Blog Article

Local government leadership: less is more

Posted by Emma Cornwall

Emma Cornwall

A recent report by the Management Consultancies Association (MCA) Think Tank, Local Government: Time for Reinvention, says the future of local government needs a radical rethink early in the new parliament in order to define what councils are for, what functions best suit them and what should be undertaken by others. The insights in this report build on the context that has been reality for local authority senior leaders for a number of years now – local government is an increasingly complex place in which to lead.

The role of chief executive in local government still exists to deliver the same outcomes that it has for decades, namely high quality, resource-efficient services that meet the needs of residents. While these outcomes remain at the heart of the senior leadership role, layered upon this are degrees of complexity and ambiguity that call for a different set of leadership capabilities. The twin drivers of the economic squeeze and the role of local government as leader of place mean that what great leadership looks like is evolving at a rapid pace. For many of the chief executives who have endured the past five years, the leadership challenge they’ve faced has been uncharted.

If we step back and look at what local authority chief executives are grappling with, it’s a daunting picture: relentless levels of demand for adult social care services, requirements to continue delivering unprecedented levels of efficiency savings and the need to fundamentally transform the local government operating model while hidebound by an outdated employment offer to staff. Then add the energy and commitment needed to build, sustain and deliver through local partnerships, the opportunities (or distractions, depending on your view) of the devolution agenda and any number of other local pressing issues. Looking at these challenges, it surely takes a particularly set of leadership behaviours to navigate an organisation through such choppy waters. Or does it?

I would in fact argue that matching the complexity of the local government environment with a similarly complex set of leadership requirements does nothing to help senior leaders chart a course through the constantly shifting landscape. Instead, I would contest that doing a few things really well is more important than trying to achieve greatness across a myriad of attributes and demands.

This view is informed by my work with hundreds of leaders across the public sector. Spending time with these leaders, many of whom have delivered genuine transformational change and sustained performance, I’ve come to recognise that what makes them so impactful is that they work hard at doing a couple of things really well.

Firstly, they are able to turn the big picture story into a clear narrative about what this will actually look like for individual staff. Most leaders are effective at setting a clear and understandable vision or strategy. But the best leaders then work even harder to ensure that people in the organisation understand how the strategy will impact on their day-to-day work by communicating this through their management teams. It’s the ability to create clarity at both an organisational level and a personal level that is vital when the environment is challenging and complex. Without this, teams and individuals within an organisation feel disconnected from what is trying to be achieved and are unable (or unwilling) to deliver the personal behavioural change needed to drive organisational change.

Secondly, the best leaders I’ve seen think relationships first, task second. Many individuals who reach senior levels in organisations will have a strong achievement drive. This can be immensely useful in getting things done, but won’t be enough on its own in complex and ambiguous organisational contexts. Tackling multi-faceted “wicked issues” cannot be done in either internal or external organisational silos. But the answer to collaborative working will not be found in process re-engineering and governance arrangements. The best leaders recognise that the quality and sustainability of relationships across the local system are the only deciding factors in whether collaborative working is going to deliver the outcomes needed.

That’s not to say this is easy. I would suggest that managing relationships is one of the hardest leadership challenges out there. But high performing leaders recognise that this is where they need to focus their time, ahead of delivering “the task”.

Depending on circumstances, chief executives are going to need to supplement these fundamentals with other skills and behaviours. But it’s not about facing-off to this complexity by creating a long list of unobtainable leadership attributes. Instead, a more effective strategy is to strip back the leadership challenge to those behaviours that will really make the difference to organisational performance.


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