Responding to COVID-19: insight, support and guidance

Kelly Watson

Kelly WatsonKelly joined the specialist ethical and responsible investment management firm CCLA in 2019 as a Relationship Manager. Managing a large number of local authority client relationships (that invest around £2.5 billion), Kelly co-leads the development of CCLA’s support offering for local authorities and the wider public sector. 

Over her career, Kelly has worked in both public and private sectors, taking on senior roles in both – as director of finance in the private sector and chief finance officer (S151) in local government. In her roles, Kelly has gained a wide range of experience managing finance, procurement, property and facilities management. She joined CIPFA as a student member in 2006, as part of a local authority accountancy training scheme, passing her final exams in 2009. She continues to be actively involved with CIPFA on both a national and regional level. 

What led you to become a CIPFA member? 

A happy situation! In 2003, I began working for a council, and had progressed fairly quickly. I moved to a department where a manager identified some potential in me and was directed to apply for an accountancy trainee scheme – CIPFA was the preferred qualification and the rest, as they say, is history….

Did you ever feel you needed to make a choice between either the public or private sector?

Choosing one over the other didn’t enter my mind when I started my career, but I have been fortunate enough to have worked in both sectors. My career started in public sector, but I have moved in and out of the public and private sectors as opportunities arose that I felt would benefit me. The experience of each has complemented my experience of the other, especially so now I am working at CCLA. Working for an investment manager that is owned by its local authority and charity clients means that I now have the best of both worlds. 

What have been the highlights or biggest successes of your career to date?

There have been a few, and for many different reasons. Passing the CIPFA final exams was exhilarating – after three years of hard work and sacrifices to achieve that goal, it was great. The day I was offered my first Director of Finance role was a big moment for me, too. When I chose finance as a career, I wanted to be a senior finance leader and it was great when I had achieved that initial goal. 

Other less formal moments that have given me a sense of personal achievement include the first time I spoke in front of a large audience – it was a room with around 100 people, and my nerves beforehand were crazy. I followed that up by speaking to a conference of around 200 people about finance for 30 minutes. I have been lucky enough to be asked to speak many more times since. I’ve also enjoyed having articles I’ve written published in an accountancy magazine and a work publication. 

More recently, standout moments have included seeing team members developing or pass their exams - knowing that I have contributed towards someone else’s development is fantastic. Lastly, it’s people! The people I have had around me. People I have met and worked alongside. People who have supported me. People who have helped to shape and mould my career. People who have seen potential. 

What have been the greatest challenges, both during your career and within the public finance sector?

One of the biggest challenges has been managing teams and individuals during difficult times. Unfortunately, I have had to make people redundant and handle some very difficult staff issues. Those moments do have an effect on a person, both personally and professionally. Another challenge recently is around how the public sector can demonstrate how much it does, how complex it is, and how much it contributes to communities and society. 

Considering where we are now with the COVID-19 pandemic, there has never been a more critical time to tell the story of some of the fantastic work going on within the sector. 

How has being a CIPFA member supported you in your career? 

The biggest support has been joining my regional CIPFA body. During my studies, I went with a group of students to volunteer for the CIPFA Midlands sixth form games. Following this, I was asked to support an event being hosted in my local area, and I was then involved in organising events and joined the regional body of volunteers. I have met with and still know some absolutely amazing people through being part of this group. Networking has been something that CIPFA has supported me with.  

What advice would you give to people who are beginning their career in public finance? 

Network. Question. Be yourself. Networking has never come easy to me. It has to feel natural and not forced, but without networking and meeting some fantastic people, I certainly wouldn’t be who I am, know what I do or be where I am today. I have previously been called ’Little Miss Why’ because I often asked a lot of questions and wanted to know why or how something happened. I challenged the status quo and wanted to find the best way to do something. 

Upon reflection, I have found that I work best when I have remained true to who I am, what I believe, and my own morals and principles. Inevitably, there will be people who I annoy, that don’t like the way I work or I just rub up the wrong way – that’s life. But I also know as long as I appreciate that, understand myself, and recognise how the way I work and communicate affects others, then I tend to have an impact.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve given? And by who? 

There are two pieces of advice which will always stick with me. One is something fundamental which comes from family and my childhood and will always stay with me. Something so simple - “Honesty is the best policy”. OK, occasionally toned down, but for me honest, constructive and considered responses are crucial. “Bossy is not a pejorative term” Another point that resonates for me, and this isn’t necessarily advice but it’s been important for my career, is the fact that I was called “bossy” as a child (and I still get described that way sometimes!) As an adult, I realise that this means someone who is passionate, engaged, ambitious and doesn’t mind leading.

What would you say to somebody thinking of becoming a CIPFA member? 

The only thing that will ever limit your potential is your attitude.