Amanda Foley: getting to the top in local government

Amanda Foley is one of only a handful of women leaders in local government. She is also one of only a few HR directors to get the top job as chief executive. As such she is keen to use her position to encourage other women, particularly those with children, like herself, to see promotion to senior roles as an option.

Amanda Foley


She is also keen to bang the drum for the increasing importance of HR at the heart of any organisation.

Amanda was appointed CEO of St Albans City & District Council in July, heading an organisation that employs around 400 people.

She is delighted that the fact she is a female chief executive has been broadly welcomed, with people commenting to her on how refreshing it is.

It is still fairly unusual for people with an HR background, many of whom are women, to get promoted to chief executive, although more and more HR directors sit on the executive board. Amanda thinks the profile of HR is rising and that “HR is very much a business partner now”, with recruiting people with the right skills, retaining them and getting the most of the workforce vital to any organisation’s success.

From retail to finance to education to HR

Amanda didn’t start her career in HR, though. She began in retail as part of the fast track retail management scheme at M & S and stayed there for five years, learning all aspects of the business. She then moved to Abbey National, beginning in its branch networks, giving advice and working on product development. When the business changed and financial advisers needed to be certified, she opted to sit her exams and become a trainer.

Gradually through her work in management development she moved over to HR. She spent a lot of time working on large scale culture change as Manager of Performance and Development as Abbey National was taken over by Santander. That experience taught her how important it was to get the culture right and how HR is integral to the performance of any organisation.

During her time at Abbey National, Amanda had her two daughters. Her first was born in 1993 and she took just 12 weeks off and moved house during her maternity leave. The second time around seven years later she took her full allowance, which had increased to 12 months by 2000.

She says it was easier to stay in touch with work the first time round because she was still very much in work mode. Having a longer break the second time around dented her confidence and she confided in colleagues she trusted to help get her cv together ahead of conversations with her manager. The business had undergone a restructure in the interim and she faced a choice of going back to her old team or taking on a new project. She chose the new project and a fresh start.

Amanda moved next to Ofsted where she was Head of HR Projects and oversaw changes to the pay system for inspectors, negotiating pay deals with the Treasury and unions and dealing with a high profile equal pay case.

Working mum

She has worked full time throughout her career and says managing childcare and all the different schedules – work, home, school – is always a challenge. Her worst times were being stuck in traffic on the way to the childminder, knowing she was being charged an extra fiver for every five minutes she was delayed. “You could feel a day’s wages being lost and were powerless to do anything about it,” she says. Things got easier when the family hired a live-in au pair.

Amanda thinks it is vital for parents to have strong role models at work who can show employees that it is possible to combine a high level job with family life. She says she is fortunate at the Council that her predecessor as Chief Executive made a point about the importance of his family life, spoke and wrote regularly about it and worked one day a week from home for childcare reasons. The Council’s head of finance also works reduced hours to look after his son.

“It’s important to have good male and female role models,” says Amanda.

She believes passionately in the importance of flexi time for attracting the best people to the organisation. Indeed the council’s work life policies are a central part of its recruitment strategy. For the last three years it has been targeting professionals commuting to London by placing adverts along the Thameslink route and running a market stall on occasional Saturdays. “We recognise that people are stressed with commuting and want to work closer to home or from home. That recruitment strategy has been very successful and we are benefitting as an organisation from getting people who have been operating at higher levels in industry deciding to work for us,” says Amanda.

Work life balance

A recognition of people’s desire for greater work life balance is therefore a key part of the council’s recruitment strategy.

As Head of HR and Head of Corporate Services, Amanda worked closely with the previous CEO. “We talked about flexible working and work life balance a lot and always wanted to be an employer of choice. We knew it was not just salary packages that attracted people and that we needed a broad range of options for people facing different challenges, from younger workers and those with caring responsibilities to those approaching retirement. Flexible working is vital – it gives people some sense of control over their lives,” says Amanda, adding that the council openly advertises flexible roles and encourages managers to think about flexible working in job descriptions.

She herself usually works from home on Wednesdays as her predecessor did unless something urgent comes up. “The organisation and the councillors are used to that. It has become normalised and with modern technology I am as available as I would be in the office,” she says. Although her children are now 23 and 16, work life balance is still important and she tries as much as possible to plan ahead for any family events, such as settling her youngest daughter into sixth form. “Life happens,” she says. “And we need to help each other which is why it is important to have a good strong relationship with your peer group and good flexible working policies.”

Flexible working

Amanda says HR can now show the value of flexible working to any organisation. “HR has made the shift from the days of being the warm and fluffy personnel department to a more hard-nosed aspect of business with a focus on performance and data,” she says. “HR professionals need to use their skills at board level to show how important they are. HR data often tells the story of where something is not working well in an organisation and workforce planning is so important with all the major digital changes coming in. HR has to ensure that organisations have the right people with the right skills coming in. This is becoming increasingly important.”

She cites how digitisation is changing not only how the council runs its business, but how it relates to customers and says the introduction of big data to HR processes means aspects of the job which were difficult to measure, such as engagement, are now much easier.  Absence data can be measured on a live dashboard and the impact on productivity gauged. “You can see the benefits of particular policies at the level of individuals,” she says.

The council is also using digital skills in its recruitment strategy to show how it is an attractive employment prospect. It is getting employees to make short films about what it is like to work for the council and is particularly keen to reach out to young employees. The films stress personal aspects such as work life balance. Amanda would like to do more such projects to engage with local people and thinks social media is a good way to promote customer conversations.

She thinks technology will only increase flexible working, for instance, it can be used to monitor peak times and flex roles around these. That includes greater homeworking, opening up jobs to a more diverse set of people. She is also looking to partner with neighbouring councils to encourage more remote working for employees who live outside St Albans.

Other recruitment and retention issues include a summer intern programme for young graduates which aims to bring in fresh talent and secondments which encourage people who might not have the confidence to apply for permanent roles to try out new opportunities – many of them are women.

With her feet just under the desk as chief executive, Amanda’s view is that it is people – both employees and local people – who are at the heart of local government.

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