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Planning the next steps

As 2022 progresses, we continue to see considerable change in local government, stemming from senior officers retiring, making lifestyle changes or leaving the sector altogether.

This leadership disruption is a growing trend across the spectrum of public services, exacerbated by emergence from prolonged pandemic response, and leading to uncertainty among senior leadership teams and creating gaps in organisational structures. It does, however, present an opportunity for leaders and HR colleagues to reassess their approach to long-term resourcing of senior posts and highlights the importance of succession planning.

The meaning of succession planning varies from one individual or organisation to another. For some, it is an immediacy of focus when an incumbent hands in their notice; for others it is about identifying someone within the organisation with a future vacancy in mind. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development states that ‘Succession planning focuses on identifying and growing talent to fill leadership and business critical positions in the future’.

There is notable emphasis here on growing and nurturing talent, as well as simply identifying it. This should not just apply to those in the most senior positions but is a consideration at all tiers of management and leadership. Nor should it be prompted by a specific requirement for an individual role, rather a sustained strategy to develop the leaders of the future, irrespective of short-term need. As recruiters seeking to play our part in encouraging this, our focus needs to be on generating broad and diverse pools of future candidates, not just a favoured individual or group.

This focus on overall leadership rather than role-specific briefs takes on increasing importance in this current atmosphere of change, where the challenges of the future are uncertain. Focusing on one particular requirement now could ultimately prove futile as circumstances evolve and change. The challenges, opportunities and risks that an organisation will face in future will likely look different to what they are today, so a long-term, more agile mindset is needed when considering succession planning.

This should also influence how we identify those who might be our future leaders, focusing on leadership traits and not just technical competence, on behaviours and not just skills, and on potential not just past performance.

Organisational culture plays a key role here. An organisation’s approach to succession planning can serve as an indicator of whether an organisation is future-focused and proactively shaping itself for future demand on services and the needs of its communities. Those organisations that focus on broader leadership capacity as opposed to specific skills are likely to be stronger and more resilient, particularly when someone leaves the organisation unexpectedly. There are plenty of instances of organisations or departments deteriorating significantly following the resignation of an individual in whose specific knowledge and experience too much was invested.

Organisational culture also links to employer brand. Those organisations that demonstrably focus on succession planning and developing future leaders will tend to be considered more attractive places for people to work, contributing positively to recruitment and ultimately retention of staff. Not only will it allow colleagues to see that there are opportunities for progression and development, but a top down focus on behaviours and leadership will also engender a strong sense of collective ownership of a values-based culture.

So what does strategic succession planning look like in practice? Perhaps the most important starting point is to recognise that succession planning is not the sole remit of HR teams; rather, it should be owned and driven by senior leaders so as to encourage shared ownership across the organisation. It is about continued development, creating space for colleagues to flourish and develop as leaders, supported by opportunities for structured professional development and learning, likely supported by colleagues in HR, OD and L&D and often through third party learning and programmes.

Openness and transparency are key to prevent any sense of leadership being a ‘closed shop’ and to ensure the challenge of achieving more diverse and inclusive leadership teams is honestly and maturely addressed. Achieving diverse leadership teams, for many organisations, will take dedicated  resource, commitment and more creative planning; creating a broad pool of talent and focusing on behaviours and long-term potential is more likely to give those from diverse backgrounds or with non-traditional professional experience a better opportunity to compete and succeed.

By contrast, current leaders identifying individuals to fill a specific need based on prior experience will typically cover a narrower range of profiles and is more likely to result in the appointment of someone with a similar background to themselves. Organisations can work within the legislative framework of the Equalities Act 2010 to use positive action provisions to improve diversity in the workforce, allowing employers to target groups with specific protected characteristics through training and development opportunities, or recruitment and promotion.

If we get this right, individual organisations and local government as a whole sector can begin to address some of the challenges of recruitment and retention that we continue to see. The sense of ‘growing your own’ is a positive news story for officers and members alike, fostering a sense of pride in the team and wider organisation. It is also good for the sector itself in acting as a catalyst for fresh senior talent. Though investment in people development may lead to senior talent moving on to progress their career, the same rewards will be similarly reaped by the same authorities if the sector itself is investing. n

Philip Emms is lead research consultant for local government and Tim Hills is senior researcher at GatenbySanderson