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Blair McPherson: The point of a leader standing athwart change

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What sort of chief executive hates change while leading an organisation in an age of upheaval?

It is probably one following the leader who turned the organisation upside down, or who is bringing services back in house after an ideologically driven and ruinous experiment with outsourcing.

For a long time leadership has been about managing change. The assumption was that the world of local government faced new challenges: demographic, ideological, technological and financial – especially financial. And the only way to meet those challenges was to change things.

The bigger the challenges the bigger the changes required. Management restructuring and service reorganisations were not a new response to challenges, but the gap between such major upheavals became shorter. When these changes failed to deliver then more radial solutions were tried, namely mergers and outsourcing.

So much management time has been devoted to managing change that some managers think that it is the main purpose of their role, and that success is measured by how different things become. How smooth was the transformation? How quickly were changes introduced? How radical and profound were the changes? How much money was saved?

Changing the way things are done inevitably means getting staff to do things differently. And yes, services should be run for the benefit of services users, not the convenience of staff.

However, year-on-year efficiency savings and a climate of austerity have gone beyond changes that staff might consider “inconvenient” to eroding terms and conditions of employment, for example pay freezes, removal of enhancements for evening and weekend work, overtime paid at a standard rate, reduced sick pay, reduction in annual leave and loss of job security.

Management becomes getting people to do what they don’t want to do, or overcoming resistance to change. Chief executives slip into confrontational and dismissive language, arguing: “Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.”

Debate is closed, dissent is often seen as disloyalty, and the level of trust between employees and management – particularly senior management – plummets.

Employees will not feel valued or respected if managers dismiss their concerns, are disinterested in their views or discourage them from asking the question they want to, but are afraid to do so, for fear of being labelled disloyal, awkward or uncompliant.

In the short term this type of leadership delivers, but the changes are not owned, haven’t taken root and are less likely to stand under a new leader.

What sort of chief executive hates change? The sort of chief executive who doesn’t think stability means standing still. The sort of chief executive who believes not in building a new culture, but growing it. Because the result will be real, lasting change – not the cosmetic sort.

Blair McPherson, former director, Lancashire CC

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