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Developing talent - at both ends of the pay scale

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LGC looks at the latest thinking on staff development

Few council chief executives would argue that investment in staff is unnecessary – but when budgets are tough, councils face pressure to let spending slide on training and development for any staff - from the lowest to the highest-paid.

In a recent leadership column for LGC, Christine Fisher, the outgoing chief executive of North West Leicestershire DC, said true leadership was about ensuring staff at every level of an organisation received the coaching and career development they needed to reach their full potential.

“Through wholesale training, embedding coaching advocates at all levels of the organisation, we have developed a culture where everyone is equipped with the skills they need to make better contributions within their roles and is encouraged to continually develop themselves,” Ms Fisher wrote.

It’s an attractive idea, but how can councils practically achieve this focus on individualised, high-quality training?

Earlier this week, LGC published an Idea Exchange case study into one way of building development into all levels of a council – through the apprenticeship levy.

All local authorities must now work towards achieving a target of having 2.3% of their workforces employed as apprentices, and must pay a levy into a pot dedicated to paying for this. But Bradford City MDC has taken this approach several steps further.

First, the council has set itself a target for the number of apprentices it will employ of nearly double the statutory figure. Second, the council will make the majority of its vacancies below a certain pay grade into apprenticeships, providing structured learning for staff at a variety of levels from intermediate right up to degree level. And third, the authority plans to extend its apprenticeship scheme across the public sector, and even bring in local private sector employers, to offer apprentices a fuller range of experience within their course.

But while better training for lower-paid and middling staff might be an easy sell, it can be harder for councils to justify investment in developing leadership skills in more senior – and better paid – staff.

But invest they must, argues Buckinghamshire CC HR director Gillian Quinton. In her latest column for LGC, Ms Quinton warns “there are huge leadership challenges facing public sector organisations”, not least the way changing operating models demand different leadership styles. Ms Quinton writes that councils “must have deep and structured leadership development strategies, which not only address top team development needs but also the longer-term issue of future talent pipelines”. Without action now they risk facing a dangerous scarcity of talented leading officers a few years down the line, Ms Quinton warns.

In a column for LGC, Sue Smith, former chief executive of Cherwell DC and South Northamptonshire Council, also stresses that leadership development within councils is “probably the most underrated aspect of anyone’s development” despite being the factor that makes “the difference between an average organisation and one with high performance”.

Councils can – and indeed must – nurture and develop officers to fulfil leadership potential, Ms Smith says. The most important leadership quality, she contends, is “emotional intelligence”, and so development programmes should focus on encouraging this, perhaps using other senior staff as mentors, she says.

“Funding for leadership development may not be easy to find when budgets are tight, but the return on investment can be significant. An effective and confident leader can release the potential of staff to achieve greater outcomes and more job satisfaction,” says Ms Smith.

To continue to be effective, particularly when councils are under pressure, then, investment in staff development at either end of the pay spectrum is essential. But with tight budgets and relentless public scrutiny, councils must be creative in how they go about it.

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