As the dust settles post the recent local elections and many new chief executive appointments announced, now is an opportune time to consider the role of political leaders as organisational ambassadors.
The scrutiny of public leaders, both those elected and those holding executive office has never been higher nor more visible. We would also argue that the need to lead effectively, ethically, with both social heart and commercial head has never been so important for organisational and employee wellbeing, future success and stability.
In light of this, it is interesting to consider the withdrawal of some senior candidates from recruitment processes once the local election results were announced. At a time when competition for the best talent is fierce, what risk does this pose to our public organisations and how deeply do political leaders understand that they are a window to the organisation and the ‘brand’ mouthpiece?
With such open access and council meetings shared on social media, there is nowhere to hide in terms of member engagement and behaviours with each other and their officers.
How does their personal leadership, clarity of vision and engagement help attract diverse talent or, conversely, how might it drive the best talent into the arms of other local authorities? As democratic services in local government pull out all the stops to prepare members in fulfilling their role, is there sufficient focus on the less tangible, ‘softer’ skills needed to succeed individually and collectively in terms of leadership style and behaviours?
When pace, agility and effective engagement are essential for organisational success and community outcomes, how can authorities ensure that ‘business as usual behaviours’ reflect a culture and ethos that will retain staff and bring in the newer skills that will deliver technology and people-led transformation while achieving greater representation and understanding of community needs.
The last 18 months has seen the greatest chief executive turnover for some years, and this is reflected across other sectors such as health and not for profit. With many having postponed retirement to navigate their organisations through the pandemic, we know that there are more to come. As the economy enters a more turbulent phase with inflation at a 40-year high, now is the time to re-energise and escalate ambitious change programmes using the agility from recent experience to create entrepreneurial, non-hierarchical environments that criss-cross services and sectors.
In looking to the immediate future, my question is now how much bolder can local authorities be? How confident is the sector that it has its succession planning in place and that current officers and members are able to navigate a still uncertain landscape?
Over the next two to three years many directors will be eligible to claim their pensions or reach a maximum pension pot. Alternative lifestyles will continue to appeal to senior leaders and risks a talent vacuum that cannot be immediately filled. How can members and officers encourage talent to the sector and help more diverse talent step up to be leadership ready? Though some of these new leaders may not have the technical skills (there is often sufficient expertise around them) they will have the energy to inspire and galvanise a weary workforce where budgets will be limited. They will be creative in forging new collaborative partnerships that embrace technology while offering frontline staff greater opportunity to do what they do best: talk, support and engage with service users.
This diversity of thought has never been more important than it is right now. Elected members involved in the appointment process of senior officers are at the helm of this momentous change and will be thinking carefully about what their organisation’s needs and how their own leadership impacts who they appoint.
Putting personal and party differences aside and prioritising what collective change and support they really can give will create a positive and unified organisational dynamic.
Perhaps the assessment we make of candidates and their fit is a little one-sided. In this climate, maybe final panel members would benefit from psychometric profiling to establish their ‘group’ appetite for change and levels of resilience under immense stress; the successful appointee should complement this team profile without having to mirror the same behaviours or competencies.
If the member panel is the window to the organisation and personification of the ‘employer brand’, in a candidate-driven market, leaders (and ultimately the public) are looking for a corporate culture that demonstrates integrity, humility and creativity in how public services are delivered and employees treated. They are less tolerant of complacency, inappropriate behaviour or an inability to think differently.
Nancy Scott is a partner in GatenbySanderson’s local government practice.