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Successful leadership – top five emerging themes

Written by: Jes Ladva is Partner – Local and Central Government, at Odgers Interim
Published on: 3 Jun 2021

Over the past 14 months, I have had the pleasure of witnessing incredible leadership skills from our local government executives first-hand. It should come as no surprise, when I say that the ingenuity, resilience, and determination to do the right thing has been awe-inspiring. Chief executives, directors, and managers have long since demonstrated the agility to pivot in demanding circumstances, to lead through whatever challenges are being thrown at them, often at considerable personal sacrifice, and despite this we have seen new heights reached.

Sourcing the right talent through this period has been a privilege, as well as a challenge. Interviewing talented and committed people, coupled with the need to deploy talent quickly and in a virtual environment, demanded flexibility and innovation on all fronts. Having had to adapt so far, so quickly, we are seeing new leadership skills developing fast – taking leaders further in their professional careers.

As we move from ‘response’ to ‘reinvention’ I thought it helpful to capture these emerging leadership traits that we are seeing from our conversations, assessments, and interviews across local government, and to share with you the top five leadership skills in local government for a bright post-pandemic future.

1.Communication and emotional intelligence

Virtual meetings have provided a new found intimacy in the relationship with executives, their teams, and stakeholders. Whether this is in the form of inviting colleagues, clients, and candidates into ‘our homes’, or recognising we all have the same interruptions and distractions, from wi-fi issues to day-to-day life happening with families, pets, and home deliveries. Working from home has enabled us all to showcase our human side and to empathise, which should not be underestimated. However, a balance will need to be struck to lead, inspire, and coax a new set of behaviours that drive the ingenuity, productivity, and commitment our communities will need in order to thrive.

2. High level adaptability

Undoubtedly, the public service response to the pandemic has been remarkable. Local government executives, managers and workforces have led with resilience, ingenuity, collaboration, and compassion while putting their communities before their own needs. And yet, we once more require a renewed adaptability to enable time to rebalance, refocus and horizon-scan in order to unlock the opportunities ahead amid the challenges posed by the easing of lockdown restrictions and new strains.

Managers will collectively and individually have to adapt and then lead a new working culture, where a blended model of remote and office-based working seems to be a consensus. This will require short, medium, and long-term planning for businesses, leaders, staff and partners, and the necessary transition phase will have to be handled with thought, skill, patience, and tolerance. Alongside the utilisation of the potential of data and digital technology, we will have to relearn how to connect in person, as well as ensuring that a hybrid model allows us all to work as effectively as possible.

At the same time, we will have to adapt to restructuring within organisations, as the uncertainty of the pandemic has caused public and private sector businesses and organisations to pause promotions, internal restructuring, and in some cases, even retirement processes. The transition period that is due to follow the easing of restrictions will see high levels of organisational reassessment, which will undoubtedly take into account the lessons of the past 14 months, but also critically assess the newly identified needs emerging from the challenges of COVID-19.

And finally, we will all have to adapt to external changes in circumstances and be actively self-reflective. Are we working harder and longer, are we more productive, or has our new way of working made us become more transactional, rather than creative? How do we ensure innovation to thrive with less in-person interaction and what role does reflection play in leadership? As we emerge from the stronghold of the pandemic, we will be faced with a new reality, and some of the consequences of the past 14 months might only materialise in the longer term. Maintaining an open mind and high-level adaptability will allow us to respond to new challenges in the future with confidence. 

3. Leading authentically

Despite having been ‘locked in’ for a long time, in this fast-changing world we are seeing more conversations, more frequency to communications and briefings. A more democratic means of communication with raised hands, chats, direct messages, and simply un-muting (as long as we remember to do so...).

Great effort has been placed on strengthening team spirit with charitable efforts to ‘walk to the moon’, cooking and cocktail-making to name but a few. Aside from the team social efforts, leaders have been able to reach all parts of the workforce directly, enabling an authentic means of message, directly from the source, which has enabled employees to feel more connected with their workplace despite working remotely.

Many of us have enjoyed and embraced this interpersonal way of working, the ability to voice when we were feeling anxious or worried, because for the first time in a long time, everyone shared the same concerns at all levels within an organisation. Maintaining this interpersonal way of leading; ‘authentic leadership’ will be a sought-after and much needed leadership skill moving forward. 

4. Innovation and creativity

The sharp pivot to working from home has accelerated the art of the possible, dispelling many long held myths from the reality. As we re-adjust, arguably we should be in a position to take the best from both physical and virtual worlds, and most importantly, innovate new means of ensuring highly effective practices as well as rewarding and fulfilling careers.

This requires disruption, gentle disruption perhaps as opposed to revolution. Guarding against ‘group-thinking’ has long since been a challenge, requiring courage, introspection, critique, and a stimulating environment to try new things, without the fear of repercussions for one’s own career.

Data becomes ever rich in our means of collating, verifying, disseminating, and securing. However, are our middle and senior managers fully equipped to make evidence-based recommendations and decisions and thereby disrupt previously held common conventions?

As a result, we are now seeing more mixed models of talent deployment with lean core executive teams, supplemented by a combination of permanent, fixed term, interim and consultancy expertise. This allows an injection of differing perspectives, skill sets and leadership styles, not only to meet the new challenges head on, but also to unearth opportunities we are yet to discover.

5. Inspiration and resilience

The leadership community in local government has long since demonstrated unwavering resilience to lead through tragedy, disaster, terror, as well as recessions, legislative changes, resource challenges alongside hundreds of service lines requiring experts. These challenges remain and are coupled with the added element of being able to inspire workforces to reach new heights.

As the vaccination program is showing the first success and infection rates decline, we seem to be slowly emerging from the darkest days of the pandemic. Now that they feel safe to pass their role on to their successors, in local government, we have seen a high proportion of chief executives step down from their roles in the first few months of 2021, with more to follow. Naturally, this will lead to a wave of new appointments, new internal structures, and subsequent changes within each organisation.

By standing on the shoulders of giants, as the Newton saying goes, alongside the circle of life, with fresh talent stepping in to make their mark, new leaders need to be adequately prepared with new lessons learned from these unprecedented challenges of the pandemic.

With all that has been achieved by our public services, we have every reason to be optimistic.

Jes Ladva is Partner – Local and Central Government, at Odgers Interim