I said in my first president’s speech a year ago that I would take on the role with responsibility, passion and determination.
All leadership roles in local government are a privilege and spending time with members of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers across the UK this year has strengthened my belief in councils’ ability to make a difference in their local places. Without this broader perspective it can be all too easy to forget the impact the sector makes every day.
I also said I wanted to champion diversity. This year we have made a start: creating a women’s leadership network; widening participation in Solace leadership programmes; and supporting the People’s Powerhouse, demonstrating there is more to the Northern Powerhouse than the white male faces so often presented.
But the government’s recent diversity audit demonstrates there is still so much to do, and not only out working with our local communities. Leadership across the public sector, and within all local councils, does not reflect the communities it serves. In some places, and for some groups, important steps forward have been made but recent years have seen progress stalling, particularly the representation of black and minority ethnic groups in the most senior roles.
Solace has long been a valued support and learning network for senior staff. Chief executives have created a much needed safe space where likeminded individuals can gather to share learning and future thinking. Reaching outside of your immediate organisation, region or profession is hugely valuable; not merely to learn what others are doing but also to influence future direction both in Whitehall and across the sector. Events such as our Leadership Forum in March, or leadership programmes like Ignite, have proved transformational to many.
It is important we continue and improve the support we give to chief executives, providing a strong support network, a national voice and a place to continue their learning.
But a consequence of creating a strong network can be that it feels exclusive, detached and difficult to penetrate. At Solace we all recognise this and despite efforts over recent years, Solace can still be perceived as a private chief executive club. We want to change both perception and reality.
We want to build on our existing pedigree and go further with the work we already do right across the local government workforce. Solace already runs the professional development that provides the backbone of the Local Government Association’s national graduate development programme, as well as individual graduate programmes across the country. We have recently established a new apprenticeship programme which builds on our existing programmes: from Springboard for future leaders; to Total Leadership for those on the cusp of taking on an executive role.
So we are taking this important work of developing talent from the periphery and placing it at the heart of the organisation’s mission. As a membership organisation we need to change as the context of our membership changes. Over the summer we have undertaken our widest member engagement to ensure the changes we make are grounded in reality. We are starting by altering both the way Solace membership is structured and what we provide, to explicitly target leaders throughout their career, from first job to seasoned veteran.
We are building on our comprehensive training offer, by extending our programme to include events aimed specifically at individuals at different stages in their career. Whether you’ve recently started your career, have just taken on a strategic or managerial role or are a traditional Solace chief executive, there will be an event for you. You may have already noticed that we are already running an increasing number of events outside of London. We will be doing more locally and also encouraging members to create their own events by providing them with the tools to do it.
One area where we need to take giant steps forward is digital. Our online presence is inadequate. A small organisation like Solace can use digital tools to leverage a far greater impact than it can through traditional methods. We need to prioritise investment in this area and make significant progress in the coming months.
That said, while what we do online is increasingly important, it will never completely replace good old-fashioned, face-to-face discussions, which is why I am delighted to be welcoming so many to this year’s Solace Summit in Manchester, the largest gathering for a decade. As always, it will be a fabulous opportunity to network with colleagues, have fun and learn something new. We have an extensive, far-reaching agenda and a set of speakers to match. It will be another step forward in opening up and embracing a more diverse leadership for local government at all levels.
Jo Miller, chief executive, Doncaster MBC and president, Solace