Cross-sector leadership – the way forward

By Jessica Mullinger and Steve Guest | 21 May 2018

Jessica Mullinger and Steve Guest look at the lessons that can be learned from the private and public sector coming closer together

The role of a local authority chief executive has evolved and grown enormously. But what do we mean by this?

A modern chief executive job description will almost invariably talk about the importance of a ‘commercial’ mindset, an ‘entrepreneurial’ spirit, ‘innovative’ ideas and ‘lateral’ thinking. When we look back on chief executive (or town clerk) job descriptions of a decade ago, these skills received very little consideration. However, back in those days, many an elected member would specify that they wanted to see private sector candidates in their shortlists. And they genuinely meant ‘private sector’ – usually right up until the final interview. There was certainly something of a disconnect back in those days.

From a recruitment perspective, thinking has largely moved on to focus more on skill set rather than specific multi-sector career moves on a CV. Whether someone has worked for a plc isn’t really the issue anymore. Instead, whether a candidate has successfully negotiated a high value contract (be it an outsourcing, a major regeneration scheme or something else entirely) carries far more currency in the modern age than whether they have worked in a ‘for-profit’ organisation. It’s more about what you’ve done – not where you’ve done it.

Of course, for a senior role in the private sector, such considerations have always been a factor and continue to be so. However, for the local government chief executive, while these ‘new’ skills have become increasingly important in recent years, few of the older (mainly internal organisational management and leadership-focused) requirements have disappeared. Those public sector-specific requirements such as the ability to keep vulnerable residents safe certainly haven’t diminished (quite the opposite); the need to ensure good governance and effective stewardship of resources remains, and is arguably under more scrutiny than ever before, while the ability to deliver against set political priorities certainly remains a key consideration.

But this isn’t an ‘either/or’ situation. A number of high profile local authority chief executives have had careers in the private sector before coming over to the public arena and progressing to chief executive level. We suspect that in the years to come, there will be an increased merging of public/private sector expertise – not just at the senior leadership level, but as the sector evolves to reflect the changing needs and dynamics of a modern 21st century workforce.

Here at Solace in Business, we operate a business partner programme. This programme is specifically designed to create space for an open, mutually beneficial dialogue between leaders from local public services, the private sector and voluntary providers. We are committed to developing the most effective and productive means of engagement between the sector and our partners, tailored to the shared objectives of all those who are working to build a stronger, more innovative public service.

We use our unique relationship with our business partners to encourage a stronger level of cross-sector understanding through a range of initiatives that include shadowing opportunities.

As an example, through the programme, we were recently able to arrange for Wilfrid Petrie, chief executive officer at ENGIE UK to undertake a work shadowing opportunity with Irene Lucas, chief executive of Sunderland City Council. ENGIE UK is part of the global ENGIE Group and is a leading energy and services company focused on production and supply of energy, property and facilities management, and regeneration. The company has over 17,000 employees in the UK and 150,000 people worldwide.

Wilfrid explained to us that the work shadowing opportunity provided invaluable insight into the role of chief executive of a large local authority. In particular, he noted how both Irene and the council have a clearly defined vision and ambition for Sunderland, which aims to improve the existing lives and future prospects of local residents.

Another key observation from Wilfrid was that a typical day for a local authority CEO is very diverse in nature. He was interested to observe how detailed Irene’s approach to the role was – her ability to see the bigger picture, but also understand comprehensively specific aspects of the running of the council. An example of this was a meeting Irene and Wilfrid attended together, discussing internal cost reduction. Throughout the day Irene constantly had to balance the council’s wider transformational vision with detailed day-to-day management of the ‘nuts and bolts’ of operations within the council.

Wilfrid also observed that Irene is clearly a business focused person whose experience running a successful company herself has meant she is able to blend experience from the private sector with her public service role. This also means she understands both perspectives when it comes to balancing the priorities of businesses and local residents.

As a final take away from the experience, Wilfrid shared that another interesting aspect was the increasing requirement for the council to have both cross-local authority and also international interaction, especially as Sunderland and the region looks to increase investment from overseas owned organisations. A good example of this was the work being done for the International Advanced Manufacturing Park, which is using businesses like Nissan and the skills and expertise of their workforce and supply chain as a catalyst to draw further investment.

From Wilfrid’s insights, it is clear the worlds of public and private sector leadership are coming increasingly closer together. While it has long been thought that local authority chief executives can take lessons from the private sector, perhaps the lessons that private sector leaders can take in return should not be underestimated.

Jessica Mullinger is head of interim management and operations, and Steve Guest is head of executive recruitment and assessment at Solace in Business


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