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Time for a change of perspective?

Written by: Neil Lupin is partner for local and regional government at McLean Public
Published on: 30 Nov 2023

The customer isn’t always right and doing the right thing is just the other half of that same coin.

But first I’ll address the elephant in the room because it is relevant. I was made redundant in June and that could have hurt. A lot. But it quickly became a wonderful opportunity to step back and make rational decisions about the future. It has also given me an entirely new perspective on candidate experience.

I have spent 26 years advising interim managers and their prospective clients, yet I had never experienced any of what they go through. I have helped clients with exits and I have helped many new and experienced interim managers to thrive in a ruthlessly competitive market.

It doesn’t really matter how that journey starts. For some, it is a proactive choice but for others, for whatever reason, and sometimes through no fault of their own, they find themselves looking at interim management as a necessity. Being on the wrong end of an exit conversation doesn’t make you bad. One person’s bad can be another’s good.

Irrespective of how and why an interim is an interim, or an officer is an aspiring interim, due diligence is paramount. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given my own recent experience, I feel very strongly about the circumstances in which individuals find themselves available as interim managers. I believe we have a responsibility to separate fact from fiction and to establish who has promise and potential.

I can honestly say I have first-hand experience of what it’s actually like. I’ve changed jobs before of course, but always through choice. The situation has only served to reinforce an innate sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. Do unto others and all that... But seriously, a little humility and respect goes a long way. So, after an enforced (but I have to say delightful) break, I return to the sector I have always been committed to with a renewed passion to do the right thing for all customers – clients and candidates alike.

Let’s face it. Even the language of redundancy is negative. ‘Redundant’. ‘Eliminated’. The words are brutal and employers often make no attempt to safeguard the wellbeing of the ‘eliminated’. Attitudes and language could and should be much better.

Back to the customer. We are in an era of unprecedented change. The rise in Section 114 notices is only the beginning. Recent research shows recruitment and retention as well as succession planning are key concerns for local authorities – to the extent that getting it right or wrong directly impacts on their ability to deliver both statutory and discretionary services.

Next year could signal even deeper change. I am strictly apolitical but we cannot ignore the forthcoming General Election and the possibility  many more senior leadership roles will change hands in 2024 and beyond. There will be those who choose to take up new opportunities and those for whom that choice is made by their employers or their elected leaders. Many will take up permanent roles, and let’s be honest here, succession planning for senior officers in local government is a nightmare right now. Many will also become interim managers, broadening and strengthening the existing ranks of interims, many of whom themselves are considering having just one last hurrah. We have a responsibility to help to curate and grow this leadership capacity across the sector.

I suppose in a way I have jumped on that merry-go-round too. My recent experience gives me some insight into the feast and famine uncertainty of being an interim. It hasn’t changed my views, but it has certainly reinforced them. Reputation is everything for an interim and therefore success in each assignment is essential. That perhaps goes some way to explaining why we currently have a candidate-driven market. Interims will generally choose wisely and of course will have varying risk appetites, meaning they won’t automatically be put off by tough challenges provided expectations are realistic.

The reality is there aren’t enough (good) interims to go around and what works for one council won’t automatically work for the next. The year 2024 is going to be a boom one for interims in local government so new entrants to the candidate market should be (vetted and) welcomed.

That’s where diverse networks and market knowledge come in. It’s not about a job for your mates or ‘the boys’. Thankfully those days disappeared decades ago but I do remember – I’ve been around a while – hearing colleagues telling customers back then there was only one person who could get them out of a particular predicament and that one person was usually the one they’d had drinks or dinner with most recently. That one person would get hired with little or no process and the outcome wasn’t always a runaway success.

Local authorities will come to market with anywhere from absolutely no idea to absolute certainty about what they want the interim to do and what the art of the possible is. All too often those views are shaped through a one size fits all process and rarely does the customer hire the skill set they expected to at the outset. That’s fine, and that’s why I started this article by saying the customer isn’t always right. But it’s only fine if recruiters do the right thing and listen, understand, advise and put the best people forward for the role as they see it. Just like permanent executive search, but quicker. Most customers wouldn’t dream of putting an executive search in the hands of the uninitiated. Perhaps it’s time to treat interim management the same way.

I’ll leave you with Forrest Gump’s words (from the regularly misquoted novel), which may amuse but are self-evidently relevant: ‘[Life] is no box of chocolates. People laugh, lose patience, treat you shabby. Now they say folks supposed to be kind…but let me tell you this – it ain’t always that way. Even so, I’ve got no complaints, cause I reckon I done live a pretty interesting life.’

So, let’s treat each other with respect and let’s do the right thing by people. The world, and local government, is a small place and you never know who might just be the best person to help you out tomorrow.

Neil Lupin is partner for local and regional government at McLean Public
Tel: 07967 826026