Preaching to the choir: reflections on key leadership skills for local authority chief executives – part 3: courage

Catherine Staite

Leadership is not a sprint – it’s a marathon. You are in it for the long haul and that is why courage is so important.

Maya Angelou argued that courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently and that is certainly evident in the role of chief executive. Not only do you need to keep yourself going through challenging times, you also need to be able to demonstrate courage to your staff and members. If you falter, so will they.

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Don’t make the mistake, though, of thinking that you have to go it alone. True, it can be lonely at the top and you can sometimes feel that you should keep your doubts, fears and frustrations to yourself. That’s a big mistake – and so many leaders make it. You are only human – very clever human, but human nonetheless.

Not only do you need support, you also need someone to tell you when you are wrong. If you isolate yourself in your leadership castle, you could be very wrong without knowing it. There’s a saying that ‘a lawyer who acts for himself has a fool for a client’ and that is just as true of chief executives who only take their own advice. You need a critical friend you can turn to, someone who will help you focus, learn from your mistakes and laugh about the sometimes crazy world that you inhabit.

Some chief executives have really strong relationships with their Leaders and each can be a good critical friend to the other. For others, their Leader is the source of many of their troubles. They definitely need to go elsewhere for support.

You need all your energy to be a strong and courageous leader, so don’t waste energy on what you can’t change. Do let go of the past. Only look back to learn from your mistakes, not to wallow in nostalgia for a misremembered past. Times may seem particularly hard –but then they always do when you are living through them. As Heraclitus said, the only thing that is constant is change. I observe the very different ways that chief executives respond to change, from seeing it as a threat to greeting it as an opportunity. The best at using the prevailing challenges of austerity to make the sort of bold changes that would never have been possible in times of plety.

Focus on building a better future for your Council and the people you all serve. To do that you should keep searching for better ways of doing things. Support your staff to do that now and they’ll carry on doing it when you are no longer there. The more talent you can develop in others, the more support you can draw on now and the better the legacy of your leadership.

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Catherine Staite
Catherine Staite is the Director of INLOGOV. She provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.

Preaching to the choir: reflections on key leadership skills for local authority chief executives – part 2: charm

Catherine Staite

If Brian Tracy and Ron Arden are right when they say the deepest craving of human nature is the need to feel valued and valuable. The secret of charm is therefore simple: make others feel important – then charm must be a crucial attribute for leaders.

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Charm is shorthand for a sophisticated set of skills which enable you to make new connections and solve old problems. Charm is about much more than being nice in a superficial way – otherwise known as ‘smarm’. If you don’t have real charm then just be gruff and honest. Everyone will understand. Smarm, on the other hand, will simply breed distrust.

The truly charming have notable skills. They are interested in others. They pay them real attention and give them positive regard – as opposed to the barely controlled irritation demonstrated by some powerful people in their dealings with underlings. Even if they attempt to catch you with a bright idea when you are en route to the toilet, don’t snap – suggest they catch you on the way back, when you can give them your full attention. You need all the bright ideas you can get.

Charming leaders also know how to listen, not just to what the people you lead are saying but what they perhaps feel they can’t say to you. A leader who doesn’t listen won’t have access to all the facts, no-one will tell them the unvarnished truth and they won’t hear when people are trying to tell them they may just be wrong. The failure to listen renders leaders about as effective – and as potentially dangerous – as a blindfolded driver. You may have had experience of a leader who doesn’t listen. Remember how awful that was and don’t case that level of distress to your staff.

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Charming leaders seek to bring people together and that has never been more important for local government. Albert Camus observed that charm is a way of getting the answer ‘yes’ without ever having asked a clear question. You need a lot of people to say ‘yes’ to a lot of things they may not necessarily like if you are going to effect real change.

There is so much good work going on around collaboration for the benefit of the people we all serve but there are still so many terrible instances of people in senior positions who perpetuate old feuds and personalize organizational battles, to the point where there is no way out for anyone. A history of corrosive, destructive pettiness endlessly repeats itself.

I am sometimes obliged to listen to a range of grievances going to back to 1974 and it’s no fun. The petty disputes I observe range from being mere energy vampires to the evidence of utter moral failure. Those disputes are about the past and you have to get beyond them – and encourage your members to do the same. You are leading in the present to build a better future and you’ll need all your energy and charm to do that. That behavior will shape your organizational culture and ripple through external relationships to the point where no-one can articulate or even want to remember why this country doesn’t co-operate with that district or vice versa. That will have an impact across your area and beyond – so your charm is a force for real good.

It’s amazing how pervasive and powerful an influence the chief executive and top team have on the culture of their council. When the people I pass in your corridors are smiling – in spite of all the challenges – I know their leaders have charm and their councils will survive and thrive.

Catherine Staite

Catherine Staite is the Director of INLOGOV. She provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.

Preaching to the choir: reflections on key leadership skills for local authority chief executives – part 1: creativity

Catherine Staite

I have called this blog series ‘preaching to the choir’ as it is dedicated to local authority chief executives and they already know a great deal about leadership. They wouldn’t survive and thrive in their posts if they didn’t.

They already know that heroic leadership is only useful in the case of fire and flood and that leadership of organisations in giving way to leadership of whole systems – which is a whole lot harder. Instead, I’d like to focus on three aspects of leadership which are talked about less often but are absolutely crucial to effective and sustainable leadership, in complex systems and in difficult times. They are: creativity, charm and courage.

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So what is creativity and why do leaders need it so much?

We hear a great deal about the need for change and innovation – which implies creativity. However, so much which is described as innovation is nothing of the sort. Adam Smith introduced us to lean thinking in The Wealth of Nations in 1776. The Hanseatic League demonstrated the benefits of collaboration and shared services in the 17th century. We could and should learn from the past, but too often old ideas are re-labelled and sold on as new, not as a coherent element of a new way of solving problems but as a ‘one size fits all’, ‘but this and all will be well’, single focus solution.

So if creativity isn’t just about endlessly recycling the ideas of previous eras, what is it? Steve Jobs said creativity is just connecting things. How simple, and how true.

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We are subject to constant but superficial change. The ink hasn’t dried on one paradigm before it’s shifted. But we’re in a time of evolution not revolution, no matter how apocalyptic the environment feels at times. Not withstanding the 24/7 networked digital revolution we all still meet in rooms – not cyberspace. Joseph Chamberlain could come back from the dead and find his way round Birmingham City Council. Not only is the décor much as he left it, members and officers are focusing on the successor problems to those that were the focus of his attention. Both he and they are attempting to achieve the same outcomes – better lives for the people of Birmingham.

We really need creativity – not to create a new universe but to unstick the current one. In mental health services in the 1990s we were innovating to create an integrated care system, including diverting mentally disordered offenders from inappropriate custody. The evidence was clear. Early diversion from the criminal justice system and multi-disciplinary support wrapped around the person saved a lot of money for services and a lot of damage for people with severe mental health problems who committed minor offences. 25 years later not much has changed. Why is that? Perhaps it’s because, in spite of the enthusiasm and commitment of the champions of change, episodic creativity and short term collaboration does not penetrate the roots of organizational silos and professional conservatism. As Albert Einstein said, we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.

So what can leaders do to help convert short-term creativity into long-term benefits? According to Albert von Szent-Gyorgy, discovery consists of seeing what everyone has seen and thinking what nobody has thought. Leaders can make the space for creativity as well as bringing people together, allowing time, encouraging risk and forgiving failure. Creativity is often about seeing opportunities to bring together different ideas and new ways of thinking. Leaders can also help to embed new thinking by challenging some of the entrenched interests rather than colluding with those who say that change is ‘too difficult’. As Thomas Edison put it, with admirable brevity, there’s a better way to do it – find one.

Catherine Staite

Catherine Staite is the Director of INLOGOV. She provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.

Caught in the crossfire: local authority outsourcing and the murky world of employment law

Ian Briggs

Given the extent of legislation affecting officers and members in local government, it can be rather misleading to see the influence of Westminster solely through the lens of direct local government legislation. Wider legislation on employment has arguably had as big an impact on the way that local government and local government services are delivered.

For councils the reshaping of delivery means, in the majority of cases, seeking partnerships with external providers. Where services are outsourced or delivered through contract, the costs associated with redundancy and passing over employment duties to others is an issue that perpetually causes debate and discussion.

The application of the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006 (TUPE) to transfers from the public sector, commonly known as ‘TUPE plus’, has been regarded as being more onerous on public sector employers than others. The Coalition Government has since 2010 gradually watered down these legal obligations but they are still regarded as problematic.

It is generally accepted that employment legislation is a problem area for local government and for many there is a desire to see a more flexible approach to employment. By implication, employment law is a matter that perhaps needs some review.

So, is this an issue that is shared in other places? The approach to employment practices that is enshrined in law across Europe raises some interesting issues. The media has made much of the economic problems in Greece, citing the high levels of protection afforded to civil servants and public employees there. The European Working Time directive is taken very seriously there; when the hours are worked the person stops and goes home! A similar situation exists in France and Italy, where anecdotal evidence suggests that even police officers, when they are part way through an arrest, have clocked off and gone home as their hours are worked.

The obligations of local authorities in a TUPE transfer are not entirely clear; TUPE plus has been significantly eroded but not removed altogether. In any future outsourcing situation, a local authority risks being caught in the crossfire between prospective contractors and trade unions. On the one hand, prospective contractors are likely to be reluctant to incur costs, offering generous employment benefits which go beyond the normal requirements of TUPE. On the other hand, the trade unions are likely to push for full-scale TUPE plus protection, or as close to this as they can realistically achieve. Any such situation is likely to need careful handling to minimise any potential exposure and legal advice should be taken wherever necessary.

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Ian Briggs is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Local Government Studies. He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.

The ‘Detroit question’ and Parish Councils

Ian Briggs

The agenda on public service integration continues apace: discrete organisations working together in partnership has been the ideal in the past, but we are now in a world where the boundaries between organisations are becoming blurred and important questions are being asked again around the overall structure of our public services.

We recently hosted an interesting roundtable for Police and Crime Commissioners here at INLOGOV where the debate somewhat expectantly turned to the potential advantages of gathering the so called ‘Blue Light’ services together. Indeed, there has been a lot of progress in this field: certain first responder paramedic services can and are delivered by fire fighters and there are other examples of this integration which make a great deal of sense. It makes sense economically and, importantly, from the public perspective it makes sense too. Little attention is paid by a citizen or service user as long as the need is met and the service adds value. So we can safely say that some useful, realistic and economically advantageous integration projects are now well underway.

However, there is one aspect of integration that is rarely discussed but appears to be gathering a bit more attention recently. It goes something like this…. “As a District Council we are a billing authority, we send out the council tax bills and residents can see proportionately where their council tax is being spent. They can see that a proportion is retained by us; they can see a fair bit goes to the county council, the Fire service and police and little bit at the end is called the precept for the Parish Council. When we look at the totality for the parish and town councils precept it adds up to a fair sum. Why is it that when we can hardly afford the electricity bill to keep the lights on in our district council, the parishes and town councils have a load of loot?”

The councillor in this conversation also goes on to say that they have invested a great deal of time and energy in reshaping services and entered into complex partnering arrangements to bring efficiency benefits for us and the county, but “we seem to have overlooked the role of parish and town councils”. Looking recently at one multi tier area in the West Midlands that is heavily and actively parished suggests that the total precept adds up to quite a few million pounds; a rough calculation also suggests that for most town and parish councils they have discretionary control over more than half of their budgets (according to CLG the total English council precept for town and parish councils is over £540m -2013/13).

Decisions on spend, often set against some reasonably realistic and thoughtful parish plans, do deliver real and appreciated benefits for local communities but those parish plans, whilst submitted for approval to the district council (the billing authority in question), are administratively accepted and gather dust just to be treated as another bit of ‘administrivia’.

Granted, some councils are working well with their parish and town councils. They go beyond mere consultation and actively engage them in priority setting and are working towards much stronger integrated working, but that is not the case in many instances. There must some mileage in extending this debate to have a near seamless integration of priorities and social outcomes that dig deep into the work that parish councils do. Why is it that when the parish council budget is set it often accounts for a myriad of small contracts that are judged upon their worthiness but are rarely bound into the higher order outcomes that higher tier councils are working towards? It is logical to think that where a parish council has responsibility for open spaces and its efficacy in the management of those places is judged upon how effectively the grass is cut that those same open spaces are a resource that can have a significant role in meeting outcomes around public health, wellbeing, youth activities and a whole host more that are sought in higher tier councils.

The problem here is twofold – firstly it is rare for local parish and town councils to be engaged with these issues and secondly it is equally rare for many higher tier councils to even try to do so. There are also the attendant issues of poor integration of expenditure and budgets.

Although I have tried to bring together neighbouring parishes to coordinate and share their basic contracts (as a kind of horizontal integration that brings an economy of scale) little has been achieved and there has been little progress in taking this debate upward too.  As we are becoming more outcomes focused it is somewhat surprising that more is not done to encourage an integrative approach to what parish councils are doing on the ground and what the higher tier councils are seeking to achieve in this respect.

There have been some recent initiatives that have sought to bring this about – Selby in North Yorkshire should be commended for their approach to grouping parish and town councils and one county in the West Midlands that we are aware of has undertaken some preliminary work to engage with parish ad town councils better. However, where there have been some attempts to bring about this vertical integration, some resistance can be found too. It centres on the lack of focus on larger more holistic outcomes to be found in some, though perhaps not all parish and town councils and the potential lack of administrative and client skills they can call upon. But there may also be a lack of will on behalf of higher tier councils to stimulate this debate – it can be a tall order to effectively engage with a varied and disparate group of organisations that quite rightly guard their independence and local connectivity and in some cases district councils can have upwards of hundreds of parishes to deal with – engaging with them can be resource intensive in the extreme.

So, as some councils are facing highly uncertain futures – there is some polemic in the media about a handful of councils pulling up the shutters soon – it might be time to open this debate up and look at where there could be useful approaches to vertical integration in local government. It might be the first step in avoiding a UK Detroit.

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Ian Briggs is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Local Government Studies. He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.

Harnessing the resources of social enterprises for local authority savings

This post is based on Sam Tappenden’s MSc dissertation, which he completed at INLOGOV earlier this year.

Sam Tappenden

In recent years a broad political consensus appears to have developed around the argument that social enterprises have an important role to play in the future of the United Kingdom. Yet despite the political rhetoric, the field of social enterprise research is still relatively under-developed. One major gap as perceived by the UK Social Enterprise Coalition is in understanding how social enterprises use their resources; how social enterprises mobilise resources that other organisations see as liabilities; and how social enterprises are able to integrate resources to formulate strategies and exploit opportunities. For this reason I decided to use Grant’s Resource-Based View (RBV) of strategy as a theoretical framework to explore whether HCM could develop a new strategy for achieving sustainable competitive advantages.

The apparent gap around social enterprises and resources is precisely why I decided to focus on this area for my INLOGOV MSc dissertation. Furthermore, I am currently on secondment from Hertfordshire County Council (HCC) to Hertfordshire Community Meals (HCM), a successful social enterprise which was set up and commissioned in 2007 by HCC to deliver a ‘Meals on Wheels’ (MoWs) service to disabled, elderly, and vulnerable people across Hertfordshire. The very nature of the organisation means that difficult planning, logistical, and resource issues run at the heart of the business, which provided an excellent opportunity for an in-depth case study.

Grant’s theory allowed for the ‘discovery’ of a wide range of under-utilised resources. For example, the research suggests that HCM has:

  • A broad range of transferrable ‘tacit’ and ‘non-tacit’ skills
  • A family-oriented, task-focussed, and tightly-knit organisational culture;
  • A motivated workforce which is primarily driven by ‘intangible’ benefits;
  • A range of under-utilised physical resources such as vehicles
  • A secure and stable financial position

Of particular interest were the findings into HCM’s intangible resources. For example, the culture of the organisation appears to be the source of some of its key capabilities, including its skills in caring, its reputation as a ‘likable’ organisation, and relationships with local government. As a direct result of its positive culture, HCM appears to have an inherent ability to both attract and retain a particular ‘type’ of person that is motivated to ‘make a difference’, attracted by the family-oriented environment, and inherently caring. In this sense it could be argued that the culture of HCM is self-propagating.

Yet more significant is the ‘transferability’ of HCM’s resources: Using Grant’s framework, the research suggests that HCM could achieve sustainable competitive advantages by diversifying into the community care industry through better-utilising its existing resource infrastructure. Furthermore, with HCM’s corporate status as a charitable and not-for-profit social enterprise, it is very likely that in diversifying its core business model HCM could help HCC find considerable financial savings in, for example, the council’s homecare budget. In sum, in the case of HCM, the evidence suggests that social enterprises can draw on a wide range of both tangible and intangible resources which could (and should) be utilised to help balance the budgets of local authorities.

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Sam Tappenden started his career in local government in 2010 through Hertfordshire County Council’s Graduate Training scheme. As part of the training scheme, Sam read for an MSc in Public Management at INLOGOV. Sam is now seconded to Hertfordshire Community Meals as a Business Development Manager where his role is focussed on improving the efficiency of the current business model and assessing options for business diversification. Before moving to Hertfordshire Sam read History at Cardiff University, worked as a Special Constable for South Wales Police, and taught English in rural China.