Tile Hill Sessions presents: Insights and Advice for Aspiring Section 151 Officers
by Ethan Burridge
05/12/23Back to insights
Becoming a Section 151 Officer is a significant career milestone. It is a position that comes with significant responsibility and pressure, but it also offers the opportunity to make a significant strategic difference to a local authority, to the services it provides residents and to the culture of the organisation. Those who successfully step into this role are often armed with extensive experience, strategic vision, and a profound understanding of financial management within local government. For many, we know that making this move is on the immediate horizon, others are working towards it, but unfortunately, we are also hearing of some talented individuals deciding to pursue alternative career routes due to the scrutiny and pressure that can surround this post.
To help tackle some of these concerns and celebrate why the right S151 post at the right time in someone's career should be a positive experience, Tile Hill’s Ethan Burridge hosted a webinar and was joined by Anisa Darr - Executive Director of Strategy and Resources at the London Borough of Barnet, and Michael Hudson, Executive Director of Finance & Resources at Cambridgeshire County Council. Anisa and Michael shared valuable insights gained from their career to date, and generously offered advice for aspiring Section 151 Officers. Here, we share a few of their thoughts for those who couldn’t make the webinar:
Bring Your Authentic Self into Interviews and Work
An essential thing to remember is to be authentic during the interview process, don't try to fit a predetermined formula of what you think appointment panels and Elected Members want. Be yourself and showcase how your skills align with the organisation's specific needs. Appointment Panels are looking for someone credible, someone they can trust to understand and support their set of objectives, and support Members in meeting local needs. They are looking for someone who is calm, clear and holds a solid professional viewpoint.
Being able to work efficiently with the council leader, and lead finance member is paramount to any successful relationship. Therefore, ensure that the Members who are part of the interview process are the same ones which you will be working with. Challenging conversations will be required, and at those moments, they need to feel like you are on the same team.
Research and Adapt
Organisations are increasingly open to first-time candidates; however, the decision depends on various factors, including the organisation's history, team structure, and the specific challenges at hand. Research the local authority extensively and tailor your approach to showcase your suitability for that specific role. Prepare a set of stories showcasing your experience in project management, decision-making, and teamwork. If you have concerns that your CV doesn't precisely match the fill list of essential criteria in the role you are applying for, make sure to also highlight your transferable skills and experiences. Do not let a gap in knowledge or experience be the reason you don’t apply for the role, understand how significant this gap is in being successful within the role and then make sure you highlight the obvious strengths you bring to the role.
Careers Aren’t a Sprint, They Are a Marathon
Success isn't just about reaching the next rung on the ladder as quickly as possible; it's about making informed decisions that align with your personal and professional goals. Don't rush; understand the pace that works for you and your circumstances. Recognise that sometimes non-work-related considerations will take priority at certain times in your career. These priorities are also valid and do not diminish your ambition. Striking a balance is achievable, and employers are increasingly respectful of that.
Also, worth noting that career progression doesn’t work to a carefully plotted timetable - you will not be the only stakeholder in the decision to move up to the next level or not. Being comfortable with the recruitment process and using any feedback as a development opportunity will ultimately serve you well in the long run.
Understand the Organisation You Wish to Join
To ascend to the role of Section 151 Officer, it's crucial to comprehend the intricate dynamics of local government finance and understand the importance of knowing the organisation you're in or considering joining. Assess the quality of the team, the political landscape, and the challenges the authority faces, as this will provide the foundational insights that will govern whether it is a role and organisation that you wish to join.
In any organisation you will need to rely on the people around you, therefore make sure you know how they will/can support you, or what the plans are to address any capacity or capability issues. You should ensure you have the network to draw upon to provide further support when you stumble upon new dilemmas. It is also worth considering if the local authorities for which you are applying have historically had to recover from challenging situations to gauge how they might respond to future challenges.
Build a Diverse Skill Set
Working in finance requires mastery of several different skills, and broad service and organisational knowledge due to its cross-cutting nature. It's not just about numbers; it's about effective communication, business partnering, and the ability to challenge and validate. Therefore, when looking to advance your career, you should focus on gaining experience that broadens out your knowledge base but also helps you to develop your leadership skill set and importantly your resilience. Leadership qualities will always be an essential component to a position such as a Section 151 Officer, as will adaptability to an ever-changing environment be non-negotiable.
Have a vision - as you progress in your career, cultivate the ability to see and connect the dots strategically. Understand the broader implications of financial decisions and how they align with the organisation's goals. Your vision should extend beyond immediate financial matters, encompassing workforce development, digital transformation, and other strategic initiatives.
Remember to be bold, back yourself when you set upon a path. Be able to delegate and triangulate the information where appropriate and communicate in clear language to other organisational stakeholders - no need to be a sector expert in everything!
Building a Support Network
Working in senior leadership roles such as a Section 151 Officer can sometimes be a lonely place, therefore it is imperative to build a strong support network which can provide you with the resilience required in more challenging moments. This includes mentors, colleagues, and even external networks like LinkedIn. Also consider coaching for personalised support.
Having a community of peers which you can refer to will be of great assistance, so remember to keep yourself informed about events in the space - both virtual and in real life. Tile Hill can support you build your networks, so don’t be afraid to ask!
Success in this role requires a deep understanding of local government dynamics and financial management. Knowing about the nuances of the organisation you hope to join, developing diverse skills and not being afraid to back your own judgement are critical to taking that next step.
Did you find this useful or would like to hear more? If so, please remember to follow Tile Hill on LinkedIn for more news, community, and support.