Balancing your top teams

How can local authorities make sure they can cope with an ever-changing environment? The picture is complicated and becoming increasingly so – see for instance the recent National Audit Office report on progress in setting up combined authorities. That report has been characterised as highlighting inconsistency and lack of clear direction in the development of new local government structures, alongside a jockeying for position by different players. Whether this is fair or not, it is clear that major change will continue. The shape of most councils in five to 10 years’ time could be quite different from their shape now.

Individual councils are engaging in a wider range of delivery, investment and partnerships than ever before. Examples include local authority trading companies and joint ventures with private sector and other bodies. At the same time, we are seeing new forms of investment such as shopping centres, together with the reinvention of older forms of delivery such as housing development.

This means that councils need to have people in their top teams who understand the new business streams, who recognise the risks and opportunities, who have experience of operating in different kinds of environment. In order to retain control and achieve coherent direction and delivery, leadership teams need to be more broadly drawn than has typically been the case in the past.

The challenges were highlighted by the Public Accounts Committee last year and featured in last week’s MJ (“We can’t afford to do nothing”, pages 14-15).

This is an argument for bringing in senior managers who have worked in other sectors, such as health, housing associations, charities. It is also an argument for bringing in people with commercial skills, people who know how bidding and tendering operate from a contractor perspective, who understand digital customer services (from retail, for instance), who understand finance and investment, and who are comfortable assessing and mitigating commercial risk.

This does not mean that councils should go out picking candidates willy-nilly, simply because their experience has been gained well away from local government. Plainly they still have to be able to adapt to a local authority environment. They need to understand how the political dimension operates, and how to operate within that framework, for all its difficulties and its strengths. They must be comfortable in a regulated environment, where different forms of scrutiny and accountability apply. They need to be able to cope with being in the public eye. They need to be able to work out how decisions may impact on customers and communities, and how local (and sometimes national) media are liable to handle particular issues.

They must understand and be comfortable with the public service ethos. And they have to be able to engage effectively and sympathetically with their team members, peers, superiors and Members, whose backgrounds are liable to be quite different from their own.

This is at the same time an argument for bringing together diverse teams, which include both leaders who know and have grown up in a public service and local authority environment, and those whose experience is likely to be quite distinct. They all need to be capable of collaborating and contrasting positively and creatively. One wants disrupters – the people who are not afraid to challenge and to ask ‘the dumb question’, who think laterally and can use their range of experience to deploy new and different solutions. But they must be disrupters who can adapt to the operating environment, who recognise the limitations as well as the potential.

How does one find such people? That is clearly the other side of the trick. It means moving beyond traditional approaches to the senior recruitment process and developing new approaches: finding alternative sources of potential candidates, using less common or less orthodox media for recruitment, employing different kinds of selection processes. And it means engaging with head hunters with the ability to search out candidates who differ from the norm, who combine the range of experience and insight to face up to the challenges referred to above.

Moreover, once one has brought in such new leaders, it is not a matter of leaving them to sink or swim. They will require support and guidance, broader ranging induction programmes than one would routinely deploy. It may mean coaching and it will mean mentoring, in order to help them adapt and ensure that as the employer, one is maximising the value of the range of their different skills and experiences.

Where one sees an authority fail to introduce new and flexible thinking into its leadership and strategic development, it must be highly likely that it will be unable to address current and emerging challenges, and will fail to take opportunities to adjust to the new environment and thrive. Worse still, it is liable to lose out in competition for funding and other opportunities, and it is likely to attract justifiable criticism from electors and media alike.

It is about achieving a balance, however. We have seen organisations in different sectors go too far in bringing in out of sector leaders, to the extent of populating their executive teams entirely or almost entirely with big-hitters from elsewhere. And the predictable result has been a failure to engage with and grasp sector norms and the levers that one must pull in order to achieve results. One famous example illustrates the point: three years ago, it came to light that Tesco had misstated its accounting position by a quarter of a billion pounds. Commentator Luke Johnson highlighted in the Financial Times that none of the 10 members of the company’s main board had any executive experience as a retailer. This may appear far removed from local government, a sector subject to law and the expectations of democracy, accountability and public scrutiny. Nonetheless, similar principles can apply just as strongly.

Greg Campbell is a Partner at Campbell Tickell. For more information or to discuss this article, please contact





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