Business Services

The Road to GM: A Remarkable Career Path

Author: Careers at Council

Read time: 11 min read

Q&A with Adrian Butler – General Manager, Federation Council

We recently caught up with Adrian Butler and enjoyed an inspiring chat that took us on a journey across his 27-year career in local government. From Adrian’s early days working outdoors on the roads of Balranald Shire Council, to his current role as General Manager of Federation Council – his story is one of hard work, determination, and a commitment to continuous learning. Read on and learn more about Adrian’s remarkable career path.

Q. Can you tell us about your educational background and why you chose a job in local government?

A. I’m the youngest of ten kids and we grew up in South Western NSW on our 30,000-acre sheep property. Mum and Dad instilled in us early, the importance of a good education. Until Year 9, Mum was our teacher and we learnt via distance learning. At year 9, we all went away to Boarding School. I went away to boarding school in Melbourne.

After finishing Year 12, with ok marks, I went to university to study a Bachelor of Business Accounting. I did about two years of university, but to be honest, I had a lot of other distractions with football, skiing, cricket, tennis and probably too much time at the pub! When I look back, I just hadn’t figured out what I wanted to do and wasn’t ready for Uni.

The time inevitably came when I needed some more money than what I could make in between Uni classes, so I left without completing the course.   I did some work with stock because that was what I knew and I also worked with tractors and earth moving in the private sector. But I found over the 3 or so years, there was a lot of weekend work and it interfered with my sport and lifestyle too much!  My older sister was working at Balranald Shire Council at the time, and she suggested that I come down and get a job at Council. Balranald was the closest town to where we grew up, so it was a bit like coming home.

I applied for a job as a plant operator at Balranald Shire, and was successful. That was my first job in local government, in 1997. I loved the outdoor work – I started out on the patching truck out on the roads, then did some work on the garbage truck, before moving onto the rollers and the occasional stint on the graders, and then finally worked with some great guys on the loader and gravel trucks. Because of the distances that we had to travel, there was a lot of camping out all week. I really enjoyed the work as it was always interesting and busy, so the time went quickly, and you could see the difference you made with the roads, and the farmers appreciated this.  I also got to meet a lot of interesting staff and contractors.

Q. It sounds like you found your feet and it suited your lifestyle. What was your next move?

A. Although I loved working outdoors, after three years, I was eventually encouraged to go indoors to further my career, and when a traineeship job came up in Health and Building in the planning department of Balranald Shire, I applied and was fortunate to get it. To be honest, it wasn’t anything I’d ever thought of! After six months in, council enrolled me in an Environmental Health and Building Surveying course. It was a great way of networking and meeting people and was required for the role.

Q. What did you enjoy the most about that role?

A. I was indoor for around four years and I loved working in the place that I lived. In addition to building surveying, town planning and health work, I was involved in organising grants for footy clubs, medical centres, caravan parks.  It was really rewarding actually knowing I was making a difference in my own community in areas other than roads. I starting to realise that it felt good to be involved in community-facing services that actually made a difference.

Q. Did you continue with your studies?

A. Yes! To further my career, we left Balranald Shire in 2004, for Bourke, after I obtained a position there as an Environmental Health and Building Surveyor with Bourke Shire Council.  My wife and I lived and worked there for five years. My wife has a finance background and she got a job straight away at council in the rates department.  I did a lot more study while we were up there, completing my Environmental Health and Building qualifications and also commencing an Associate Diploma in Urban and Regional Planning.

And, the great thing for me was that I was again learning on the job, I didn’t have to go away to Uni for three or four years like I tried to do straight out of school without any funds. This way I was supported by the councils I was working at, and actually learning at the same time and applying those tertiary skills in the workplace.

Q. What was your role at Bourke Shire Council and can you explain your move then to Lachlan Shire?

A. By the end of my five years in Bourke, I’d worked my way up the ladder from a Senior Health and Building Surveyor to eventually a Manager. We loved our work and our life and the people in Bourke, but eventually we wanted to come down to the Riverina Murray area to be closer to family, as we had by then started our own. We just couldn’t get the type of roles we wanted in this area, so I was fortunate to land a Director’s position at Condobolin, for Lachlan Shire Council in the centre of NSW. I worked for nearly four years there as a Director with a very wide portfolio, not just health planning and building, and was reporting directly to the General Manager. I learnt a lot from my GM there about how to handle different stakeholders and projects, how to remain calm, and how to avoid getting too defensive and taking things too personally.  I also completed my tertiary planning studies whilst there.  Again I loved the job, the area and the people, but we just needed to be closer to family.

Q. So how did you finally make it down to the beautiful Riverina Murray region?

A. Starting out, I never dreamt I would be at GM level, so I wasn’t looking for those roles, mainly Director roles, but when a GM position came up at Urana Shire Council in 2013, I looked at the area and it suited us, so I put my hand up for it and was very fortunate to be successful. Urana was the smallest shire in the state population wise, with 1,200 people – but with 2,000 kms of roads, around 3,500 sq kilometres, 5 towns and villages, and fantastic communities, there was plenty to do! My family just loved it here, and once the kids were happy at school, and we realised it is within an hour or so of a lot of places, we settled. We’ve since bought a small farm, built a house, and are kept busy on weekends with plenty of horses, dogs, sheep, and cattle!

After three years, Urana Shire was forcibly merged with Corowa Shire into Federation Council as part of the then NSW Government reforms of Local Government. I decided not to go for an Interim GM role in the new Council during the Government ran selection process, and after spending around a year in an acting Director role, I left and went out contract building surveying and planning for other Councils.  I have always kept my Building Surveying accreditation so I was easily able to contract my services to other nearby councils.

When Federation Council eventually ran a recruitment process for this position under the elected Councillors, I applied and was fortunate to be successful. So, all up now, I’ve done 6 years in Federation Council, being into my second contract.

Q. What is one of the more challenging aspects of your role?

A. Besides the work and disruption that a merger brings, you have multiple stakeholders, so you have to manage the councillors on one side, the community on the other side, and then your own team as well. It’s a real juggle and an evolving challenge. But I find it really interesting. By the time I had worked five to six years indoors, I found I had been presenting all of these council reports to my Director, and I had never even been to a council meeting. I thought it was unusual to do all that work, and not see how council actually debates it and what they think of the report. So, it wasn’t until I received the Managers job at Bourke, 10 years after working for Councils, that I actually got to attend a Council meeting! I found it to be a great eye-opener to see how our elected representatives operate, with the meetings, debate and the decision-making process. It filled in the whole puzzle for me, and made me eager to continue at the executive level.

I think that’s maybe why some people don’t take the next step to a Manager, Director or GM in Local Government – they get worried about the politics. But actually, understanding how that side of things works is really important. I think you should try to put yourself in the councillors’ shoes at times – they’re trying to get an outcome for the community who elected them, and it’s crucial in my role that I remember that.

Q. What would your average day, week or month look like?

A. Well essentially, we implement the day-to-day decisions of council. I get involved with councillors to hear their concerns – big or small, I meet weekly with our three Directors – Engineering, Planning and Finance, and we have a great People and Culture Manager who is doing a lot of great work with us as leaders. Monthly, I am planning for the next council meeting, following up on the last one, undertaking many forms of community and stakeholder engagement and of course attending many management meetings on our budgets and plans, our projects, services and everything in between!

It is so varied and dynamic – and that’s what keeps me in the role. I’ve learnt that you have to be agile, but never overly reactive. You can’t get pulled in all directions. You have to trust the great staff that you’ve employed to be able to do the job. I have often heard, the best way to lose good people is by micromanaging them.

Q. What does a successful day look like to you?

 A. It’s about organising myself, setting tasks and then and achieving those things that I set out to do. I want to be able to say I’ve moved that issue forward that the council has been worried about, or I’ve helped to resolve a staff dispute or sorted a project over run. It sounds really basic, but aside from the big picture stuff around our strategic planning and managing our risks, success can actually just be that I have my emails under control, I know where I’m going next week, what I’m doing, what my tasks are.

Q. After 27 years in local government, what do you think you get working for council that you wouldn’t get anywhere else?

A. Oh that’s easy, I can give you a list!

  • The huge variety of work. Just look at me, from outdoor work on the roads, to CEO level!
  • Whether it be across the state, across the country, or around the world.
  • Financial assistance. You can really achieve your educational goals in local government, we will support you to study – I’ve found that invaluable in my career. You also get all your equipment you need, not like many private jobs.
  • Work/life balance and flexibility. You should never live to work, you should always work to live. Council offers so much flexibility, whether it be working from home, or 4-day week – local government has really recognised the need to shift our mindset in this area.
  • Making a difference in communities. Even if your role isn’t directly involved with the community, the work you do supports the services we provide.
  • The endless opportunities for your career. There is seriously so many career paths on offer here.

Time to start ticking off your career list in local government? Whether you’re just starting out, or looking to progress your already established career – keep up to date with Federation Council job opportunities or check out other roles across Australia at Careers at Council Jobs.

Related News