Unfortunately last Thursday is likely to be a day none of us ever forgets. The date 24 February will always be infamous – infamous here for the lifting of COVID restrictions across England and of course infamous globally for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
My point is not a political one, I promise. It is however a genuine observation that the world around us is changing. Unfortunately neither coronavirus nor Russia’s military aspirations are new. But one could argue that for very different reasons what we are witnessing at the moment is history in the making. History being made perhaps for the wrong reasons, but again let me steer clear of getting political. These are both global concerns. We have lived with and adapted to coronavirus for the past two years and undoubtedly the Ukrainian crisis will affect us in the future; as well as the current impact of increasing numbers of refugees crossing the border into the EU.
But what does this have to do with local government, recruitment or retention? In a way, a lot. The reality is that time and again, local government has stepped up and provided meaningful leadership.
Leadership comes in a lot of forms, not all of them visible. Local authorities consistently go above and beyond. Take The MJ Local Authority of the Year award as an example. We are in our ninth year judging the most prestigious award in the local government calendar. Every year, in arguably increasingly difficult circumstances, we see local authorities coming to tell us their often inspiring stories about how they have made a genuine difference to the communities they serve.
In any year it is a challenge to distinguish the good from the great and that is a positive thing. As we continue to evaluate this year’s submissions for The MJ Local Authority of the Year award, it is evident that the bar is getting higher – but so too are the expectations of our expert judging panel.
To be a ‘leader’ you do not have to be running a service or an organisation. Granted, that is the traditional view of leadership but it cannot be the only one. Over the past two years we have seen countless examples of local government leadership through the pandemic – stepping in and stepping up when leadership from other partners and organisations was lacking.
Sadly it is inevitable that we will see many local authorities welcoming people cruelly displaced from their own communities in Ukraine. They’ll provide leadership, quite probably in the main with absolutely no fanfare.
‘Workforce warning’ was last week’s front page headline. The first paragraph read: ‘Councils are increasingly struggling to recruit and retain senior managers…’ I agree that demographic factors are relevant, but remuneration packages are generally less of an overt issue. The problem unfortunately is borne out of a systemic and drawn out failure of both recruitment and retention. It has been years in the making and all too often, recruitment and retention strategies are the issue. As is the abject lack of meaningful succession planning. While the focus on diversity is welcomed (as long as the difference between positive action – ‘good’ – and positive discrimination – ‘bad’ – is clearly understood), there is still a lack of understanding about inclusion. To be diverse and to better reflect communities within workforces and workforces within senior leadership teams is an essential component of being a high performing local authority. But without being inclusive, all this effort will do precisely nothing to attract and retain the brightest stars.
In two particularly memorable previous presentations of The MJ Local Authority of the Year award, we have been utterly blown away by the leadership on display in the room. And in both cases, that leadership did not come from the chief executive or the leader. It came from young, diverse and unbelievably talented people who in both cases put their ‘leaders’ in the shade. They spoke with grace, eloquence, passion, evidence; without notes, and barely without a blink – and they meant every word. That’s inclusive leadership. Leadership should not only be defined by how much you earn or your job title. If only I could get them on my 2023 panel...
The workforce challenges on last week’s front cover are not necessarily creating a sudden influx of capacity and talent into the field of interim management, but I do see a regular pattern. A pattern of failed permanent recruitment leading to a last minute requirement for interim support. All too infrequently, local authorities plan ahead and anticipate a challenging recruitment process and bring in interim support early enough to arguably benefit most from it. I could write a book about why permanent recruitment fails so often, ‘even’ with headhunters fronting the campaigns, but perhaps I’ll save that for another time.
So often here in the last two years, the leadership we have seen has been at a local level. And in many cases I expect those workforce challenges weren’t even a consideration at the time. Local government co-ordinated and delivered with passion, compassion and grace. It set out to make a difference without allowing the workforce challenges to stop it doing so.
Regardless of government policy around coronavirus, local authorities will continue to rise to the challenges of how we live with this virus on an ongoing basis. And inevitably, we will all feel an increasing impact on our daily lives due to the unimaginable situation unfolding in Ukraine. There, for me, leadership is most obvious both in terms of the sheer bravery of citizens willing to defend their homes and regions no matter what, but also from Volodymr Zelenskyy.
I imagine many of us couldn’t have named the President of Ukraine before this conflict, but already he has gained worldwide recognition for his unflinching leadership and is feted as a hero. Even in much more benign and local circumstances, heroic leadership can take many forms.
Neil Lupin is managing partner at Green Park Interim & Executive Search.
Tel: 07967 826026