Future Forum North: Link is ‘very likely’ between leaders’ attributes and levelling up success

By Ann McGauran | 24 March 2022

A link is ‘very likely’ between key behavioural attributes of local government leaders and their success in pursuing the levelling up agenda, says an executive search expert.

Speaking at the Future Forum North in Manchester, Seb Lowe, partner in GatenbySanderson’s local government executive search team, said: ‘Only time will tell whether we are right’.

‘But based on what we’ve seen both anecdotally and in data, we would argue that the behavioural traits we have identified are likely to be one of a number of possible routes to success’.

Mr Lowe was speaking at a session on place leadership and the power of towns and smaller cities.

He said: ‘We took a long hard look at what we’ve seen as a business over the past few years, especially post COVID, and what towns and smaller cities are looking for in their leadership.

‘A few themes came out in relation to the behaviours the local authorities are looking for in their leaders as they look to promote their levelling up agenda – themes which we think can be brought together under the heading of civic entrepreneurship.’

The first attribute he highlighted was ‘an ability to think strategically, and for the long term’.

‘Driving permanent change in communities requires leaders who can look up from the day job and take a helicopter view.

‘And this ability to think strategically is without any doubt the most sought-after single attribute in incoming appointees to senior roles in local government.’

The second vital attribute is tenacity, said Mr Lowe, pointing to the example ‘close to where we are right now’, of Media City in Salford, a regeneration scheme that was ‘decades in the making’.

He added: ‘If you talk to people who were close to that project from the start, they will tell you that delivering something like that was by no means easy and involved dealing with all kinds of challenges along the way, both expected and unexpected.

‘Having the courage to stick to your convictions and to see this type of project through in the face of inevitable adversity is absolutely vital.’

Negotiation skills are the third key quality sought in leaders, Mr Lowe continued. ‘We could almost headline that partnership skills. This is critical in terms of getting anything done.

‘It’s impossible to get anything major or transformative done without working collaboratively across organisational boundaries. This ability to across and beyond organisations is a hugely sought-after skill.’

Linked to being able to work collaboratively, he highlighted the importance of ‘an ability to empathise, to see where other people are coming from’.

He added: ‘It’s an attribute that many people will reference when describing their leadership style in an interview scenario and that presents us all with a challenge of seeking to identify whether someone’s approach and leadership style are genuinely and truly empathetic.’

Finally, having an ‘overarching vision for a place’, is particularly important for smaller cities and towns, he added.  ‘It’s about smaller cities and towns defining what levelling up means for their specific community, and then being clear about what they need in terms of investment and infrastructure in order to deliver on that.’

Penny Baker is principal consultant in GatenbySanderson’s Leadership and Talent Consultancy. She said one of the benefits of having access to public sector personality, behavioural and preferences data is that it enabled comparisons to be make with the local government sector.

She said that for ‘all of the strategic behaviours, local government as a sector has more preferences and behaviours in this area’ than the rest of the public sector.

‘All of those strategic behaviours really come out compared to the rest of the sector.’

Influencing and impact also emerged as a particularly strong behaviour in comparison to the rest of the public sector, she added.

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