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Joining the career path to the top

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When Caroline Tapster became chief executive of Hertfordshire CC in 2005, her first interview with LGC highlighted her ‘unconventional’ route from social services to the top.

Just four years later, that journey does not seem so unusual. Gone are the days when only a legal or accounting qualification guaranteed the keys to the chief executive’s drinks cabinet.

Aidan Rave, local government partner at recruitment consultants Rockpools, says the chief executive role has changed beyond all recognition and different skills, such as influencing and persuading, honed in social services departments, are in demand. “These words would not have been in the local government recruitment lexicon five or 10 years ago,” he says.

LGC has talked to three former social workers about their experiences on the road to the top of local government.

Trish Haines, chief executive, Worcestershire CC

Given the government’s focus on partnership working, it is “sensible” that social services directors are taking on the top job, says Trish Haines.

The skills she learned in that discipline serve her well today. “When I got into management in social services and started to plan services with partners,” she says. “I couldn’t force the PCT to do things. I could only influence and persuade and negotiate. You make things work by getting people on board.”

She also believes that as a front-line social worker — especially in an environment like child protection — she learned how to deal with people and handle difficult situations.

“On the one hand you are working with the family, helping them keep that child, but everyone knows that you have the legal authority to take that child away. It’s a real skill to manage that kind of tension, but it’s also one that is difficult to learn. I use the same skills as a manager when I’m doing performance management. I’m here to help staff improve but if they don’t, there are consequences,” she says.

Ms Haines began her career as a social worker and then moved up the ranks to become director of social services. She had no designs on the top job until she went on a senior managers’ programme run by the Cabinet Office, which helped her decide her next step. Her first chief executive post was at Reading BC, which she says was a challenge, but not in the way one might think.

“I went from being a director in a county council to being a chief executive in a unitary which ran a whole range of functions that county councils don’t deliver. I had to learn about housing, refuse collection, licensing, running a bus service — none of which I had had any contact with.

“I was never in a position to pretend that I was an expert. Early on in your management career you’re there because you’re an expert, but the more senior you get in an organisation you very quickly stop being an expert,” she says.

Ms Haines enjoys the breadth of her current role and she is not tempted to micro-manage her social care colleagues. And her motivation is the same today as it was in her first job.

“I came into local government because I wanted to make a difference and that has helped me through every level of my career. If you don’t have a feel for individuals and families and communities then it makes it hard to have a passion for the job,” she says.

Caroline Tapster, chief executive, Hertfordshire CC

Caroline Tapster believes that one of the most important
things she learnt as a social worker was “personal resilience” — an attribute you need in spades at the top of a local authority.

“In social services you learn to manage yourself and your time. You become very good at dealing with crises. I can show good leadership, I’m not someone who behaves erratically. People look at you and see that you’re keeping calm — that’s something you learn to do in social care,” she says.

She also learned another important skill — how to maintain a good work-life balance. “I grew up in the days of social care where you didn’t have out-of-hours, where the job could become all-consuming. I’m good at setting limits and boundaries. When you’re a director of social services it’s very easy to spend every waking minute doing something — you learn what’s important and what isn’t,” she says.

Ms Tapster began her career as a social worker and worked her way up to become director of social services, and then director of adult care when Hertfordshire split adult and children’s services. She did not consider the chief executive post until councillors asked her to act as an interim while they sought a replacement for the outgoing chief. Nine months later she got the job.

“Sometimes I miss social care but I have always enjoyed delivering results through others. If I’m supporting the director of children’s services or adult care I get as much satisfaction and pleasure as if I was doing it myself — probably more,” she says.

The last year has seen an intense focus on children’s services and Ms Tapster believes that directors of both adults’ and children’s services face more scrutiny than chief executives — the only exception being when she featured in a list of top council earners released by the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

“As the director of social services or even assistant director you would be talking to the media and fronting public meetings much more than in this role. But you do need to be careful — there is a point when people are being hung out to dry,” she says.

She does not see a vast difference between her front-line work and the job she does now. “I loved what I did before and I love what I do now. Every day I think ‘what am I going to be doing today which makes a difference?’ ”

Tony Hunter

Tony Hunter, chief executive, North East Lincolnshire Council

Tony Hunter is keen not to appear to be lording it over chief executive colleagues from other disciplines but he agrees that the trend to appoint former social services directors to the top job reflects how the role is evolving.

“What’s important now is having the capacity to generate confidence, to instil belief, to develop relationships, to be an ambassador,” he says. “People from all sorts of backgrounds have these skills — they’re not unique to people from social services. But aspects of our training are focused on understanding, listening and having empathy and these fit with the times.

However, he believes such skills are not a panacea — councils which are in difficulty, where there are poor relations between officers and members and the finances are askew, might require a more top-down, directive leadership style.

Mr Hunter began his career as a social worker and then worked in the voluntary and private sectors before becoming a director of social services in 1995. He worked his way up to executive director of community services at Liverpool City Council. This was a broad role, with a remit that included housing, community safety and adult education, as well as adult social care.

He says his career moves are a combination of pragmatism and fortuity and he had no career plan. “Anyone who says they want to be a chief executive will end up applying for jobs indiscriminately. You have to make sure you fit the council,” he says.

Mr Hunter believes that his professional background as a social worker has little bearing on his current role. “It’s years since I practised and the job of a social worker has changed beyond recognition. It’s pointless to harp on about your professional background — first, it’s years out of date and secondly, you risk alienating parts of your workforce,” he says.

While his days on the front line might be in the distant past, his experience of representing other social services directors has helped him enormously. In 2004-05 his presidency of the Association of Directors of Social Services gave him an insight into the “complex government machine”.

“I also understood better how to influence policy in ways which are not about crass tub-thumping, which might appeal to the gallery, but which don’t necessarily make a difference,” Mr Hunter says.

“As a director and chief executive there are times when you know the people you manage want to see a big scrap but that’s not necessarily the most appropriate way of taking things forward.”

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