Lifelong learning for chief executives

This week Solace and the Local Government Association are launching the prototype of a new professional development offer to support chief executives through the complex challenges they face. Barry Quirk explains.

Being appointed to a chief executive job is a real personal accomplishment. Doing the job is exhilarating. It is a fantastic privilege to get the chance to help a democratically elected council design and deliver services and investments, and realise its ambitions for its local area as well as for the communities it serves.

The range of the role is considerable, the demands are stimulating, and the rewards are real and tangible – after all, you will be helping a small but significant part of the UK become a better place in which to live, flourish and do business.

But once you have been appointed to any role, you need to make sure you are fully capable of performing into the future. To stay in it you need to stay ahead of the game. You need to anticipate the future, and the likely new demands on you.

You need to invest time in your own professional development. This is as true for chief executives as for any other member of staff.

You may have worked in a corporate role before, but once you have been appointed to your first chief executive job, you become responsible for the health of the whole institution and for the quality of life for everyone in your locality. That is a responsibility and a perspective that simply cannot be delegated. It is up to you; you just have to do it. It is vitally important continual professional development is central to your learning.

Even if you have been chief executive before and somewhere else, the challenges of a new place, a new council, may have little in common with the challenges you faced in your previous role.

This has been said by several chief executives who have been appointed to their second chief executive post. A good deal of the way they worked at their first council was simply not relevant for what was needed at their second council.

What is more, the gathering storm of financial and service pressures on councils and their chief executives, makes the intensity of future challenges palpable today. So, in discussion with the Local Government Association (LGA), Solace began a consultation exercise with existing and newly appointed chief executives about what they thought was required.

Early this year I joined this Solace/LGA effort to help design both a curriculum for chief executives and a tailored approach to executive learning. Over the past six months this has been discussed and debated among many chief executives, elected members and allied professional bodies, as well as with the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

This week at the Solace Summit, a new professional development offer will be launched in prototype form. A focus on chief executives' core responsibilities is the intention. It is designed to be useful to new and existing chief executives. Both Solace and the LGA are keen to develop refresher courses and a range of online professional resources for continuing professional development.

During these challenging times, effective leadership is vital for the sector as a whole. Investment in political and managerial leadership is a critical component in the future success of the sector.

Unlike most others in professional leadership roles, chief executives do not all share the same profession, work background or even have common skills or capabilities. There is no body of practice, no canon of work to refer to if a chief executive is unsure as to what to do in any particular circumstance. Hence the importance of rooting practice in the day-to-day purpose of the chief executive role.

The aim is not to produce a template, a cookie-cutter approach about how the role should be performed. Instead, the aim is to reinforce basic principles of managerial effectiveness; of working in a politically accountable institution; of nurturing good governance and ethical conduct; as well as assuring excellence in resource management and continual organisational improvement.

Every chief executive wants to help their council pursue a path to success while, at the same time, avoiding the pitfalls of potential failure.

Leadership capabilities are distributed across our organisations, partnerships and communities. But the volatile and complex challenges of the coming two decades require the very best from our political and managerial leaders. That is why the new professional development offer for chief executives focuses on:

1–Core statutory role: (section 4 of the 1989 LGHA) advising on organisation, staffing and management arrangements

2–Managerial leadership: of staff, functions and partnerships

3–Politics: accountability to the council's leadership and to the whole council

4–Good governance: assuring openness, honesty and critical challenge

5–Resource management: effective resource, asset and risk management as well as prudential investment

6–Public ethics: fairness and integrity at the heart of all the council's actions and decisions

7–Continuous improvement: citizen centred innovation, service transformation and positive organisational change that delivers best value.

Barry Quirk CBE is a former council chief executive and local government adviser, and a former president and chairman of Solace

X – @Barry Quirk1

  • More information on the Local Government Chief Executive's Development Framework is available here


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