In conversation with Paul Parkinson: Part 1

Emily Schilling
by Emily Schilling 6 October 2020


Name: Paul Parkinson

Current role: Deputy CEO at Ashfield District Council

Time in current role: Just under 4 years

Location: Kirkby-in-Ashfield, North Nottinghamshire


What was your first job?

So, when I was 12 I was a paperboy, then I went on to be a milk boy and a Landscape Gardener in the holidays. But my first career job was Clerical Assistant in housing benefits at London Borough of Waltham Forest.

Explain your career path. Did you go to University or ahead of your role as a Clerical Assistant?

I went to University in London, but I had no real idea of what I wanted to do. I went to the local job centre who put me onto a temporary position at the local council, which was London Borough of Waltham Forest, and I got a temporary clerical position in housing benefits. From that, I worked my way up through the ranks.

After a couple of years, I saw that Aldwyck Housing Association in Harpenden, Hertfordshire was advertising for a Customer Services Manager. So, I moved there, which was my first venture into Social Housing. I did that for 6 or 7 years but we had a young family, and I was commuting 100 miles a day to go to Aldwyck on the M25 and M1. So, it wasn't the best of journeys.

So, we decided to move back to near family, so I became Director of Operations at Bolsover District Council in Derbyshire. I did that for about 3 years, but it was a very wide role and felt I needed to specialise... That took me to Futures housing group, where I was Executive Director, and after 9 very successful years there, I moved across to Ashfield, which is where I am now.

Did you progress within each organisation before moving on? Did you have different roles?

At Ashfield it's grown exponentially. I came in as Director of Housing, but then took on all of the councils’ assets as well as environmental health. I also became Deputy Chief Executive after 6 months there. It's grown quite rapidly.

I'm not sure how much free time you have, but do you have any hobbies and interests. If so, what are they?

Yeah, I salvage old Jaguar cars from the 1980's and 90s. So, at the moment I've got a 1993 XJS v12. I just do them up, drive them, enjoy them one at a time. Periodically, through my last 20 years I've had a Jag of sorts – an old Jag.

I just learned on the job. When I was in my youth, I used to race BMX bikes at a semi-professional level. I've always been mechanically minded so it's just a progression of that.

What is the best career advice you have ever received?

My best career advice is to be yourself. I think managers or leaders that act with integrity and work to their own values and principles get better buy-in from staff, and therefore produce better results. That was good advice I was given.

Also, speak to your manager, bring your ideas forward. Hopefully if your leadership is adept enough, they will help you get a leg up. It's easy enough to sit in your chair and complain how bad things are, but if you’ve got ideas to make it better, put your hand up and get your ideas out there.

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of, and challenges of, training up high performance staff.

I try to develop as many people as I can, I don't just work with my direct line reports I actually work closely with the tier below as well, bringing all the managers up to a level where they can progress and succeed. Also I look for individuals around the organisation that show some desire or initiative.

It's about the leader showing a genuine interest in what people do. Rather than just treating it as a line of operation. You actually take the time to speak to the middle management members of staff, encourage people and if they show promise then see if you can give them an opportunity as well.

What has been your greatest career achievement?

For me, the standout moments are when you've done something with a team, where you've led a team that have achieved. What we did during Covid-19 was pretty spectacular - I'm really proud of that.

I headed up the humanitarian aid team for the entire district, delivering prescriptions, food parcels, be-friending, hospital discharge, basically helping the community whilst they were in lockdown and can’t get out their homes.

Making a difference makes me really proud. We didn't know the timescales, we didn't know where this was going, but we pulled together people from all over the council and set up a team.

Throughout Covid-19, did you have the same team in place? Did you have to make any redundancies, or hire new people?

So, we actually brought in additional people because, again, it was a bottleneck of physical resource. Things like Office 365, we had the people in place - I was project sponsor - we knew what we were doing but not many of the people had done it before. We needed to bring in people that knew what they were doing, we didn’t have time to learn.

So, with the customer experience, how will people in the community give you feedback?

Housing wise, we have our various tenant bodies and groups we go to. We’ve got several layers of consultation within our housing department, where the tenants tell us what they’d like to see. We use them for testing as well, so the tenant portal was tested and enhanced via our customers. Sometimes you need to put the idea to them, and get the feedback. You can’t just passively wait for the customer, you’ve got to put things in their arena and see what comes back.

What does good culture fit look like in your organization? How do you cultivate it?

Generating good culture within the council is a lot harder than in a Housing Association. In a housing association you’re focused, you can have a singular culture, but in a council, you’ve got very different professions that have a different approaches. You’ve got planners, environmental health officers, revenues, environmental services as well as the politicians... Trying to create a singular cultural fit is quite a challenge in the council. So how do we do that? Alongside the Corporate Plan and values, we survey our staff regularly, across directorates, but also tiers of management and staff as well. If we’ve got a big project, we try and get as many different departments represented.

We operate in one district, so we have a common area and a common community to serve, and we have a common customer, the tax and business rate payer, who ultimately pay us all, so we are united in that respect.

When you're looking to hire, are you looking for a particular type of person or does it depend on the role?

I'm always looking for aptitude, you need somebody with a bright and energetic approach, with good customer service. In this digital age, you want people that can converse. Positive attitude is really the thing that I always tend to favour in people. I prefer people that come in with an innovative, bright approach, but with slightly less experience or knowledge, than somebody who comes in flat, but with loads of experience.

I think as employers, we have a duty to not stick with the tried and tested. We've got to bring new people through, the workforce is aging, and as we see with Covid-19 we're going to have really high youth, and young person unemployment so we've got to sort it out.

What roles or skills are you finding the most difficult to fill?

From a housing perspective, the building safety manager and fire safety can be competitive, and there’s going to be a high price to pay for those that need these roles. But I think all roles are going to be hard to fill post-Covid-19. I get the feeling that if the way we operate now stays for the long term, there will be an uncertainty. Are you going to change employer if you’ve got security now? Especially if you don’t quite know where they stand in terms of their finances. Are you going to risk a speculative move if you’re safe where you are? If you’re happy with your current working from home/commuting balance, will you give it up to someone who may not be as lenient?

Do you go to many events for local authorities or housing associations?

I think the housing sector is quite good in pulling its senior level people together, which I think has actually been enhanced with Teams to be honest. So, I'm having a lot more diverse meetings on Teams, where you can see different chief executives and directors from other organisations you wouldn't normally. So yes, there’s good opportunity to network and meet other directors/managers/chief execs.

Read part two here.

Topics: local authorities, councils, Driving Digital, local government