Responding to COVID-19: insight, support and guidance

Coral Main, Head of Business Planning & Risk

Coral Main is the Head of Business Planning & Risk at Leeds County Council. After studying History at the University of Bristol and doing an MA in Medieval Studies, Coral joined the graduate scheme at Arthur Andersen in London where she got into Enterprise Risk. 

As a management consultant, Coral had a range of clients, specialising in Energy & Utilities companies. When her fiancé (now husband) got a job up north, Coral followed, which gave her the chance to think about what she really wanted to do. Serendipity played a big part as Leeds City Council was looking for someone with her skills and experience right at that time and she's been there ever since.

Why did you choose accountancy as a career?

I didn’t! The first half of my career to date was in strategic risk management, which accountancy is aligned to, but in itself, it wasn’t something I’d seriously considered as a career until the opportunity came up to study CIPFA. It was that particular qualification that drew me in to finance and got me hooked.

Why did you choose to work in public services?

That classic truism, public service ethos. My mother worked in local government and my father was a teacher, so I had some fantastic examples of that growing up. When I left university I worked in the private sector for a few years but as much as I enjoyed my job and worked with some great people, my role in local government is far more personally rewarding. It allows me to earn a living while doing something I hope adds value, and makes a real, positive difference to the people and city of Leeds.

What’s your specialism? Can you give us a brief overview of your role?

I joined Leeds City Council back in 2003 to develop and embed risk management which I still do but my role’s become much wider. I’m now the Head of Business Planning & Risk in the council’s Intelligence & Policy Service and have responsibilities for strategic business planning, corporate performance management, city and business intelligence, portfolio management and consultation and engagement. In a number of those areas, I work very closely with my finance colleagues.

Why did you choose to become CIPFA certified?

I was looking for a new challenge to broaden my skills and my boss suggested looking at the CIPFA qualification. The syllabus had just been revised and now had a good split between finance, strategy and public policy. All those areas and the balance between them really appealed to me, both in terms of my interests and roles at work.

Longer-term I also had an ambition to do an MBA and the revised CIPFA qualification provides a number of exemptions.  On a practical level, I was incredibly lucky that my employer funded me to do CIPFA and fully supported me throughout the three years of studying. Three years after qualifying, I’ve now embarked on an MBA through the council’s apprenticeship scheme, drawing on everything I learned through my CIPFA studies.

How does the CIPFA qualification help you in your day-to-day tasks, as well as long-term?

Day-to-day and long-term it’s invaluable, I thought I was pretty clued up on public policy and politics but I learned so much more from studying CIPFA. The whole of the public sector is working more and more in partnership and we can’t do that properly if we don’t understand the policy and financial environment we’re each operating in – CIPFA’s taught me that. Also in my roles in strategic risk, planning and performance in particular, I need to understand – and stay up to date with – the financial context we’re operating in so CIPFA’s helped me to be better at my job.

Do you believe that your qualification created new opportunities in your career?

Definitely.  A few years ago our then-Deputy Chief Executive asked me to support him on some work that joins up our strategic planning and budgeting/finances. I don’t think that would have happened if I hadn’t done CIPFA – I wouldn’t have had the knowledge and the professional credibility to be that link with finance colleagues. That work and those relationships have led me to where I am now.

What advice would you give current students who are looking to pursue a career in public finance?

Stick at it – studying is hard work, but if you put the effort in, you’ll get an awful lot out of it. Also, do your research and try to manage your career (set goals, stay on top of your CPD etc.) but be open to new opportunities you might not have even considered. The CIPFA qualification is so much more than debits and credits and because it’s also very well respected, it can really open up doors. Those might be related to purely financial roles but they might be broader, more strategic roles where a finance hat really helps. Finally, be sure that it’s the public sector you want to work in – the financial rewards aren’t usually as high as in the private sector.