Courageous appointments

Written by: Rebecca Hopkin is a consultant with GatenbySanderson’s local government executive search practice.
Published on: 13 Jul 2023

As a former council officer and recent addition to the GatenbySanderson (GS) team, I have spent considerable time reflecting upon my own experience and how bringing in a different kind of person, with a new perspective, can really shape and influence the direction of a team.

Thinking about the vast spectrum of senior appointments we make across public services, raises a poignant question for me, particularly in a less certain political and social landscape, and one that’s shared by colleagues, clients and candidates alike. What does a good local government leader look like and how has our thinking changed around looking beyond the ‘norm’ when making important leadership appointments? And how prepared is the sector to stand by its desire to bring in ‘difference’?

 It has long been the case that, during the initial briefing stages of an appointments process, many stakeholders profess to be receptive to a more radical appointment but, invariably, as we progress through the process, the outcome results in an appointment of a rather traditional nature.

Understandably, for some roles, it is essential to appoint a professional with the appropriate degree of seniority and/or local government experience (and I’m not suggesting for a second that senior leaders should neglect the fantastic talent already within the realms of this sector, many of whom I’ve had the absolute pleasure of working with directly I might add). However, recent years have seen a real change in this thinking, with some bold and hugely successful appointments having been made as a result.

That there are too few senior candidates in the market for the number of available jobs is so often stated that it has become a cliché. This increasingly fierce competition for senior talent has undoubtedly been one of the key driving forces for a change in thinking.

Given the pressures and uncertainty facing the sector as a whole, coupled with the transferability of skills, such as stakeholder engagement, good governance and of course people leadership, many of our local authorities increasingly value the way in which a ‘courageous’ appointment can challenge the status quo, help deliver more for less, and help cross-fertilise ideas from other sectors.

Now we all know the attractions a career in local government presents, but the sector is increasingly attracting senior candidates from all sectors. The pandemic showed the whole country the power of local government and brought into sharp focus the sector’s role as the fourth emergency service. As a result, we have seen a sharp increase in the levels of candidate interest from outside the sector.

While some may initially find certain aspects of local government take a little getting used to, there are many examples of people making a move into the sector, who are not only thriving, but trailblazers in their own right.

By way of a few examples, we have seen increased candidates from the military with some  fantastic  senior appointments being made. There’s something quite impressive in hearing how the command of 5,000 military troops in Afghanistan is transferable and relatable to setting the strategic direction and corporate golden thread for an organisation.

Private or quasi-public sector applicants are also increasingly finding success – often wanting to make the move into a sector that offers more social value. Their commercial acumen and ability to deliver at pace is seen as an advantage to clients looking for these qualities. From managing directors of regional bus companies and female leaders in private sector waste organisations to directors within FTSE 250 infrastructure and renewable energy companies, many are making waves and organically bringing the thinking of their respective authorities into a new and welcome phase.

As a huge personal fan of internal progression, and with a background in organisational development, there must always be room for discussions around effective succession planning and ‘growing our own’. Rising talent within local authorities is increasingly being identified where open thinking in respect of step-up candidates is welcomed.

Covid taught us all to step outside of our comfort zone and deliver beyond our experiences, with fantastic examples of leaders now being promoted internally or moving to another local authority to take on a much broader portfolio. Yes, of course a skill gap exists, however nobody enters into a new role fully formed and our own experience tells us many of these candidates thrive in this environment, not least to prove their worth and provide comfort that the decision to appoint them was a wise one to make.

As already mentioned, there will always be senior posts that require existing local government experience. And it goes without saying the sector has created its own outstanding talent pool  –  the excellent work being delivered by existing talent is a driver for fresh talent into local government. As we move into a new phase as a society, the local government sector shows a strong appetite to make bolder appointments; those doing so  are starting to see significant benefits for their organisations and their communities.

We talk about diversity and the need to represent the communities we serve (gender, age, ethnicity, disability), so it’s heartwarming to see a diversification of our own thinking and widening of our talent pool, bringing people from all walks of life and experience into senior leadership teams.

I joined GS for a number of reasons, strongly influenced by experiencing on a firsthand basis the real power a senior appointment has to shape an organisation’s future direction. This was strengthened by  GS’s real desire to find and develop leaders that shape a better society.

Considered a bold hire myself, I am enjoying seeing this recent shift in innovative thinking and am genuinely excited by, and look forward to, seeing a meaningful change to our traditional leadership teams, and welcome the diverse range of talent we have within our reach.

To discuss your own senior leadership aspirations and how our own experiences may benefit, the GS team would be delighted to sit down and discuss this with you. 

Rebecca Hopkin is a consultant with GatenbySanderson’s local government executive search practice.