Hitting the right notes

By Paul Marinko | 13 February 2024

Kate Kennally was quick to sing the praises of her whole team at Cornwall Council when she was named Chief Executive of the Year at The MJ Achievement Awards last year.

‘It’s all about the team at Cornwall Council,’ she said. ‘I’m the conductor of the orchestra I guess but, actually the sounds that people hear are the sounds of the instruments being played, and that’s the team. And the audience we play for are the residents of Cornwall, and they have given us great support, they’ve given us feedback and they’ve made us better.’

That sense of continuous improvement is clearly a top priority for Kennally. There is no sense that she, or the authority, are content with their achievements to date.

And their successes are worthy of note: first place to secure a ‘county deal’; creation of the first Spaceport in Europe; and forming a ‘strategic alliance’ with Wales. But all are achievements very much with the future in mind.

‘One of the things I’ve been keen to do in my time in Cornwall is to build a confidence in Cornwall around its future,’ explains Kennally.

It is a confidence that has led the authority to enter into partnerships and relationships with other places based on a self-perception of Cornwall as ‘the start of the UK’ and somewhere rich in resources. Not content with teaming up with Wales, Cornwall is building links with Brittany, Taiwan and South Korea.

‘A confident Cornwall is always looking to try and build alliances and relationships with places that we share similar opportunities with,’ the chief explains.

Kennally has got the council focused on ‘delivering on three time horizons’ – today, in the medium term and ‘being good ancestors through to 2050’.

She recognises how hard it can be for staff to focus on the future when the current challenges facing the sector have the potential to be all encompassing. That can be especially true at the top of the organisation, where corporate challenges can pull everyone in.

Kennally’s approach has been to try and ‘create the space’ and recognise her leadership team have different roles, meaning not all have to be fully focused on the ‘here and now’.

‘There’s something around actually recognising in your leadership team the need to get people focusing on the right things,’ she explains.

It’s a sign of how Kennally has a knack for getting the most out of her staff. She talks about the need to ensure people are doing ‘interesting thing’. Given the financial and demand pressures on the sector, she thinks ‘people still need to feel hopeful’.

That sense of caring about others is no doubt one of the reasons Kennally’s senior leadership nominated her for The MJ Award in the first place.

Having had a mother who was a social worker and a grandmother who worked in mental health, Kennally started working as a home carer when she was still at school. It was something she carried on doing while at university and she eventually set up a social care crisis support service for people with mental illness.

From there she moved into policy and commissioning roles in adult social care before working for a time in the National Health Service and then becoming director of adult social services at Barnet LBC in 2010. Kennally went on to become strategic director for commissioning and deputy chief executive at Barnet before leaving for Cornwall at the start of 2016.

An instinct for making sure her team know they are supported is a key feature of Kennally’s management style.

Asked how she provides them with the means to perform to their best potential, she says: ‘I think it’s a sense around making sure that we’ve all got each other’s backs.

‘We also make sure on Friday we don’t leave work with something niggling away at us.’

The main idea behind it is to make sure everyone can turn their computers off knowing that a problem shared is a problem halved.

What Kennally exudes is a sense that she knows how to get the most out of staff from the top of the organisation to the front line.

She references the benefits of her time in the voluntary sector, commissioning roles and mentoring support – including from former Hammersmith & Fulham and Kensington & Chelsea LBC chief executive Sir Derek Myers – but much is no doubt down to the natural empathy she has for people’s wellbeing.

‘People have said to me that Cornwall is a kind council,’ she admits. ‘I’m proud of that.’

While she is full of gratitude for the work staff do to make Cornwall the council it is, the gratitude her team feels toward Kennally is undoubtedly what led them to nominate her for Chief Executive of the Year.

Chief Executive of the Year

Winner: Kate Kennally, Cornwall Council

Highly Commended: Edd de Coverly, Melton Borough Council

Sponsored by Penna

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