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>> Divisions between the leader and chief executive can wreck a council ...
>> Divisions between the leader and chief executive can wreck a council

>> Dynamic between councillors andofficers risks creating 'us/them' approach

>> A cohesive team needs specific skills

By Mark Smulian

John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Tony Hancock and Sid James, even perhaps Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

History is littered with partnerships that were successful until one member fell out with the other, after which neither was quite as effective again.

Guidance for councils from the Improvement & Development Agency (see box) suggests something similar happens in the relationship between leader and chief executive. When they work together well the council succeeds, and when they fall out it does not.

True, a leader can hire and fire a chief executive and not vice versa, but a disaffected chief executive can create conditions in which a leader's position becomes untenable. They need each other.

The IDeA hired the Tavistock Institute and the Work Psychology Partnership to research this relationship for a report published last month. No guidance can require people who rub each other up the wrong way to get on well, but there are lessons about the factors that make it more or less likely.

Inside top teams -the research points out that top teams in local government are unlike those in the private and voluntary sectors, where a board or committee that shares specific aims can take decisions in private. Councils have parallel political and administrative leaders. The former can change overnight, and the latter are, in part, subject to central government. Decisions are usually made in public.

They also have different power bases, with politicians being elected, while officers have employment contracts. Differing responsibilities to voters, the council, central government and legal requirements can pull them in different directions.

One officer quoted in the report notes: 'There are two ways for a council to be ruined: a split between the leader and the chief exec or a split in the ruling group. I've seen both of those. You fail the people because the infighting brings everything to a halt.'

But even where harmony reigns, a team that includes both politicians and managers will see frequent tensions.

Strategy formation is not as straightforward as in a private company, the report notes, since 'increasingly, chief executives and officers are being encouraged to take a strategic role in defining how authorities can meet the needs of community and central government targets'.

Nor is it always clear where power lies. The leader and chief executive might appear to be the twin founts, but it may lie elsewhere.

'In local authorities, funding is key and the director of finance and his or her department may exercise substantial power because they hold the purse strings.

'Knowledge can also constitute power, which means a high value can be attached to officers with in-depth knowledge of a specialist sector and to members with a deep understanding of the electorate and political

systems,' the report says.

Power dynamics can lead to a virtuous culture of give and take and recognition of interdependency, but can also end up as 'a tendency to think in terms of us and them, where officials are careful to refer decisions back to councillors and thereby distance themselves from responsibility for the outcome'.

There are also problems caused by the nature of managerial and political leadership, even if both work well. The report illustrates their fundamental differences: 'Managerial leadership offers knowledge, frameworks, structures for thinking and clear boundaries and is able to address the complexities, uncertainties and risks embedded in a decision-making process. A crucial function of managerial leadership is seen by some as the need to exert subtle control over the political leadership.

'The political leadership, on the other hand, is based on elected power. It is often defined more by what it is not than what it is, is visionary and charismatic, given to oratory and easily threatened.'

But politicians may try to micro-manage staff, while some chief executives may decide to have a stab at being a politician.

Councils in which there is political instability, perhaps due to their size or frequent changes of control, can see 'chief executives assuming the leadership role and officers seeing their roles as central to the authority's activities, with politicians being sidelined and managed'. Some politicians may be managed so well that they end up like Jim Hacker in the Yes minister comedy series, where minister Hacker was in charge of permanent secretary Sir Humphrey in name only.

The IDeA report speculates about 'familiarity breeding content', with many of the most difficult aspects of councillor/officer relationships resolving themselves when a political leadership has stayed in power for many years.

This observation, however, seems to ignore what happens when an electoral upset occurs.

One councillor whose party was shut out of power for decades until last May notes: 'Officers don't know how to handle us after years in a monolith where they seem to have largely run the council.

'Anywhere where control changes after a long time is going to find that a problem. They have to get used to us as we do to them. You can't, after all, sweep out senior officers.'

Some though have tried. Chief executive David Bowles was removed from Lincolnshire CC after a sustained campaign by leader Ian Croft (Con). Problems began after Mr Bowles' evidence helped to convict and jail previous leader Jim Speechley (Con).

Last month saw chief executive Dorian Leatham leave Hillingdon LBC. The Audit Commission had five years ago voiced concern about his working relationship with leader Ray Puddifoot (Con). Matters did not come to a head while Hillingdon was under no overall control, but Mr Leatham did not long survive May's Tory victory (LGC, 3 August).

Relations between Liverpool City Council's then chief executive Sir David Henshaw and leader Mike Storey (Lib Dem) famously boiled over when the leader's indiscreet emails about Sir David were published in the press (LGC, 1 June 2005).

The IDeA's report concludes that the smooth running of a team comes down to a set of essential skills.

Effective top team members need to analyse information from a variety of sources so 'those without good numerical skills are at a disadvantage'. Time to brush up on the maths.

Communication skills are not just about effective dissemination of messages, but how information is managed. An officer quoted says: 'One director worked under the old influence system. He would write reports that didn't tell people what they were actually agreeing to. So at the next meeting he would say, 'No, no, you haven't agreed to that, you've agreed to this'.' Who hasn't seen that?

Partnership requires working relationships based on trust and respect, something easier said than done.

One sin against which the report counsels is: 'Taking satisfaction when decisions that they argued against turn out badly'. Who hasn't done that?

The final skill is 'political'. This does not mean that senior officers should don rosettes and go canvassing, but that they should be aware of 'a critical difference between political activity and political skills'.

These include the ability to identify sources of influence; sensitivity to social cohesion and disaffection; knowing how to get something onto the agenda and keep it there; and the ability to judge when difficult issues and bad news might best be raised.

Trouble comes when councillors are too political with a capital 'P' and officers not sufficiently political with a small 'p'.

Maybe they could teach each other.

A winning team needs a common vision, says Maxine Tomlinson

The effectiveness of any organisation is influenced by many factors, from strategy to staff quality and from finance to flexibility. But no matter how clear the strategy, good the staff, generous the financing or lithe the flexibility, the organisation is likely to fail if the leadership is poor. It needs a top team with common aims, determination and vision.

Top teams in local government are unlike those in the private and voluntary sectors. Local authorities have parallel political and managerial leaders. While political leaders can change overnight, the senior managerial leadership is often more stable. Decisions are often made in public, and there are many external pressures.

The IDeA is soon to release a guide for effective top team working entitled Inside top teams - the handbook. Developed in partnership with Andy Holder Associates, the handbook draws on our work in many authorities. It also complements the report commissioned by IDeA and carried out by the Work Psychology Partnership and the Tavistock Institute (2006), Inside top teams - the research, which explores the dynamics of top team leadership in local authorities.

The Handbook sets out various themes that, in our experience, top teams in local government have to work at in order to be effective. It is structured into three parts: the basics; the business agenda, and the relationship agenda. In each, we discuss the theme in some detail, then offer a workshop session for the teams to use to examine the implications for themselves.

The Handbook is due to be released by the end of September.

To find out more visit the IDeA website.

Maxine Tomlinson Programme manager,

leadership strategy, IDeA

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