Fifteen to One | Rachel Brealey

“I’ve been really impressed by how many truly brilliant people there are at the University and the level of commitment everyone has to providing students with an excellent experience.”

Rachel Brealey is the University’s Chief Operating Officer

Fifteen to one | Rachel Brealey. January 2023

In our latest Fifteen to One Q&A feature, Chief Operating Officer, Rachel Brealey, reveals her highlights since joining Leeds five months ago, as well as her proudest achievements and what inspires her most in her new role.

Rachel also outlines the key projects she’s currently working on, including the launch of the University’s new employee engagement survey.  

Can you describe your role in 100 words?

As Chief Operating Officer (COO), I’m a member of the University Executive Group and am primarily responsible for University-wide operations and the delivery of key corporate functions, including human resources, information services, marketing, student education services, advancement, campus innovation and development and transformation. It’s a varied and interesting role with lots of challenges.  

We make a significant contribution to the delivery of the University strategy and are closely engaged in leading and managing many large systems and process change projects. My primary focus is providing a high-quality and responsive service to staff and students whilst ensuring efficient use of resources.

How have your first few months been since joining the University?

It’s been a busy five months and I definitely haven’t had time to be bored! I arrived in A Level week in August (when my twins were also getting their results!) and only six weeks before the start of year, so I had to get up to speed fairly quickly, but everyone has been incredibly friendly and welcoming. I’ve spent a lot of time meeting staff and students and hearing about what’s working well and less well from their perspectives in order to understand where our focus needs to be, along with getting up to speed with all of the transformation programmes.

What’s really impressed you about Leeds?

I’ve been really impressed by how many truly brilliant people there are at the University and the level of commitment everyone has to providing students with an excellent experience. Everyone I meet is rightly proud of working at the University, and there’s an incredible amount of innovation and creativity happening across all of our teams. I also love how vibrant the campus is, and how much our students enjoy being at the University and living in the city.  

What question have you most frequently been asked in your new role?

Is Leeds better than Manchester?!

What are you most looking forward to working on?

I’m really looking forward to the launch of the new employee engagement survey. It’s been a few years since the last survey, and given the range of challenges everyone has faced and continues to manage – the impacts of COVID-19, cost of living pressures and workloads – I think it’s a really important opportunity to hear from our colleagues and work together to resolve the issues we all face.  

I’m also looking forward to progressing delivery of our transformation portfolio, which will support the delivery of our strategic ambitions and provide clear benefits to our students and colleagues to improve their day-to-day working lives. 

I’m also excited to be working with Leeds University Union (LUU) and academic and professional services colleagues on improving the student experience through greater digital capability, the provision of increased learning space, and through development and implementation of the campus masterplan.

Is there something, or someone, that has inspired you in your career?

I’ve been lucky enough to meet and work with a lot of inspirational people. One of the first registrars I worked for at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST) really inspired and encouraged me to be creative and innovative and to continually challenge myself, and I’ve held onto that through my career. I’ve also worked with some incredibly inspiring academic colleagues and I’m passionate about the benefits that working in partnership brings, both for colleagues on a personal level and for the institution. 

We all have that professional or personal achievement we’re incredibly proud of – can you tell us yours?

I have both professional and personal achievements I’m incredibly proud of. Personally, I’m incredibly proud of my twins and the people they have become. Definitely worth all the sleepless nights (and there were a lot of sleepless nights!). 

Professionally, my proudest achievement is MECD – the £425m capital project to develop a new engineering campus at the University of Manchester. I worked on the project from briefing right through to delivery, and had to get to grips with really complex technical specifications for research laboratories through to the design of student study space and workspace. It was the biggest change project I’d ever worked on and I found it challenging and rewarding in equal measure. Having spent years poring over design drawings and briefs, it was incredible to watch it being built, but the best part was seeing students explore the building when it first opened. 

What do you wish you’d known at the start of your career that you know now?

Getting it wrong isn’t usually a bad thing. Some of the projects and work I’m most proud of now were the ones where it didn’t all go to plan. I think you often learn a lot more from getting things wrong and picking yourself up and trying again than if it’s all plain sailing!

If you didn’t work in HE, what would have been your chosen career?

That’s a difficult one. I’m lucky enough to love my job and I really like working in education, so I haven’t really thought about it. When I was younger, I wanted to be a vet and then a journalist (rather opposite ends of the spectrum!), and I always liked the idea of being an actor – but, sadly, I don’t think I have the talent to go with the aspiration!  

What are your campus highlights so far?

My dad was a civil engineering student at the University in the early 60s, so it was great to visit the building where he studied. I really enjoyed the carol concert in the Great Hall – it’s such a fabulous space. But I think my favourite highlight was seeing the students at the December graduations. Graduation is such a great time for our students – and for us to share their success – and it was really lovely to see campus so busy and vibrant.

Have you found a favourite location on campus?

Having only been at the University for five months, I’m still finding my way around and there’s still so much more to explore. However, so far my favourite places are the reading room in the Brotherton Library and St George’s Field. The reading room is a real piece of history – both for the University and for me, as my dad still talks about studying there when he was a student. I love St George’s Field – it's great to have that kind of green space in a city centre campus and I really like graveyards! 

What’s still on your ‘to do’ list to visit?

There are lots of spaces I would like to visit, but fairly high on the list are the off-campus sports facilities and The Edge. I also want to explore Clothworkers. My degree was in textiles, so I’m keen to see the facilities available to our students and to hear more about the research taking place. 

What do you do to relax away from University life?

I like to go to the gym and meet up with friends and family, but my favourite pastime is walking my cocker spaniel, Olly. He loves to swim so we often walk by the River Mersey, but we like to explore and find new walks – preferably with a good pub at the end. If the weather isn’t so great (not that spaniels care about bad weather!), then I love watching movies. My son is a huge film fan and is studying film making at university, so he often has more obscure movie suggestions for us to watch, but I love Hitchcock and Tarantino films.

Where’s your favourite travel destination and why?

I love road trips and have really enjoyed exploring the US and Canada. Toronto is probably my favourite city – it’s so friendly and diverse, and we have friends over there, so it feels rather like a second home. 

What’s your random claim to fame?

I met the actor Matt Smith a couple of days after he’d been announced as the new Dr Who. He was coming out of a theatre in London at the same time as me and I stopped and spoke to him (and have the photo and autograph to prove it!). My daughter is still incredibly jealous as she’s a huge Dr Who fan!

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