21 April 2021  |  G Denison

‘I was born in Northallerton and went to Mill Hill, the Allertonshire and the College in the 1980s. I did quite well in my exams but it was a history teacher Mr Chedburn who suggested I applied to Oxford and I managed to get in to study history. After feeling very out of my depth at the start surrounded by people who sounded super-intelligent, I gradually realised I deserved to be there too and managed to graduate with a 2:1 and really enjoyed it. I could have gone on to do law or another degree but my Dad was a careers adviser and he encouraged me to take the Civil Service fast stream graduate scheme exam. I got in and worked in the Department of the Environment for 7 years in London. Again, I felt like a bit of a fish out of water at first but soon got to enjoy it and I saw the world working on climate change and biodiversity United Nations negotiations, travelling to places like Nairobi, Washington and the Bahamas. It was challenging working in such big organisations but it was really interesting as you moved around every year or so into different jobs.

I was about to get married to Louise (who also went to the college) and we had to decide whether to stay in London or come back home, and the pull of Yorkshire was too great so I did an MBA at Imperial College and got the job of setting up one of the Blair/Brown Government’s Regional Development Agencies in Leeds. I spent thirteen years working for Yorkshire Forward eventually becoming its Chief Executive. It was great working to make Yorkshire a better place by investing public funds to regenerate town and city centres, helping businesses during crises like foot and mouth, floods and the 2007 financial crash, and attracting new investors from across the world to locate in Yorkshire. In 2010 I joined Leeds City Council as Chief Executive just at the start of austerity. I had to oversee reductions in spending and job losses which was really tough but we did it in the right way working with the unions and making sure we protected front line services. We’ve also worked to revitalise Leeds with two new shopping centres, thousands of new homes and a new music arena (so good Bruce Springsteen asked to open it!), as well as attracting events like the Tour de France and companies like Channel 4 to Leeds. It’s quite a stressful job being in charge of 15,000 people and so much public money, but running a city as great as Leeds is a real privilege. The response of our staff during the pandemic has been brilliant.

The things I’ve learned are to try and find a job that you enjoy and believe in, don’t be put off by setbacks because they happen to everyone, and be confident and proud about who you are and where you come from. The main reason I’ve been able to do what I’ve done is due to the firm foundation that the support and friendship of my family and friends (who also went to the college) have given me. I’ve always known that if my career went wrong those people wouldn’t change and would support me, and that, along with playing local football, has always kept me grounded and not beholden to work. I’ve always considered everyone I work with as equals and treated them with the respect they all deserve whether they’re collecting the bins or a senior manager. I’ve had to deal with some really difficult challenges along the way and I’d also say that however big a problem seems when it happens, most of the time it’s not quite as bad the day afterwards once you’ve started dealing with it. For those of you struggling with mental health at times, you are not alone and it’s ok not to feel ok. Time does help and bad thoughts and times do pass. The best thing you can do is to be kind, because that will pay you back when the people who matter are kind back to you.’

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