Sheila Oxtoby

Standing on a stool being heckled in the hustings for college elections, Sheila Oxtoby remembers selling herself as the candidate promising to be available to listen to fellow students and with the determination to work for whatever change was possible.

Now, more than 20 years later, as CEO of North Norfolk District, she vividly recalls the boisterous hustings to elect the vice president of Grizedale College - the perfect experience for her role as leader of a public organisation in a time of recession: "I wanted to change the world,"she says. "And I guess my approach to that has not changed."

Having succeeded in winning the vice presidency, Sheila was then active in working on the student committee, lobbying for changes in the College and University, and helping run the college social scene and in highlighting relevant aspects of the Education Bill that was being debated in government at the time.

"Lancaster University opens your eyes to see the bigger picture and from other perspectives," she says. "That is so important when you are leading an organisation. Lancaster enabled me to develop and see people as individuals."

Family-like atmosphere

Sheila was only 17 years old when she arrived at Lancaster from York, attracted by the campus structure and the excellent sporting facilities. At the time, she was a passionate gymnast who had qualified as a coach whilst at school.

She made friends immediately with the first five girls she met in her hall of residence, two of whom are friends to this day.  She also felt greatly supported by the Geography Department and Grizedale College, which she describes as having 'a real family atmosphere'.

Geography and economics were "interesting and well-taught", she feels, and relevant to her current job. At the end of her course she had been offered a job as a cartographer with the Ministry of Defence, but was worried about the cost of living in London. 

Expanding her options

Over the course of a weekend she had spent back home in York to think about it, Sheila had heard about a job with Selby District Council as a trainee accountant. She decided to take this opportunity in order to build up her financial resources for a year, whilst the Ministry of Defence held open their job for her. When they contacted her 12 months later however, she told them she loved her job as an accountant and wanted to stay there. She has remained in local government ever since.

As a graduate, Sheila was sent to Leeds Metropolitan University to complete her block release accountancy training and was in 1994 awarded membership of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, which has a management bias that is useful in her subsequent career.

Accounting for the future

From then on Sheila was promoted to become principal accountant at Selby District Council, before moving to North Norfolk District Council in 1997 as chief accountant.  She has since held positions as head of financial services, strategic director of resources and from 2008 as deputy chief executive. She became chief executive in January 2012.

Sheila is surprised at how good a fit her university experience has been for her life today, even though she did not plan it that way. She picks out her participation in student politics and her economics studies as being especially appropriate to heading a public organisation in a time of recession.

"I can see that the things I was interested in and good at then have shaped who and what I am today," she says. "What Lancaster got right then was to recognise that as a student you are developing both as a young person and academically, and to support you in both."