed. I met a fabulous lady yesterday who has worked for us for two years, I’ve never met them face to face and she is in our business improvement team. So, she does all the process reengineering, and she was on a complete high yesterday, she’d met colleagues that she’d worked brilliantly with on Microsoft Teams over the last two years and she was meeting them for the first time in the flesh.

Michael Lonnon

It’s almost like starting a new job isn’t it – you see people you haven’t seen for ages and until you physically meet someone it is like starting again.

Susie Kemp

It is and then occasionally I have to give direction and leadership that is directional leadership, because again, that’s the way of the way of the world with chief executives. That’s what you need to be doing.

Michael Lonnon

First things first to say there how a better way to get information about what’s happening on the front line in terms of service delivery, and the people that sit underneath you without getting to see them speaking to them face to face, that’s where you’re going to get the knowledge of what else you need to do in terms of your role to support them. Can I ask then, how did you end up as chief executive of Swindon Council?

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Susie Kemp

There are times when I wonder that myself! I had an interesting teenage life, it wasn’t brilliant but the one thing I have is I’ve always been very driven, and I did a couple of A levels that were okay, but I wanted to go to London and I reckoned the way to get to London was to do a secretarial course, so I trotted off to the local college and did my private secretarial certificate, London Chamber of Commerce. I did indeed then go get my job in London, working as a Junior Secretary in a big finance house. Then I went to work in Reading for a very dynamic property developer and just as I started working for him, he launched a campaign to save Reading football club from the clutches of Robert Maxwell, who owned Oxford, that is a story for another day, but by the age of 25, I had been inspired by Roger Smith, and I set up my own business in recruitment. Did that for seven glorious years, sold the business and by then I had two little people. I did a couple of years with great western trains here in Swindon, funnily enough, because my little people were at nursery, and I didn’t want to be a stay-at-home mum. Then when they got to school, I didn’t need to be at home, because in those days, you couldn’t get the afterschool care you get now. And somebody banged on my door and asked: ‘fancy standing for local government’ and I thought, yeah, all right. I’d already had a hankering to, actually if you’d asked if you’d bet me when I was 20, I’d have told you I was going to be the next female prime minister and somebody I got to know quite well was Theresa May, and she did become the next female prime minister. So well done, Teresa. I found the world of local government and I was blessed because I was right place right time with a bit of brawn about me and I did a whole load of fabulous things, again, for another conversation. Did that for 10 years and then I decided in 2006, I wanted to be officer because I really thought that’s where I could add value and I became officer Kemp, as my old counsellor friends call me in, March 2006, and the rest is history. I did four years in Hillingdon, nearly six years in Surrey, then I’ve done just over five and a half years here in Swindon, four of which I’ve been chief.

Michael Lonnon

The right place right time, I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that come up in people who have gone into the roles they end up loving and growing into it. Do you think you made the right call?

Susie Kemp

It’s really interesting, because I think you make your own luck in this world, and I think occasionally luck finds you. What you have to do is when luck finds you, you have to grasp it with both hands, but if you’re not good at what you do, or you’re not interested in what you do that luck will soon dry out, I’m very clear about that. Would I have made those choices again, I don’t know. I mean, my daughter she’s 32 now and she’s leaving for Los Angeles working and I’m thinking gosh, if I had my time again, would I have looked to have gone and worked in an amazing job in Los Angeles, for example. Like, I don’t know, you can’t turn the clock back, but what I do know is I can die happy, because I know I have affected an awful lot of good in an awful lot of things I’ve done and that’s okay by me.

Michael Lonnon

Fantastic. So, I think I know what the answer is going to be based on what you just said there, but for anybody else who’s aspiring to become a leader, it doesn’t have to be in local government, it could be in any organisation, for somebody who’s got in mind and the drive to push themselves further, what advice would you give to those individuals?

Susie Kemp

Be really clear why you want to do it. I get an awful lot of people who say to me, I want to be chief executive and I say, why do you want to be a chief executive and they can’t answer me, and I think be really clear. Is it the status, is it the swanky office that I’m lucky enough to have here, is it because you think you can sit and tell people what to do or is it because you can inspire support guide and all the rest of it. Sometimes when they’ve gone away and reflected, that’s not what they want to do. They want to do something else, which is just as important, but that’s what I would say and understand the difference between leadership and management, because they are two compatible skill sets, but completely different.

Michael Lonnon

Do you think your management style, your leadership style, has changed at all? Do you operate to some sort of modus operandi for example?

Susie Kemp

Goodness, yes, I mean, I’m a lot more chilled than I was 20 years ago and I think age, and I’m going to say out loud, I’m 62 now, age is something. With it comes experience. You learn what works and what doesn’t. I’m happy to take feedback, I don’t always enjoy it, but I’m very happy to take it. I think at our dizzy heights, you have to be able to take it, because very often if people are giving you feedback, you need to hear it. Great leaders sometimes hear it and sometimes don’t, and I think you’re a happier leader if you’ve listened to feedback and you can nuance yourself and you’ll never change fundamentally yourself, but you can certainly morph into something that’s perhaps more acceptable to others.

Summary

I hope you took as much from this episode as I did.

Susie offered lots of great advice but there’s a couple of bits that stuck with me.

The first is to listen. Or as Susie was advised, you have one mouth and two ears, so use them in that proportion. Listen to your team and listen to your customers and absorb and act on the feedback. This is easier when face to face with people, so be visible.

The second is to really understand what it is you want to do. What change it is you want to effect. Don’t desire to reach the dizzy heights of a role just because you feel it’s the right thing to do. Ask yourself whether there’s something else you want to do, and can do, that’s just as important, but better for you, and better for your organisation.

Thanks for listening, until next time, take care of yourselves.

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