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Investing in the future – the challenge and opportunity

Written by: Julie Towers is managing director of Penna
Published on: 21 Sep 2023

With so many financial pressures and authorities declaring s114 notices and an economy with significant pressures, it is not surprising that for some investing in training, development and future talent can seem impossible now.

But with so many continuing talent challenges post Brexit and post Covid, it is in my view one of the most important investments to be making. For most organisations, particularly the public sector our main asset is people – their attitude, drive, innovation, passion, and purpose – and their skills, abilities, experience and leadership.

Working in the executive leadership space I see first-hand on a daily basis, the pressures placed on the shoulders of chief executives, management, and leadership teams. Complex societal problems, increasing reliance on public services, inflation, getting hybrid working to work, inspiring and diversifying the workforce, increased regulation, policy changes, political changes…and the list goes on. It is therefore good to see from our research and networks that even though the job gets harder chief executives continue to believe it is still the best job in the world.

Five years ago, we had a significant talent crisis in leadership, with major declines in quantity and quality of candidates for chief executive roles and a malaise among many that the increased level of responsibility and risk just was not worth it. Since then, we have had Covid and Brexit placing additional pressures on the role and on public service leaders and experienced a bonfire of resignations and retirements, so it is not surprising to note that 51% of chief executive roles in local government have only been in post since March 2020.

In 2018, with much support from the sector, Penna launched its Aspirant Chief Executive Programme. Inspired by conversations with Barry Quirke, the then chief executive of Lewisham and Mike Cooke, chief executive in Camden, we developed and launched an experiential programme to support ambitious leaders in understanding the role of chief execs, and exploring whether they might want to become one. We surveyed current chief execs and asked what they would have liked to have known more about before taking on the role, their learning points, and top tips for becoming one. This insight and the support of the Local Government Association (LGA),  the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA), the Public Services People Managers’ Association, The Staff College and many more public and private sector partners has enabled us to support three cohorts and many delegates on their journey.

We identified that one of the biggest barriers to becoming a chief executive was the uncertainty about what the role focused on, its key responsibilities both statutory and as a leader of place, partnerships, organisation and policy – with many seeing the challenges of the role rather than the opportunities. So, our programme was purposely designed to complement other academic and development programmes offered and give real insights into becoming a chief exec and then succeeding in the role.

We have been blessed to hear from more than 40 chief executives per programme and their personal stories, journeys and reflections have been inspiring and pivotal in helping our delegates see all sides of the role.

Any development invested in by authorities and individuals is all about investing in the future and the sector, as authorities know that their sponsored delegates may need to leave to secure a chief executive role elsewhere. This investment and care for the future of the sector has enabled 18 of our 55 delegates to date to become chief execs in public services, and given others the ambition and expertise to become them in the future (or know that it’s not for them, for the moment).

We have been really pleased however to see that the return on investment made by our sponsors and delegates can come more quickly – with many of our cohorts saying it has made a significant contribution to their personal development in their current role, and can cite changes and improvements in their leadership.

One such comment was: ‘Hearing the stories – everyone saying the same messages but in their own style and way – has been enlightening. The networking has been great, with lots of similar minded people. I go back to work with so much energy following the sessions.’

Another called the programme: ‘A goldmine of information and insight; energy boosting.’

At a time when it’s so hard to justify investment in non-core activity, and every penny counts it would be easy not to invest in people, talent and the future – but we need future leaders to be more prepared, more resilient, more insightful and innovative to resolve the many current and future challenges. So I hope local authorities will see the benefit of programmes such as ours, and the excellent development programmes offered by the sector (from the likes of the LGA, Solace, CIPFA, the District Councils’ Network, the County Councils’ Network and many more).

If we want a strong, resilient workforce and leaders, we must help them find the path, develop their skills, prepare and be confident of ongoing support as they take on some of the most challenging and important jobs for the benefit of our communities and society.

To find out more about the 2024 ACX Programme email 

Julie Towers is managing director of Penna