Theresa Grant OBE on four decades of leading by example

Manchester Metropolitan University MBA alumna Theresa Grant OBE won the AMBA MBA Leadership Award in 2022 for her sterling work in local government. Interview by Ellen Buchan

Can you tell me a little about yourself and your career so far? 

I started my career in Ireland, and I had completed almost 43 years in local government when I retired in March last year. That was a very interesting journey across two different countries, two different systems, and throughout that time, very many different experiences and opportunities.

Since retiring, I’ve moved into the semi-private sector working with Municipal Partners Limited. We work to provide high-quality housing for local authorities. I’m still pleased that I’m using my experience of the public sector to bring something to this role.

Congratulations on winning the AMBA MBA Leadership Award 2022. How did it feel to win and has it made any impact on your career so far? 

I was very humbled to be chosen. I have to be honest, when I saw my competitors for the actual award, I thought didn’t think I’d win – they looked amazing in terms of what they had achieved, and some of them were reasonably young still to have achieved so much. To be chosen from such a high calibre group of people really made me feel humble.

I was absolutely delighted to be put forward by Manchester Metropolitan University. To win was such a privilege; it really showed me the quality of learning I had received during my MBA, and the benefit that it has brought me over the years.

You were recently awarded an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) in recognition of your outstanding leadership, innovation, determination and commitment to Northamptonshire, and service to Local Government in the UK. Could you tell me more about this? 

The OBE was awarded for two things. One was my turning around of Northamptonshire County Council, and my overall service to local government (for 42 years, at that point).  I felt it was an award that should have been given to a whole team and not an individual because obviously I didn’t turn Northamptonshire around on my own, and it was a tremendously strong team of people who worked very closely with me for three years.

I was employed by Northamptonshire in a role that was advertised as the most difficult job in local government. When I saw the advert, I thought I must do it – why would you not take this job?

It was a very challenging experience. The council was the first to declare bankruptcy in more than 50 years, and it didn’t just declare it once, it declared it twice. It was severely in debt, and, in my view, had previously been very badly managed. I was asked to turn it around and take it out of bankruptcy.

During the period that I was doing this, I was asked to lead on local government reform for the county, which involved abolishing all aid councils and creating two super councils for the area.

All of that had happened by end of March 2021; then Covid-19 arrived. As a County Council, we managed the Covid response for a population of 750,000 people. At this time, we were in the process of building a new children’s trust and also turning the council around from bankruptcy, as well as building two new super councils.

So that might give you some understanding of why I got an OBE in the end because we successfully turned the council around, we successfully created a children’s trust and our two new super councils went live on time.

Most importantly, I left them with a legacy of £105 million in a reserve. We went from minus £65 million, to a reserve of £105 million at the end of the three years. As I said it was very much a team effort.

Why did you choose to do your MBA at Manchester Metropolitan University Business School, Manchester Metropolitan University?

I chose Manchester Metropolitan University because, at the time, I worked for Manchester City Council, and several colleagues – who I respected and who were more senior than me – had successfully done an MBA there. They strongly advised me to follow in their footsteps, and that influenced me.

I didn’t just look at Manchester Metropolitan University, I explored other Business Schools as well. But I felt it was the most relevant MBA, not just for my skills but for my future career. I thought it would add most value and that’s why I chose Manchester Metropolitan University – because I wanted to learn strategy and I also wanted to be able to use what I learnt not just theoretically, but in practise once I had achieved my MBA.

What do you think are the most important traits of good leader?

People say that you don’t leave an organisation, you leave your manager or leader and I think that’s very true.

When I went to Northamptonshire, I was the fourth chief executive in eight months. I had a workforce of almost 5,000 people who were feeling very demoralised and not inclined to trust the person who’d come in to run the organisation when my three predecessors had left in very short order.

I had to gain people’s trust to be able to lead them; I had to make sure that I was honest and transparent with them. I told them that I was likely to make life more difficult and not easier, but that, if they stuck with me, I would see it through to the end.

I wasn’t going to leave them, and that was an important personal and professional commitment I made over those three years.

I think leading by example would be the first trait of a good leader, in my view. Asking people or telling people to do something is not as effective as them seeing you do it yourself. As I came up through local government, I’ve done every job that I’m asking everybody else to do, so I can relate to them and be seen to be fair.

Fairness is probably one of the things that’s most important to me, having come through a system where I have experienced unfairness; 43 years ago, as a woman joining an authority in Ireland, you couldn’t expect to ever get a promotion beyond a certain level,  you were almost told, don’t expect it. It’s not like that now, I’m pleased to say. So, unfairness is something I experienced a lot and therefore, when I got into a position where I could make a difference and make changes, fairness was at the forefront of every decision.

I think a good leader is always fair; sometimes firm, but always fair. That is another important trait.

I also think leaders need compassion and empathy, you cannot get people to work for you, and commit to you as an individual, if you don’t care about them. You must care about them, you must take an interest in them – a genuine interest, in them in their personal lives and care about them, not just a passing interest.

Those three traits are the three things that I’ve brought with me throughout my career, and they have served me very well.

What has been the most significant achievement of your career so far?

In a career that’s spans more than four decades it’s difficult to come up with the single answer for that one.

I was Villages General Manager for the Commonwealth Games in 2002 in Manchester and it was an amazing experience to be part of such a big machine, and such a big success. I delivered three villages in different locations, and they were deemed at the time to be the best villages that had been experienced by the athletes.

Looking back on my career, that was quite a major achievement and I got to meet royalty and prime ministers, and all sorts. That was a very big achievement.  But then I think about turning around Northamptonshire and creating two unitary councils. Us that my greatest achievement?  

I’m not sure either of them would be. I think about when we got our children services in my counsel at the time, to achieve the best Ofsted inspection in the country. That was such a fantastic and major achievement because of the impact it had on children’s lives.

I still remember when we were given the judgement by Ofsted, and my team which actually achieved that; we all had worked so hard, and we worked together to get that. It was very difficult to get that at the time. It wasn’t given out easily. What it meant to me was that we were doing a good job for children, the way we should be. We were so proud of that – and whenever I think about achievements, that’s one that really comes back to me every time.

I would have to put it in there as probably one of the greatest achievements as a collective team.

What advice would you give someone thinking about completing their MBA? 

I would encourage anyone, young and old, whether you’re full-time employed or not, to think about doing an MBA. I have several reasons for that.

For example, I didn’t have a first degree when I went in to do a masters. I had a lot of experience and other qualifications. I feel that having my MBA has made a difference in my career, it opened doors for me. It gave me opportunities I probably couldn’t have accessed without that.

I probably couldn’t have made the difference that I’ve made to so many lives as well, through the work that I’ve done in local government and also the experience I’ve gained in the private sectors.

So I’ve also been a non-executive director of one of the largest investment funds in Europe, and again that’s an experience that I don’t think I could have had or could have actually managed to achieve without having my MBA. I would encourage anyone thinking about their career to go and do it – whether they are younger or older. It doesn’t matter how much experience you have. I didn’t start my MBA till I was in my mid-thirties. You’re never too old to do it, and there was older people than me on my cohort.

If you are working full-time, it can be quite intense and quite hard work, but those three years are worth every minute of it.

If you had to change anything about your MBA experience, what would you change? 

I think I would have enjoyed it more, looking back. You never do when you’re in the moment, you are just focused on the achievement, and making sure that you can get over the line. So, I think I would have lived in the moment more and enjoyed it.

I don’t think I’d have changed anything about the academic learning. I would change how I approached it rather than how the MBA itself was set out. It was designed to give you a very broad understanding of business, which it did. I’ve used a lot of that understanding over the years and in different ways.

I think one of the greatest benefits is the networks and the people that you meet throughout that experience. Those networks are hugely valuable to you in your career, as you progress.

I’m still friends with many of the people who were in my cohort – 20 years on. You sometimes make your best friends through adversity, and it was a time when we all pulled together to make sure we’d all get over that line and we’d all achieve a high standard and a good outcome.

What do you think was the most important thing that you learnt from your MBA?

Probably that you don’t have to get 100% all the time and that’s not what’s important. I went into it thinking that if I didn’t achieve 100% in every single mark that I was failing in some way, which is not sustainable and certainly not realistic.

What was my most important learning? I think a broad understanding of everything is more valuable to you than a deep understanding of one thing, and that’s what the MBA allows you to have.

You can specialise, or you can have a special interest in a specific area even before an MBA, and you can bring that in with you, but actually getting that broad understanding of so many areas is important. You never think at the time how it will be of use to you, until in your career suddenly you realise its value. That’s something I’ve learnt on my MBA and actually now I know how to tap into it and how to utilise that.

So, be open-minded and embrace it all.

What is next for you on your career journey?

I don’t know. I passed the magic 60 at Christmas, so I should really be thinking about retiring and allowing the younger generation to come in.

I’m enjoying the work I do with Municipal Partners. As I said, I feel like I’m bringing something back to local government. I also do some advisory work for Enterprise Ireland – the export board for the Irish government – and they obviously are trying to improve exports into the UK following Brexit and so on – I really enjoy that as well.

What’s next? I will keep doing that. But one thing that keeps drawing me back is colleagues and local government who, I am pleased to say, still ring me regularly, asking for support and advice. I’d like to bring on the next generation of successful leaders in local government.

I hope I’ll inspire the next generation of successful leaders in local government as well. I think I would like to do more mentoring and support to make sure that local government gets a next tier of leadership that is worthy of the public’s trust and worthy of local government. 

Theresa Grant is an MBA alumna of Manchester Metropolitan University Business School, Manchester Metropolitan University (UK)

She has been awarded an OBE in recognition of her outstanding leadership, innovation, determination, and commitment to Northamptonshire in the UK.

Theresa has dedicated 42 years of service to local government, most recently in her role as Chief Executive of Northamptonshire County Council.

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