Jane Todd is chief executive of Nottingham County Council, a post she has held since 2008. She is responsible for over 13,000 staff and a budget of millions. Nottingham was recently mentioned in Alastair Campbell’s blog for its unusual number of women in top positions, including the Sheriff of Nottingham! Of course I had to talk to her and find out the secret of her success!
Jane: Jane, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us; I really appreciate it, knowing just how busy your job is.
First question just has to be, how does Nottingham do it? You must be fairly unique to have such a significant number of women in such high profile senior posts.
Jane T: Nottingham has a long history of women working (through lace trade, rag trade) so the working woman has always been the norm here. Since the 1980’s there has been support for women wanting to contribute to public life and move to senior positions including active and supportive women leaders groups across the sectors. This has borne fruit.
Nottingham City Council is clear that its main purpose is Leading Nottingham and this is only possible by working in partnership across the agencies and sectors in an inclusive and supportive way. We talk about leadership, we train in leadership and taking responsibility. For example, we have just completed an ambitious training programme for all colleagues on Safeguarding Awareness – 40 volunteers from across the authority were trained to deliver 8,000 days of training, so we can all be aware of and understand our responsibilities for protecting vulnerable people when we are out and about. No other local authority has achieved this.
How does Nottingham Council do its bit for gender equality? Do you have a higher than average number of women in middle management positions throughout the organisation?
In December 2010 55.74% of the top 5% of earners were women, against a target of 49%.
When you were at school what did you think you’d ‘grow up’ to become? Were you head girl, for example?
I knew what I didn’t want to be! At that time the main three careers we were offered were teaching, nursing or domestic science. I was always very socially aware and my ambition grew from there. I wasn’t really the ‘Head Girl’ type – a bit too outspoken for that, but always picked for any public speaking or debating.
Did you plan your career? Have you had any significant career breaks?
No, I didn’t – I am a confident person,, have a thick skin, loved a challenge and always looking for the next opportunity. I’ve never had a career break as such, but worked in adult education in universities whilst my three children were young; I do remember marking essays whilst breast feeding my youngest child at 10 days old. Being the eldest girl with six siblings, there have always been children to care for, so balancing work and child care seemed natural to me.
Do you remember what your very first job was and how much you were paid? Did you learn anything then that has stood you in good stead today?
I had a Saturday job in a general store, but my first ‘proper’ job was a Community Development Worker in a deprived community. At university I read social policy and working on the front line has been a very strong foundation for me.
How do you manage your work home balance? You’ve mentioned before that you have fostered children; how does that sit alongside such a demanding job?
I am a vicar’s daughter and my home life was always mixed with parish life (people were always knocking on the door) and I learnt to deal with this from very early, so I’ve never had a strict division, and am comfortable with being contactable 24 hours a day. When our children were small, we were foster and adoptive parents and thoroughly enjoyed having additional children in the family, but again, this was familiar territory. What I did was to add a busy career to the mix.
I do remember when being Assistant Chief Executive having my three children, a foster daughter with her small baby, and having to be very organised- but it was great fun! Dealing with troubled teenagers gave me skills and insights into human behaviour which are transferable in life.
Now my children have left home, I no longer take in foster children.
What advice do you have for any woman juggling the demands of home and work?
Face the inevitable guilt and find a way of coming to terms with it, then find a strategy that works for you. For me, it was to rarely take work home with me as my home life was so busy.
What do you think is the biggest hurdle women face in attaining very senior positions?
The biggest hurdle is low expectations – both our own and others on us. This impacts on ambition and fear of not being popular.
What would your top three tips to them be?
My three top tips are:
• Look at Job Description and if got you’ve got 70% experience, have a go rather than focussing on what you can’t do – that’s what men do
• Make sure you have support structures in place – don’t let yourself be set up to fail
• Look and learn
What do you think about the idea of quotas for numbers of women on boards, as introduced in Norway? Do you think Britain would benefit from the introduction of quotas?
I think quotas and targets are a good idea – they make for action.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing women in public roles such as yours?
The range of the responsibility and the very publicness of it, it is so important not to take things personally – the range of responsibility is terrifying (and sometimes in the middle of the night, it does terrify me). My own way of dealing with this is a team approach – I know my weaknesses and make sure one of us has the skills required.
Who has had the most influence on you, and on your career?
Parents, children friends and a couple of inspirational bosses who really encouraged me.
What’s your favourite way to relax and unwind?
Peace and quiet and a good read, but I’ve never lost of love of playing with young children – I now have a grandson who is happy to play with me. Plus,I have been practising yoga for 30 years.
If you could choose an alternative career outside local government (anything at all), what would you do?
Jane, many thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience with us. Thank you very much.
And if you’d like to find out about careers in Nottingham, here s a link to their web site.