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Organisational leadership: a constantly evolving challenge

Written by: Dawn Faulkner is a Partner at Faerfield Consulting
Published on: 2 Nov 2023

As senior executive leaders get back down to work following their exertions at this year’s Solace Summit, Matt Prosser’s rallying cry for a higher standard of professional civility still rings around the sector. My colleague Martin Tucker pointed out last week that senior managers in local government can be acutely affected by poor behaviour, not least because it diverts attention and time away from the organisational priorities that are their principal focus.

And those organisational priorities aren’t getting any simpler. We know that demand-led services are seeing an exponential rise in need and cost, particularly where they rely on commercial supply chains to discharge a statutory responsibility. The Local Government Association’s recent submission to the chancellor in advance of the Autumn Statement demonstrates that finances are reaching a tipping point in many authorities, which creates a ‘whole system’ pressure that affects every area of service.

What’s more, after a decade of efficiency senior teams are as lean as they’ve ever been – which can make it hard to create the leadership capacity to accommodate an unforeseen or unpredictable crisis. The recent flooding across England could be a harbinger of climate-driven crisis much closer to home than many have expected.

At Faerfield, our core expertise is talent; but that’s a much broader repertoire than the simple recruitment of the past. Today, the leading players in our industry provide a sophisticated advisory service, which helps organisations to understand how they can optimise their employer proposition to meet the specific and general challenges of the future.

Increasingly, this includes creating space and models for leaders to rest, recharge and look after their own resilience. We all know examples of people whose conscientious commitment to their job leads to exhaustion, burnout or worse. While this is of course a real problem for the individual concerned, their (slimmed down) teams also have an organisational incentive to keep every member in play.

Finding ways to manage the personal impact of professional pressures is therefore business-critical for many councils. Coaches, mentors and peer support play an invaluable role in diffusing the acute stresses at the top of these organisations. While the old stereotype of men not being able to express their feelings is rapidly disappearing, it’s still the case that some see sharing challenges as a sign of weakness: ‘I can’t be seen not to be in control, or in charge’.

Equally, survey data shows women – who now make up a much greater proportion of senior leaders in local government – still fulfil the lion’s share of family domestic and caring responsibilities. The development of hybrid working around the pandemic helped significantly in managing these competing pressures, but with many local authorities now pushing for a ‘back to the office’ culture, there are concerns about reversing the progress that has been made. 

We occupy a ‘third space’ between candidates and prospective employers, and we are able to see the ebb and flow of senior appointments from both sides. The current volatility – particularly in finance, but also in governance – is leading some candidates to decide that they would prefer to stay with what they know, rather than strike out into a new role where the risk might be greater. Just as strong, after a turbulent few years, is the pull of stability and loyalty (‘I need to be there for my team, my elected members and my family’).

At an organisational level, we’re seeing vacancies advertised and then reversed for budget reasons, which can affect the employment reputation of the whole organisation. Equally, counter offers are now at an all-time high, and candidates (well aware of their market value) are engaging in a number of processes simultaneously. Interestingly, it’s not always about salary, but the wider employment package – as I mentioned above, factors such as hybrid working are proving very attractive.

Organisations understandably want to hold onto existing talent, but the reality is that this talent is also aging, and we haven’t been ‘growing our own’ to anything like the degree required.

The demand pressures I mentioned at the top of this piece don’t necessarily lend themselves to long-term investment in talent and CPD, but at some point this nettle needs to be grasped.

Dawn Faulkner is a Partner at Faerfield Consulting