The art of survival in a world of uncertainty
As we stare collectively into the political, economic and social abyss, it would be easy to declare in the style of Dad’s Army that we are all doomed. Thank you, Private Frazer. By the time you read this article, Parliament will have sat on a Saturday for only the fifth time since World War Two and we might – might – just have an idea what our short-term future holds. Whatever one’s political views, many leaders I speak to in all sorts of industries are just looking for a little bit of certainty to help their respective sectors settle down a little.
None of that helps local government, nor indeed the executive recruitment market. The sector always feels like it is at the forefront of any change, leading the way. The changes to IR35 in 2017 were a classic example, with local authorities doubtless hit harder than any other public bodies. My colleagues in our private sector interim management business are now looking to us and to our public sector clients for our expertise to help support their own clients through the transition. Who’d have thought?
And here we are in 2019 planning budgets and medium-term financial strategies for 2020 and beyond when we’ve no idea who will be in Government or whether we might somehow find ourselves staying in the EU after all. Add into the mix the expansion of unitary authorities, further devolution, housebuilding expansion and an unparalleled focus on growth and economic development, and all in all it would be nice to have a little bit of stability out there. But planning in local government has never been easy, and I’m no Nostradamus, but that’s not going to change. Indeed, change is our business as usual now.
Local authorities and their senior leadership teams are holding their collective nerves, working feverishly to future-proof their organisations and make them ever more efficient and relevant to the communities they serve while serving the needs of those communities. Attracting and retaining talented leaders and future leaders is at the heart of that success. No organisation can thrive without good people, nor can it respond to the myriad of challenges to its success in the form of Private Frazer-style uncertainty (no that’s not a sly political observation), budget cuts or being even more relevant to its customers tomorrow than it is today.
You would expect a recruitment consultant to therefore say that there has never been a more important time to engage with an executive search and interim management partner. And given my previous musings on this very page in recent times it shouldn’t be a surprise that not only do I believe passionately in local government, but I am also an advocate of giving our customers every opportunity to compete at their best by ensuring they build the strongest and most diverse and inclusive leadership teams that they can. Which brings me back to my point. Here we are at the tail end of 2019 with local authorities having to work with an almost intolerable array of ambiguities yet still the sector progresses. It is nothing if not resilient.
But what does that mean for our workforces? A couple of months ago I wrote here about the importance of prioritising mental health awareness not just for salaried employees but also for interim managers. Our sector may be resilient but we should not blithely assume therefore that all our senior leaders automatically are. I’ve also expressed surprise in these pages that so often executive recruiters are kept at arm’s length from their customers which serves only to make it harder to preserve and foster that sector resilience through attracting and retaining great people.
We know that talent attraction and retention are an absolute priority and all too often councils look to their peers to source that talent, meaning their peers become their competitors. In turn you have to wonder what the succession plans look like in key roles like the Section 151 Officer and the Director of Children’s Services. They are wonderful and important jobs, but circumstance makes them all the harder these days.
There is also increasing demand for crucial skills in areas such as growth, economic development and regeneration. To some extent those skills can be sourced from other sectors, but this is another area where demand outstrips supply and inevitably councils look to each others’ senior staff as a source of talent.
The shortage is even more acutely the case when considering the digital and commercialisation agendas. Here though our customers are looking beyond traditional local government boundaries at other sectors to import these skill sets and that leads them to interim managers. It also gives them a competitive advantage and helps them to thrive despite the wider ambiguity I mentioned earlier.
In increasingly uncertain times it could be assumed that fewer people would wish to operate as career interim managers and that supply could dry up. To some extent that is true in that marginally more interims are open to going on to fixed term contracts now, but part of that is actually due to the fact that work inside IR35 (such as doing a job on the payroll like an assistant director or a director) is taxed more heavily than going on the books. The reality overall is that councils are increasingly using interim managers outside IR35 where it is appropriate to do so around programmes, change and transformation initiatives. Candidates working inside IR35 are tending to see their assignments lengthen, perhaps in part due to that wider market uncertainty.
Whatever happens in the weeks and months ahead, local authorities will continue to need specialist support and to source the most effective skills mix they can to deliver on their strategic agendas. And we’ll be there to help.
I doubt even Nostradamus would take a bet right now on what 2020 will look like for local government but I just hope Private Frazer is wrong this time.
Neil Lupin is managing partner and local government lead at Green Park Interim & Executive Search