Responding to COVID-19: insight, support and guidance

Coral Main, Head of Business Planning and Risk

Coral Main is the Head of Business Planning and Risk at Leeds City Council. After studying History at the University of Bristol and doing an MA in Mediaeval 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 and Utilities companies. When her 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, heading up a new team responsible for developing and embedding risk management and business continuity management arrangements. Over time, my role expanded and, as Head of Business Planning and Risk in the council's Intelligence and Policy Service, I led on strategic business planning, corporate performance management, intelligence, and consultation and engagement. Then in 2020, due to Covid-19, the council was forecasting an unprecedented gap in its revenue budget and my role shifted to supporting our CFO in managing a new savings programme to help us balance our 2021/22 budget. That financial challenge hasn't gone away and in 2021 I moved into Financial Services to continue this work, alongside helping 'join the dots' between a number of our corporate functions, drawing on my previous roles.

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.

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

It's invaluable. I thought I was pretty clued up on public policy, the political and economic context we work in and local government finance but I learned so much more from my studies and the conversations in class with other students. That built up my core knowledge that provides the basis for much of what I do now.

I also drew extensively on what I'd learned in CIPFA in my role as a Non-Executive board member and Deputy Finance Director for ALARM (the Public Risk Management Association) between 2016 and 2018 and then my MBA (I gained this in 2021). My MBA work-based project was focused on local authority strategic decision-making in making significant financial savings.

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 directly led me to doing what I do 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 often aren't as high as in the private sector.