24 Jan 2024

CEO Stories: Five things we learned from Birmingham City Council chief executive Deborah Cadman


Deborah Cadman, the chief executive of Birmingham City Council, was the latest guest on CEO Stories – a podcast from Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce which delves into the minds of the region’s best and brightest business leaders.

The podcast, hosted by GBCC chief executive Henrietta Brealey, is available in full on all major listening platforms such as Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Deborah has enjoyed a distinguished career in local government – including stints at the helm of the West Midlands Combined Authority, Suffolk County Council and St Edmudsbury Borough Council.

Her current role, leading Europe’s largest local authority in her home city, has proved to be the toughest to date – after Birmingham was issued with Section 114 notice in 2023.

Here are five things we learned from her chat Henrietta...

1) She’s a self-confessed bookworm

Deborah spoke about her memories of growing up in Birmingham – with particular reference to the many hours she spent at Green Lane Library.

A self-confessed bookworm with a passion for learning, Deborah also recounted fond memories of her school days at Sir Wilfrid Martineau School in Tile Cross where she enjoyed activities such as sport and music (she was part of the school’s brass band and went on to play county netball).

Deborah said: “Our mother took us to the library every single Saturday morning and I remember sitting cross legged reading books.

“That opened up a whole new world to me and really started my journey of curiosity. I was a ferocious reader, and still am actually. 

“It (Sir Wilfrid Martineau) was a school full of teachers who wanted the best for their kids.  They pushed and supported and opened up a whole range of opportunities for me.

“It's bizarre now looking back, but I played in the brass band and I played every sport possible.”

2) Mo Mowlam influenced her

Deborah revealed one of the individuals who has made an impact on her during her career is Mo Mowlam – the much-admired politician who was Northern Ireland Secretary when the historic Good Friday Agreement was reached in 1998.

“When I worked in the North East, I spent time working in her office, and got to know her really well.

“She was beyond brilliant. She taught me a lot about what good leadership looked like.

“One of the things she said to me was never, ever underestimate or underplay the power and influence of those that hold you up.

“What she meant by that was your PAs, the security staff, the people that clean your offices, the people that support you doing your job.”

3) Memories of The Ramp and the ‘old’ Birmingham

A born and bred Brummie, Deborah’s memories of the ‘old’ Birmingham drew reference to one of the Second City’s best-loved landmarks.

She said: “Like any teenager, I kind of enjoyed what the city had to offer, and those of you that are old enough will understand when I say The Ramp in Birmingham was probably the best meeting place.

“Birmingham as a place was gritty and exciting, but also, at that time, was going through a massive change.

“When I left at 18, I left a city that was still trying to find its way in the world, but it was still a city that I loved and continued to love.”

4) Her ‘chameleon’ leadership style

Asked by Henrietta about her leadership style, honed over several decades in local government, Deborah said: “I’m a chameleon. I've been chief exec now for 22 years now in different organisations.

“No one organisation has been the same. No cohort of staff has been the same and no    systems or partnerships have been the same. So, therefore, you cannot have the same leadership approach and style.

“When I talk about being chameleon, there will be times in an organisation's life – and it kind of feels like that's where Birmingham is at the moment - where you've got to be more command and control than collaborative and inclusive, because the organisation looks to you and expects things from you in a particular way.

“There are other times in an organisation's life cycle, where being collaborative and inclusive and having the time to ‘horizon scan’ - all those things where you're creating a vision, you're creating a cultural shift.”

5) Boxing clever  

A boxing gym isn’t the most obvious place you’d expect to find the leader of a local authority in their spare time – but Deborah revealed it’s her activity of choice to destress from her all-consuming role.

 “I don't do competitive stuff because I'm far too old and unfit for that. But the discipline around boxing is brilliant and I do that first thing in the morning.

“Whether it's about getting out frustration? I don't know. But I actually find it meditative and, when we do the boxing drills, you have to be in the moment and focus on that.”

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