Skip to main content

Building emotional literacy into leadership DNA

Written by: Luke Judd is a partner within the local government practice at GatenbySanderson
Published on: 24 Jan 2019

Building emotional literacy into leadership DNA

It’s not often you get the chance to talk emotions to some of the key influencers in Local Government. We took that opportunity in December when we joined the MJ’s Future Forum in Manchester to talk to a large group of chief executives and directors about the psychology of change. Sharing benchmark data derived from our behavioural model for public sector leadership (‘Altitude’), we centred upon the role emotions play when developing new ways of working and the onus for leadership to cultivate environments that facilitate psychological safety.

We were pleased at how well this theme was received as it offers some fresh alternatives to assessing and developing current leadership skills as well as some ideas on how to develop trust and innovation in top teams. In environments facing political, social and technological disruption, traditional mechanisms to determine and rate effective leadership feel increasingly outdated.

Indeed, local authorities are increasingly looking at the leadership and management skills of candidates as the key issue when making a senior appointment, as opposed to professional experience or knowledge.  Aside from the key statutory roles (where you clearly need a lawyer for the chief legal officer and a qualified accountant for the S151), many authorities are increasingly keen to take ‘risks’ and move away from what has been in the past a reliance on a narrow professional background. 

For example, although many clients do still seek someone with a social care background and qualification for statutory DCS appointments (and occasionally DASS appointments), I have recently worked with some authorities who are stressing the need for robust financial and performance management skills, given the huge budgetary and quality issues facing adults and children’s services.  The professional and practitioner skills are to be found at the 2nd tier (assistant director level) – the role of Strategic Director can therefore focus on the corporate, partnership, financial, strategic and performance issues.  

Another area where some authorities have moved away from the traditional model is in Corporate Services and Resources.  The standard approach has been to combine the Director of Resources with the S151 role and therefore seek a qualified accountant.  Yet some authorities are seeing this post as a broader ‘transformation’ role, which means the S151 duties get pushed down to 2nd tier, allowing the recruitment process to focus on candidates who have a very different skill set (specifically commercial and transformational).  That is not to say that someone with a finance background could not fulfil this new function, but allowing for some flexibility creates a broader candidate pool and gives the local authority the chance to rethink their structure and priorities.

A final service area where there has been a similar shift in perceptions has been ‘Place’.   Many of these directorates are reasonably new, and are a merger of what used to be separate environment and regeneration services.  While previously Directors used to be reasonably narrowly defined by their professional background (often in planning, environmental services or transport/highways) the current trend is to seek Directors who have very strong external partnership skills as well as an understanding of commercial and development issues.  Growth and regeneration are key for councils (for obvious reasons, given the changes in business rates and the cuts in central funding) – meaning that once again the professional expertise is pushed down to lower tiers.

What does this mean for recruitment?  It certainly means that we need to move away from narrowly defined Person Specifications which sometimes focus too much on professional or service expertise.  It also means that advert copy and attraction material need to describe the leadership and corporate challenges and opportunities inherit in a new senior position.  During a recruitment process, we still do undertake ‘technical’ interviews, but this is perhaps a misnomer as they are increasingly not a test of technical or professional skills – more a chance to have a discussion about a candidate’s broader experience, skills and understanding across a wide array of issues including partnerships, budgets, corporate working etc.  And at a final panel process, it is key to introduce a number of different elements to allow the hiring authority to test candidates across a number of settings.  For instance, partnership panels, service user panels, informal and formal meetings with Members, presentations, media exercises, etc.  And, of course, a meeting with a group of corporate colleagues is vital in testing organisational ‘fit’.

Psychometric profiling can play a key part in all of this, and equally this has evolved over time to reflect the new approach.  Some of us can remember the time when the standard battery of tests included verbal reasoning, numeracy and critical thinking.  There was some merit in some of these, but they resulted in very specific percentile scores and didn’t offer a great deal of context or depth.  Now, instead, we find the wider use of personality, management and leadership profiling much more helpful when assessing candidates.  They may not result in an empirical ‘score’ (which was sometimes helpful in layman’s terms) – but instead they offer a deeper insight into what this person will be like as a colleague, manager and leader.  Are they collaborative, innovative, commercially minded, etc?  In addition, the profiling can be weaved into a council’s specific behaviours to ensure synergy and relevance as well as compared to the wider pool of public sector candidates via our Altitude model.    

In a sector that is so often at the sharp end of change delivery, it is essential that Local Government does not fall into a ‘business as usual’ mindset when it comes to seeking the very people who will inspire and be at the forefront of innovation over the coming years. 

GatenbySanderson is the leading executive search and talent consulting firm working across public services. Luke Judd is a Partner in the Local Government Practice.