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MENTOR - STEPPING INTO THE UNKNOWN

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When a new boss arrives there's a steep learning curve for both the new arrival and existing staff, writes Sally O'...
When a new boss arrives there's a steep learning curve for both the new arrival and existing staff, writes Sally O'Reilly

Change is a fact of life in local government. The days when you could expect to work for the same boss for 20 years are long gone. Even if you stay in the same post yourself, you may have to adapt to a new order when a senior person sweeps in and imposes change from above. New bosses need to make their mark, which is likely to mean rushing about making their bright ideas a reality.

'We have to accept change, and be innovative ourselves, rather than trying to block it, or being obstructive,' advises James Underhay, commercial director of HR consultancy Chiumento. So the best approach is to be open-minded about your new boss - and be willing to discuss the way your work fits into their master plan.

The open, positive approach certainly worked well for Teignbridge DC, which set out a new 10-year plan under a period of interim management before the new chief executive, Nicola Bulbeck, came into post in February. 'Staff and members were kept fully informed throughout the recruitment process, and as soon as the appointment was made, we made communicating the decision a priority,' says Brian Gray, the interim chief executive.

'A photograph was distributed swiftly, and she was subsequently pleased to discover that she had been 'Googled' by a number of staff who were keen to learn more about their new chief.'

During the period between appointment and joining Teignbridge, Ms Bulbeck kept in contact with the council, receiving briefing papers on key issues, meeting group leaders and key politicians, attending a number of executive meetings and social events and introducing herself to staff.

All this makes good sense to Adrian Starkey, head of coaching and executive development with management consultancy DDI, which works with both public and private sector clients. 'It's much easier to cope with a new senior appointment if staff have a sense of cohesion before the new boss arrives,' he says.

'A group with departmental vision and clarity and coherence will immediately be easier for a new boss to relate to than a group who are disorganised.'

The key to success is good communication between the two sides, stresses Mr Starkey.

'I think the biggest 'no-no' is to wait and see how things pan out,' he says. 'My advice is that you have an early conversation about what the expectations are on both sides.'

Interim chief Mr Gray agrees. Both council and new chief are on a steep learning curve, and each can learn from the other, he points out. 'Clearly the appointment of a new chief executive is about managing change,' he says. 'It's a change for the council, in terms of culture, approach and management style.

'But also it is a significant change for the individual chief executive, who is entering into a different political environment, who may have moved a significant distance from a previous post away from friends and relations, and into temporary accommodation with all the stresses that this can bring.'

Helping the new boss settle in isn't just a matter of filling their diaries with meetings, and their inbox with council papers, either. Staff at Teignbridge were keen to introduce Ms Bulbeck to the area, too. 'Nicola found herself donning her wellies and waterproofs within three weeks of taking up her post,' says Mr Gray. Teignbridge is located in one of the largest rural districts in the UK, and new recruits are given guided tours of Dartmoor as part of the induction process.

Getting the full picture of life in the area was an essential part of settling in, Mr Gray believes. 'The first few weeks in any chief executive position is pressurised: members, staff, partners, town and parish council, developers and other organisations all want to introduce themselves and discuss their pertinent issues.'

Any incoming boss has a lot to take in - and they need the support of staff. Experts agree the more support a new chief executive has, the more effective they are likely to be.

'The worst thing is the 'I know better than you' approach,' says HR consultant Mr Underhay. 'If you dig your heels in as a group, and create a culture where everything is in aspic, your manager is more likely to be confrontational.'

Aware of the dangers of this, staff at Teignbridge have given their new chief executive their full backing. 'It was essential that attention was given to removing any minor irritations for Nicola so she could concentrate on the bigger issues, and take time to assess the council, its plans, priorities and performance before introducing any necessary changes for improvement,' says Mr Gray.

'Here at Teignbridge we feel we paid particular attention to ensuring that Nicola Bulbeck was welcomed and felt comfortable in her new role.'

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