Career profile: Noelle Sexton, head of operations, Cambridge University Library

Written by
Sarah Clark

11 Dec 2015

11 Dec 2015 • by Sarah Clark

Basic details

CV in brief:

  • 2012-present: Cambridge University Library, head of operations
  • 2010-2011: JaguarLandRover, interim HR consultant – engineering recruitment special project for the Evoque launch
  • 2009: BT Openreach, interim performance improvement consultant
  • 2007-2008: Alghanim Industries (Kuwait), interim HR business partner, finance and IT
  • 2005-2006: London Borough of Ealing Council, head of recruitment
  • 1992-2003: GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceuticals, recruitment manager & strategic resourcing
  • 1979-1990: ABN Amro Bank, HR assistant manager

A day in the life

Tell us about your job and organisation

My job is head of operations for Cambridge University Library. I have three business units reporting into me: HR, finance and facilities management.

It is a busy and hands-on role and in addition, I am project managing a major change programme at the library which is called the 'Future of Library Services'. 

Who do you report into?

I report into the deputy librarian.

Tell us about your team

I have a great team of talented people who never let me down. I am passionate about people doing what they are good at and enjoy, rather than doing things imposed upon them. We try to keep the focus of the roles in that ball park to ensure that people stay enthused and engaged in their role. 

What is the most rewarding part of your role?

Taking raw talent and turning them into employees who love doing what they do and go on to be promoted and recognised for their talent.

What is the most challenging part of the role?

Winter storms causing havoc to a listed building and threatening the environment in which our collections are kept, ensuring our carbon footprint is reduced year on year, and that employees are on board with the sacrifices they need to make to achieve that.

What does a typical day look like for you? 

I don’t have a typical day. Everyday is different, random things happen in FM and HR and you cannot predict what that might be until it is upon you. 

It requires every last drop of innovation, flexibility and ingenuity one might muster and certainly plays the counter melody to my weird and wonderful experience to date. 

Why did you choose your current organisation to work for? 

A like a challenge.

Perks and downsides of your role? 

I work with brilliant people in their field and I don’t have to travel into London to do it. However, it has to be said that the traffic in Cambridge, together with house prices are the stuff of legend!

What skills are essential for the role you’re in? 

Pragmatism, innovation, communication, sense of humour, stakeholder management, project management, analysis and summary of complex situations, ability to deliver a high workload on time and to budget, commitment and tenacity to see things through against many barriers, talent management and the ability to recognise and act upon personal development needs – regardless of how much you think you know!

Career path

How did you get to where you are now?

Sheer persistence!

What were your best subjects in school? What and where did you study? 

English and History (I turned up, but don’t remember anything useful about the other 9) I went to a no frills boarding school in the Irish midlands. It was grim.

What was your first job?

My first job was as a library assistant in an specialist planning & construction library; I was sent by my college for an interview at Guinness, as an office worker, but I decided I would find my own job which needed to be intellectually stimulating. 

I went to a job agency without an appointment and told them I needed a new job; they sent me for an interview at a library the same day and I got the job. I started the job the following Monday. It was the most fun I had had all year. 

How did you get it and why did you choose to work there? 

I chose to work there because it was more stimulating than an office job and I was able to finance and do further studies at night, after work.

Have you followed the career path you set out to? 

That assumes I had a plan. I did not know who I was or what I was good at. Apart from the desire to earn lots of money, I had no goal in mind. I learned about myself in my first few years and it occurred to me that I needed to be stimulated intellectually by the organisations I worked for. I also had a short attention span and once I understood the organisation, I needed a say in how they managed their staff in order to deliver their end goals. 

I came across many people along the way who were incapable of managing people let alone an organisation. It seemed to me that the two talents went hand in hand. 

During the late 70’s and mid 80’s I was slightly mesmerised by the commonly held belief that men could be managers of anything but women could not. I did not entertain that belief, despite its popularity amongst friends, family and complete strangers.   

I also learned that timing is everything and you do not give information and talent away; you should not overwhelm people with your point of view nor should you make them look inadequate. It is better to recognise the right opportunity, don’t interfere or rush in when people trip up or make their mistakes, instead help them out of their quandary without embarrassing them. 

A journey must be made which involves give and take; you must earn your respect until it’s your time – then you may show off! It does not take long and there is so much to learn along the way. You could then just blunder in, telling everyone what to do and how to do it, but when you make a mistake (and you will) you will not be forgiven and you will not be surrounded by a solid team of wing-men. You will, in fact be surrounded by staff with a pack mentality who prey on ‘weakness’, (aka decency and humanity) the kind of people you really don’t want to be around in case whatever ails them is catching. We have all been there at some stage. When you find yourself in this kind of team, you get out fast. There is nothing to see or do here that will benefit you as a person or a performer. 

What challenges have you faced along the way? How did you overcome them?

The biggest battles I have fought along the way have been with entrenched stereotype perceptions and lack of development opportunities for able people who like to soak up challenge, or who have a passion for knowledge and change.

Not every able or talented person has access to the boss and this can be a chink in your talent armour. Not every talented person has an impressive qualification. Many organisations will not let you through the door or near anything worthwhile unless you wave your Masters or PhD at them when it matters. They prefer to ‘howl at the moon’ about the perceived calibre of their employees and their academic prowess setting the benchmark, rather than measure the success of their staff in terms of how people deal with and manage any challenge set . 

Talk is cheap; I need to see hard evidence of how people successfully applied their knowledge in difficult or complex situations to bring about the desired outcomes. It also needs to be their own work rather than the work of a colleague which is taken and claimed as their own because they added a bit on the end! Credit must be given where it is due or you will lose your most talented people. You need to keep a very close eye on your team and your talent. Performance management works both ways.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve done to land a job? 

Doing something crazy to land a job is not sustainable and I would not advocate it. Landing a job is a serious lifestyle and career choice and should be done with care and responsibility for yourself and your prospective employer. You need to be proud of the employer you work for, it’s a partnership.

What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?  

Watching those I have mentored doing really well in their career or getting jobs because I have coached them. In addition, mixing my career with being a single mother who brought up a thoroughly nice daughter who is now my best friend and who has the best social skills I have ever encountered in a single human being.

Do you have any career regrets? 

I might have liked to become an engineer and build big bridges or complicated tunnels in faraway places – but had I become an engineer, I might not have done the things I have actually done in my present career path.

What advice would you offer to others who are looking to get to where you are now?

Never settle. Do what you are good at, not what you think you might like to do. Be proud of your employer and the contribution they are making to the planet.

What advice would you give to your 22-year-old self?  

The only opinion that matters is your own. Politics is the plaything of those with no talent for doing the job well. 


  • Coffee or tea? Coffee before 10am and Tea after 11am
  • Jam or marmalade? Jam
  • The Beatles or The Rolling Stones? The Rolling Stones
  • Mac or PC? PC (never had a Mac, so can’t judge)
  • The Guardian or The Times? The Times
  • BBC or ITV? Neither;  both extremely annoying (do you want to be patronised to death or driven to distraction by game shows, aaagh)
  • M&S or Waitrose? M&S (they also sell clothes and save on excessive shopping time – I hate shopping!)
  • Morning or night? Night
  • Rain or snow? Snow  (but, can you please make it warmer?)
  • Sweet or savoury? Savoury (so many crisps, so little time….)


  • App: What’s a App J  -  I manage to live without them. Too fiddly.
  • TV show: I am addicted to Netflix.  I just love to watch a whole series at a time, its like some weird endurance test and frequently get asked by the android if I’m still there……and sadly, yes I am !
  • Band: Genesis (the Peter Gabriel era)  or Led Zepplin  (can’t decide) 
  • Song: Could not name one in particular, I like choices and compelling ballads. It depends.
  • Book: The book I have not yet written but threaten to write every January since I was 27    
  • Sports team: I am not sporty and have never followed a team sport. Sport is for people with too much time on their hands and a lot to prove to themselves
  • Thing to do on a Friday night: Do what you feel like doing, not what others drag you along to. Live in the moment when its Friday.
  • Place to eat: Hawksmoor Seven Dials is a firm favourite or local gastropubs can be great
  • Holiday spot: I want to go to Borneo or Madagascar next (to explore)
  • Piece of advice you’ve been given: Eat to live, don’t live to eat.
  • If a movie was made about your life, who would play you and why? Meryl Streep. When I was young (I classify ‘young’ as in my 20’s) I was always told I looked like her. She is an outstanding character actor and truly seems to capture and encompass the essence of her characters. In addition, she understands what audiences need to see and hear to build a relationship with that character. She is unique in her profession.