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

Stacey Burlet is the Chief Executive Officer of Ryedale District Council – where she is the lead officer for providing the local government services for over 50,000 residents – and Assistant Chief Executive of North Yorkshire County Council. The National Leadership Centre spoke to Stacey in January 2021, and this interview reflects her experience at that moment.

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

There have been two main things. Firstly, my role has been much more about partnerships recently, ensuring that the council is working across boundaries to protect lives and protect livelihoods. I wouldn’t say that organisational boundaries are in the same place as before the pandemic.

It has been all hands to the pump with respect to ensuring that we manage the crisis.

Secondly, the enormity of COVID means that trying to maintain people’s morale, motivation, and focus on doing the absolute best job that they can has been tough. Particularly when people are committed but they’re scared. 

And at times people are scared. A lot of people have experienced bereavement. A lot of people have experienced real difficulties at home because of their personal lives – it could be a partner who lost their job or those sorts of things. That’s been the key thing to keep in mind.

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?

Yes, we’ve taken on a lot of new functions. We’ve had to focus on distributing money from central government into the hands of businesses, supporting jobs and families. And I’ve been really proud when we’ve been able to do things for food banks and make sure their supplies have stayed at a level they need. 

Other sorts of achievements like mass vaccinations are beginning to take place. Right now [in January] it is just people aged over 80. When it snowed there were questions like who takes responsibility for stopping people slipping? Council people accompanied 80 year olds to the centres and put down grit to make sure they made their appointments.

So it’s been those touch points with people which have been about alleviating loneliness, alleviating poverty, alleviating hunger.

That’s been done by teams within my immediate control, but it’s also been done through partnership activities with voluntary community centres, different councils working together, the police and everything else. It’s that sort of thing which has made my heart sing.

I don’t think that a lot of people still have that privilege when they’re a chief executive. And my privilege is that I can see the difference it makes to people at times.

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

I have found that I spend a lot more time in reflective mode than I previously did. Consciously at the end of the day thinking about what’s gone well, what hasn’t gone well, who am I seeing tomorrow, what organisation do they work for, what do I need out of this situation, what will they be looking for, how am I going to approach it as well.

It’s very satisfying going through that process. And when you get a win, that’s very satisfying as well. Which is very important when you’re in a situation – like right now – where you can’t control it. So actually being able to mark those daily achievements, and that being a part of a longer journey of really saving people’s lives or saving people’s jobs, is immensely rewarding.

How has it felt being a leader during this period?

There was a period of time in this where I didn’t think I’d done or was doing such a good job, and that was because I had not taken any down time. I hadn’t taken all my leave from the previous year, and then I wasn’t taking any leave.

I was really afraid to take some leave, because I didn’t want to let people down that I worked for. I didn’t want to let my staff team down as well. But that’s just not sustainable over a period of time.

And I think I pushed myself past the point where I was being as effective as I could be. 

There are some days where it doesn’t go well, but I think that happens anyway as a leader. You have those days where you just think “that couldn’t have gone worse, how am I going to make sure that does not happen again?” But overall, I’m really proud of myself and what’s been achieved.

What are you most optimistic about?

What are my expectations for 2021? That at some point, we will be in a place as a society where we will be able to operate again. We will be able to go out. We will be able to socialise with one another. And actually, we will take the best of our experience over the last period of time and inject our old ways with a degree of creativity. 

Because I think some of the creativity that has taken place over the last year has been amazing. I don’t think we will ever work the way that we used to work. I think our expectations of our friends and our family and different organisations and how we approach it will be much bolder and more confident. 

And I really hope that we can build on that in a non-crisis situation and keep that focus on how do we create a better society, a better approach to public services, a better approach to life? And we can take some of this learning and apply it to other things, whether that be the carbon neutral agenda, or whatever it is. There is an opportunity to use this in a different way.

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

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