Read and listen to the portraits of these leaders: Steve Russell · Carol Matthews · Stacey Burlet · Betsy Bassis · Susan Lea · Wayne Bowcock

Helen Bailey is CEO of the London Borough of Sutton, a local authority in South West London that is home to almost 200,000 residents. Helen best described her role as “making the place work”. The National Leadership Centre spoke to Helen in September 2020, and this interview reflects her experience at that moment.

What has been the biggest change to your role since the start of the pandemic?

The pandemic has been huge. So much of our energy was about making our response to the pandemic work for local people. 

At times, the thing we’ve underestimated has been the degree of anxiety in the community and the way that plays into people’s responses to otherwise perfectly normal things.

Communities don’t know how to think about their present and future. When you change something – whether it’s something simple like a road layout – people don’t know whether to judge it against the world they used to live in, the world they expect to live in, the world they’re juggling now. I think that really is tough for people. 

Overall, the problem with COVID is there hasn’t been a point at which something happened, and then it is over. 

What have those changes meant for your organisation on a day-to-day level? Has there been quite a shift away from business as usual?

We’ve made a priority out of two things: firstly, working across the organisation and thinking about the whole borough and secondly, communication. 

As an organisation, it has been really good to get people to think organisation-wide. Local government employs professionals of a variety of different sorts: traffic planners, engineers, social workers, accountants, lawyers. If you don’t keep bringing them together, they tend to focus on their own professional background, rather than what the council is trying to achieve overall. It has been a fantastic opportunity to get everybody to really think about a common goal. 

How have you worked with your partners?

Our relationships with the voluntary sector were already good here in Sutton and very positive, which was fantastic. It has reinforced them rather than fractured them. 

Across London there has been a structure of collaboration. We’ve always had strong relationships locally with police and with the health service. The health service was changing its structure before we went into COVID-19, and it has run its response to COVID-19 on a very command and control basis – which makes some of the relationships a little more challenging – but nonetheless they have worked well. All of that is important and good. 

When it comes to central government collaboration, we could do more to create good, strong protected spaces within which public officials talk to each other about work that is in preparation.

There’s a lot of consultation, and there’s frankly no point consulting us on something you have already decided to do. We don’t yet know how to have protected conversations which are about co-creating things when work is in progress. 

How you share things and keep them in a private space between the two organisations is logistically quite difficult. I understand the difficulties and different incentives, but this is a problem we must address.

What 3 words would you use to sum up your experience as a leader since the start of the pandemic?

Busy. Tone. Focus. 

It has been frenetic. Put it this way: I said to my partner last night “I’ll be home by about 9:30, so not late then.” 

If you are sitting at home you’re probably working longer hours than when you came into the office, because you don’t have the travelling to act as a natural break. 

I’ve had to focus a lot on the things that matter. The urgent sometimes outweighs the important. It really matters to me that we get the tone of the communications with our community and staff right. So we are not shouting “don’t panic!” at people but are calmly and credibly saying “things are changing, and this is why.” 

How has it felt being a leader during this period?

Not losing sight of the day job is the challenging bit. Most leaders probably enjoy a bit of a crisis because you can take control and get things done. 

But actually there is stuff we have to be doing for our community and there is stuff we have to be doing for our organisation that is very easy to lose sight of when you have a legitimate excuse to spend eight or nine hours a day driving the crisis as opposed to driving the ship as usual. 

It’s very easy to be consumed by the day to day minutiae of what is going on – some of which you cannot control at all. It’s easy to get in the mindset of a commentator rather than of a leader. So as a leader you are asking yourself: “what’s happening, how am I thinking about this and what does that mean for me and what does it mean for my organisation” rather than “is this the right thing to do, is this interesting”? 

Being focused on: what do we need to be doing? What do we need to be anticipating? What should my capacity be? Those are the questions I need to be asking myself. 

What has lifted your spirits?

There are some days when you crawl away from work thinking “good lord” but others when you think “we did something good today”. On the whole, this organisation has responded superbly. I am immensely proud of it. 

My spirits lift when I go out and see delivery on the ground. We were distributing food to vulnerable people in our community, sending out hundreds of thousands of food parcels once a week. I went to see a leisure centre which had been transformed. There were sinks all round the sports hall, stations where people were making up food parcels for families of different sizes, for people with different kinds of cultural and dietary needs, putting food into boxes designed for people who had no teeth and couldn’t chew. There had been real thinking about what types of food stuffs you could send out to those really challenged. They needed a food parcel from us that was very specific. 

It was amazing. It had taken a while to get there, and lots of people had done lots of work. It was a collaboration between the council and the voluntary sector. Just amazing. 

What have you learned about yourself as a leader during this period?

I have been reminded of the team around me and how other people’s resilience is important. We have learned a lot about managing our own resilience. In June/July 2020 we were all feeling very tired, so we’ve all taken some holiday. We are all human. 

Mainly I have learned that you just have to keep going. As far as COVID-19 is concerned, there is no point in me trying to strategise too far ahead because things change quickly. There is a bit of me still focused on the three year plan and the five year strategy and another bit of me that says we can’t even think that far ahead because we simply don’t know what kind of scenario we will be in. You have to be able to hold those two things in your head at the same time.

Read and listen to the portraits of these leaders: Steve Russell · Carol Matthews · Stacey Burlet · Betsy Bassis · Susan Lea · Wayne Bowcock

Read the full Public Leaders Report: Supporting the NHS in its hour of need · Collaborating places · Extraordinary resilience and service · What do we know about public sector leaders · Looking ahead to 2022