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Some chief decisions

Written by: Jes Ladva is partner and head of the government practice at Odgers Interim
Published on: 26 Sep 2019

There perhaps has never been a better time to become a chief executive (CEX) of a local authority.

There is an emerging demographic challenge leading to opportunities for first time CEXs. This demographic shift is attributable to a number of factors ranging from a high proportion of retirees, the pensions ceiling

limit being reached, a mixed political climate and a wider future choice open to experienced CEXs in the form of board chairs, non-executive directors, consulting and advisory roles, interim management and portfolio position.

In London for example, we are seeing high movement with close to a third of the 33 authorities opting for a first-time chief executive (in the majority of cases). This is an indicator of not only the emerging talent in the sector but also the fact that this emerging talent is being given opportunities. More importantly however, it shows the CEX role remains the most exciting, dynamic and critical role locally and across regions – increasingly so given whichever post-EU relationship emerges.

In short, we have entered into an exciting period for chief executive succession. However, for those pursuing a CEX post, there are a number of key elements to consider in order to perform it successfully.

It is not a vanity position. While the role is one that draws much of the spotlight, the CEX is there to deliver the vision of the leader and the community’s elected representatives. Local authority CEXs must be capable of speaking with authority on a range of public sector related topics. The position is pivotal for all manner of questioning and therefore means having a firm grasp on the issues locally and their relationship regionally, both at a front-line level and within the wider political context.

With such a keen focus on political figures, an absence of authenticity, local knowledge or belief in the organisation will quickly be caught out. It’s also worth saying that – perhaps even more so than counterpart CEX positions in other sectors – a local authority leader is ‘on call’ at all hours, every day of the week.

Before applying for a position, carrying out extensive research is paramount. Every local authority is different with its own unique challenges, from children’s and adult’s social care through to investment in the local economy. An aspiring CEX needs to know exactly what those challenges will be and if they are the sort of issues that will be invigorating for them – overcoming these challenges needs to be the reason they get up in the morning.

However, it’s more than just the problems they will solve. A local authority needs to inspire the CEX, they need to identify with the area and the people in it; ultimately, it needs to be important to them.

Once appointed, the most successful CEXs often make a point of going after the areas they have less experience in and rapidly plugging the gaps in their knowledge. To do so, they concentrate on building great management teams which have a mixture of skills and experience. It means that when they need an understanding of a field they are less proficient in, the CEX can call upon the expertise of his or her executive team. With this in mind, it is important to form relationships across staff and partners in the organisation.

To build cohesive teams that think as one, as well as nurturing staff who think laterally and are not pigeon-holed into their specialism; a CEX needs experienced staff who understand how certain decision making will impact the whole organisation, not just their function.

Jes Ladva is partner and head of the government practice at Odgers Interim

Jes Ladva [square]