‘Extraordinary pressures’ call for extraordinary resilience

By Ann McGauran | 17 July 2019

The ability to cause ‘creative disruption’ and ‘a mindset which looks beyond professional boundaries’ are must-have factors for chief executives initiating culture change, says the Penna/The MJ annual leadership survey.

But vital transformation in local government has been slowed by ‘negative attitudes and paralysis from extraordinary pressures,’ according to the 2019 report.

These pressures have in turn created further blockers to change, because the time and attention needed for true change has proved difficult for chief executives to acquire, says the survey. ‘Too few budgets to better brand the organisation’ and ‘unrealistic and short-term timescales,’ were some of the factors mentioned.

Typical council size makes implementing change difficult, with one CEO grappling with a plan covering staff in every one of its 500 services. Similar challenges arose for one chief executive in ‘genuinely engaging and empowering 12,000 diverse and geographically dispersed staff with common messages nuanced to their needs and an effective feedback loop to give them influence creating the organisation they are proud to be a part of’.

Asked to reflect on their biggest personal learning development this year, one priority for many councils centres on transformation – and the implications of working through change was an observation for some, with the report highlighting ‘the uncertainty and anxiety caused to staff by the term “transformation” and the implications of sudden/radical change’.

A number of chief executives mentioned navigating the civic element of council life had created one of their biggest personal learning developments – with ‘managing the expectations of politicians’ an answer echoed by many. The survey says that with a fresh new intake of politicians stepping into Cabinets across the country following the local elections, ‘this learning will be put to the test for chief executives during the remainder of 2019’.

Making the right decisions is key for any chief executives, as well as calls for a keen sense of the remits and necessity of all roles, even their own, says the survey. The biggest learning point for several respondents was handling their own exits, or as one puts it: ‘Managing myself out of the organisation to create headroom for our talented team’.

According to the survey, this ties into a broader public sector trend of sharing the responsibilities of the top role between politicians and directors.

When asked to describe their middle managers and what they wished they did more of, more than three quarters of the chief executives who responded said something positive about them. One CEO recognised their middle managers as ‘the critical layer in communication up and down the organisation’, with the survey adding; ‘So a strong internal comms function and mechanism is key in any organisation’.

Where middle managers were described as ‘a bit head-down at times’ by one respondent, another described them as ‘hard working [but] bending under the weight of austerity and demand’.

Asked what the HR/ODs in their organisations are good at, and what they could do more of, long-term thinking, a cross-organisational viewpoint and a more strategic approach ‘were all points at which chief executives felt their HR/ODs should step up’. One respondent wanted an extension of HR/OD influence and advice to partner organisations, ‘for instance through workforce transformation, aligning workforce planning across local government and the NHS, driving culture change and supporting smarter working initiatives’.

With chief executives focused, according to the survey, on balancing budgets and meeting increased service demands, one respondent says it seems ‘the HR profession must either step up and demonstrate the value they add to the organisation, or be prepared to step out of the game’.

Resilience and need to ‘walk the talk’ are the two qualities respondents say are needed most in order to be a successful CEO – with the ability to present a ‘narrative on place’ coming in at third place.

Managing director of Penna, Julie Towers, says that with the Local Government Association predicting a funding gap for councils across England of £8bn by 2025, and with the effect of uncertainty at national political level, ‘chief executives have complex and competing demands to manage in unsettled times’.

In this context, she adds, ‘it’s not surprising that trends in our survey included a need for more innovation and solutions-finding to happen at all levels in our CEO’s organisation. It is equally understandable that the focus on the relationship between the politicians and the CEO is increasing.’

‘Alignment of values and vision, ability to speak truth to power and the cultural fit and mutual respect between politicians and officers is once again under the spotlight,’ she concludes.

Leadership Survey 2019

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