Sheffield Council's chief executive bids farewell after 10 years in the role

If you could sketch a picture of stability and calm, it would look like John Mothersole.

Thursday, 2nd January 2020, 4:00 pm

The chief executive of Sheffield Council’s trademark white shirt, dark tie and black suit reflects his softly-spoken, unflappable demeanour.

John is retiring after 20 years with the authority, ten of them as CEO. Privately the time is right. Politically, it’s uncertain times with Brexit, devolution unresolved and a bumper trio next May where people will be asked to vote in the local elections, a referendum on how the council is run and for the Police and Crime Commissioner.

He’s sanguine about the future though: “I have always taken the view that if there’s instability and you can’t change it, you can help to shape it.

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John Mothersole.

“There’s nothing we can do about Brexit, we just have to make sure the city comes through it in good shape and take advantage of anything which is on offer.

“With the It’s Our City referendum it’s not a choice between order and chaos, it’s a choice between one system and another.

“There’s a general election every few years and different parties and there’s always uncertainty. Part of the role of the chief executive is to try to make sense of it all for the organisation and develop a direction.”

He doesn’t gloss over the tough times: “The last ten years have been an extraordinary experience with devolution, floods and 10 years of unprecedented public finance reductions. Staff’s heads could have gone down and morale could have plummeted but that didn’t happen.

“We thought this couldn’t be done but we are still here and doing a good job. I’m not saying it’s great doing it on less money because it is not - there are some things we don’t do any more and we have to take more risks - but with the right attitude and ambition you can steer your way.

“Northamptonshire County Council showed if you make the wrong decisions you will go bust.

“The pressure is about the human cost for the staff or public who don’t get what they used to get but it’s about calling it and making decisions.

“I have always worked for organisations with ambition and that’s great. When you are in a role like this, the nature of the job is you are a juggler and some of the batons are in the air and some are caught. The time will never come where you have caught them all.

“When I leave there will be some batons in the air but I genuinely believe I am not leaving something major heading in the wrong direction.

“We have a budget, children’s services are in a good position and staff morale has increased.

“My biggest wish is that the retail quarter was finished but we have tried to develop it through a recession. And I wish the South Yorkshire devolution deal well, it would be great to see that resolved all round.”

He confides he’s sat in meetings and tested himself about whether he will miss it all but says it still feels like the right decision to leave.

“Sheffield is bigger than Manchester and Liverpool Councils. Cities give me a real buzz and are a full fat version of everything.

“I’m going to miss the camaraderie of doing this together, this council is at it’s best when under pressure and when people swing into action and maintain humility.

“Ultimately it’s about people. I think I can cope without the thrill of the chase, the ministerial visits and the opening of new buildings.”

Confidante to the politicians:

John isn’t a politician and one of the delicate tasks of a CEO is to implement party policies while ensuring the huge council machine doesn’t miss a beat.

“I like politicians to criticise the government rather than me criticise it,” he says diplomatically. “I have political views, I vote for a party, I am not agnostic about politics.

“It’s not hard as I have never worked for an organisation that has directed me to do something that offends some of my principles. If that happened, I would be off.

“You get moments of frustration with the situation that politicians find themselves in but you show me a job that doesn’t have its frustrations and I’ll take it.

“All organisations have politics in them, it’s just in the state sector it has a capital P for politics. At least our politicians are upfront as people stand on a ticket.”

John has worked with four council Leaders - Labour, the late Jan Wilson and current Julie Dore; the Lib Dems with Peter Moore and Paul Scriven and also with a council in no overall control.

It must be tricky waking up after an election count to find you have a new boss not only with different political priorities but also a different personality?

“I always made sure I was available to all political parties of the council. I am not appointed by whoever has the majority, I work for the council, but I clearly spend most time with the group with the most votes.

“Part of my job is to make sure that the council serves the political parties of the council.

“We need to maintain continuity if the council changes and people may want a change of political party but they don’t want the council to grind to a halt.

“Different council leaders work in different styles but it’s important to understand what they are trying to achieve. Our job is to advise them, I’m not here to be on one side or the other, but most log jams happen when you are advising against something and it can become a battle of wills. I have learned it’s better to look at what they are trying to achieve.”

Cash in the Attic and charity work:

John, aged 60, has no firm plans for the future. “If two or three things find me that’s great but I’m a one decision at a time person. There’s only so much Cash in the Attic you can watch.

“I would be interested in sitting on the boards of charities or advising councils. In my 40 years I’ve seen things that have worked and have not worked and it seems a waste that I can’t pass that experience on.”

Originally from Blackburn, he’s lived in Broomhall for 21 years with his wife Liz. They have three children and recently welcomed their third grandchild.

“I’m not sure I’m a fully-fledged Yorkshireman but I’ve walked to work most days and I see the city waking up and going to sleep. I’m leaving the job but there is no way I am leaving the city so hard luck Sheffield,” he laughs.