Peter Holt FCIPR, Chart. PR is a long-time member (and former chair) of the CIPR Local Public Services committee and recently started as chief executive of Uttlesford District Council.  Comms professionals rarely make it to the top job in councils, so here he shares a few reflections on his journey from being a full-time communication professional to landing his first chief executive role.

There’s a good amount that’s been written about how comms professionals should be more confident in our ability to translate our big-picture strategising and problem-solving skills into top jobs in our organisations, including ultimately landing a chief exec job.

As far as I’m concerned ….. that’s absolutely spot on!  So, instead of just paraphrasing that, let me instead offer five very personal perspectives.  I don’t pretend this is a prescription that’ll work for others, but hope it helps.

Firstly: I’ve made no real secret of my ambition to achieve promotion.  Maybe this is a really personal thing, but if I’m honest, it was when I landed my first comms job in local government, as comms and marketing director in Newcastle City Council back in 2006, that I decided that I wanted to become a council chief executive, as ‘the job after next’.  After having averaged about 4 years per job until that point, it took me 15 years to hit that goal, rather than my rough 8-year target.

Secondly: the job title.  My thinking about the ‘job after next’ was because I just couldn’t see a full-time comms person like me ever being appointed directly into a chief exec job in one giant leap.  Serious candidates for these top jobs I figured needed to have a much broader span of responsibility, the experience of leading bigger staff teams, more big-budget experience and so on, so my plan was to land a job in between that diversified my skillset in all those ways.  And – importantly – had a job title that sounded more credible.  As a result, along the way, I took a chunky pay cut moving from an interim comms role to become an on-the-books Assistant Chief Executive.

Thirdly: I inched forwards at every opportunity.  I didn’t wait to land this completely different job as that in-between step – I volunteered relentlessly to take on extra responsibilities in my current role, all with no change of job title or any extra pay.  I took on duties over 8 years (4 in Bristol as comms and marketing director after 4 in Newcastle) ranging from scrutiny to elections, customer services policy, civic affairs, policy and strategy, arts and culture, festivals and events.  I also stepped forward to lead council-wide projects like a vehicle fleet review and an income maximisation strategy.  That in turn helped me build that broader platform from which to make the step up.  I can’t lie – it was bloody exhausting; not an easy route.

Fourthly: I built a plan of how to counter the perception perhaps many have of comms people as creative but maybe with less substance necessary to take the big chair.  In my case, as well as expanding my span of responsibility and project work, I took a law degree with the Open University in my 40s (and am 2/3rds of my way through an MBA too) as well as being the first chief officer at Newcastle to complete the Cabinet Office Emergency Planning College ‘Local Authority Gold’ course.

Fifth: I voted with my feet.  I stuck around in organisations long enough to build that credibility over time but had to force myself to overcome the fear of leaving if and when I felt I’d exhausted my chances there to grow.  It’s sad but true in my experience that you often need to leave to be properly appreciated.  I should say: I was able to move from one end of the country to another – repeatedly – because I’m childless, have no other caring responsibilities, and have for years either been single or in a long-term relationship with a guy off round the world in the RAF.  Having worked in the very contrasting employment markets of Cornwall and London, I know that the ability to move jobs without such uprooting isn’t always easy, depending on the geography.

Last thought: if I can do it, bloody anyone else can, so go find your own way, if that’s your ambition too!  I’m here to chat and give back some of all that support I’ve had from colleagues over the years – so don’t be shy, and say hello.


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