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Expanding horizons

Written by: Steve Guest is director of executive recruitment and assessment at Solace in Business
Published on: 23 Feb 2023

Local government is without doubt one of the most exciting sectors in which to build a career. My own kids are sick to death of me trying to convince them to look at opportunities in the sector. Sorry, girls – your old man will be banging the drum for local government for a long time!

That said, it might be exciting (and incredibly broad in terms of scope and complexity), but it isn’t necessarily the easiest sector to navigate in terms of career progression. Given the breadth of what local government does, it would be easy to assume opportunities to develop and grow are flying around all over the place, but from my own experience as a former officer myself and from what I hear from those still working in the sector, that isn’t the case.

Succession planning. It’s a good thing, right? I don’t think there’s much of an argument against it as a concept. As far as I can measure, there is universal acceptance building a strong, diverse talent pipeline is a good thing.

We’ve known for years we have an ageing workforce. We knew folk would be retiring. Yes, the pandemic and changes to pension arrangements have accelerated the situation, but it isn’t like we didn’t know it was coming. The lure of better pay (and perhaps a better work/life balance?) has also seen top talent move out of the sector entirely.

When it comes to succession planning, we’ve been talking the talk, but there hasn’t been the action needed to make it a reality. In case any readers are thinking ‘hang on, my local authority has a very effective workforce strategy that is delivering real results in terms of succession planning’, then I salute you and I encourage you to share that success with others. However, that isn’t the case when you look at the sector as a whole. Frankly, we’re paying the price for this long-term under-investment now.

Wider resource pressures on the local government sector have also played a significant role in where we are today. The reduction in management roles that have come from restructuring, de-layering and merging roles (and expanding breadth of roles as a consequence) have removed opportunities to grow the seniority and span of experience over time. Admittedly, this isn’t planned development, but in the past, promotion may have meant a measured upward curve in seniority and complexity. These days, it’s more of a sudden jolt from ‘strong professional’ in a particular field, to ‘corporate leader’ – almost overnight.

This kind of change requires measured, considered and proactive support – long before the fact. If formal succession planning isn’t delivering the results we need, then I would suggest the onus needs to be on individuals to find the opportunities to develop and grow themselves. One such opportunity is in shadowing colleagues outside of your own professional sphere.

The importance of being able to see the bigger picture, to horizon scan and consider the wider implications of service delivery, strategy, policy or decision making beyond the confines of your own professional expertise is a critical ingredient to becoming a strategic leader. The ability to ‘read across’ and consider wider perspectives is critical for senior roles across all local government services.

At Solace, we recognise this as an important development requirement within our own teams. As part of our internal learning and development programme, we’re always considering different ways we can provide learning opportunities which contribute to employee personal development. 

While some of our team are former local government officers, many of us are not and are keen to get that exposure. As a result, we have been  exploring whether shadowing a council officer would be a useful exercise to deepen our understanding of what local government life is like, having not worked in a council ourselves. 

Last week two members of our recruitment team had the pleasure of spending a day shadowing Jill Parker, assistant director for HR, communications and executive office at City of Doncaster Council. Jill had a varied day planned and our team members were able to attend a number of key meetings with stakeholders, most of whom they wouldn’t otherwise encounter. This included a corporate health and safety meeting with the cabinet portfolio holder and head of service; a meeting with elected members, regional trade union and HR representatives; an equality, diversity and inclusion portfolio project team meeting, and a meeting with the corporate resources leadership team – so an incredibly broad and day of activity overall.

What did my colleagues learn? Firstly, no two local authorities are the same. Although there are many similarities in terms of how the business is run, each council will have a different local context, political dynamic, culture, way of doing things and its people. 

Secondly, the importance of building strong transparent relationships with your members and portfolio holders. Get to know them, understand their agendas and how they operate. As an officer your legitimacy is reinforced through your knowledge and values – so know your stuff (both inside and outside your own professional domain).

Third, the challenges of recruitment and retention are real and being felt everywhere. Ways to better engage a workforce and consider the employer brand proposition are very live issues for everyone.

Finally, being an effective senior officer requires listening, adaptability, curiosity, visibility, resilience and the ability to persuade and influence across a wide range of issues that don’t necessarily reflect your own professional background.

Jill was a fantastic and very accommodating host and shadowing her was a privilege (not to mention eye-opening) for our team members.

Shadowing others can be an effective way of expanding your own understanding and horizons in a very practical way. It allows employees to take their personal development into their own hands and encourages shared understanding. Surely a win-win for everyone. 

Steve Guest is director of executive recruitment and assessment at Solace in Business

· Additional contributions were made to this article by Gemma Stevenson-Coupe