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Bridging the gap between the very personal and the very public

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The recent sad death of a longstanding councillor gave me cause to reflect on one of the more unspoken aspects of being a chief executive.

It is a very privileged position in personal and public terms. It has meant, for example, representing the council at more funerals than a normal citizen might expect to attend and, as a non-religious person, getting to know the services of almost all faiths.

I wonder how many of my colleagues reacted as nervously as I did when representing the council at a funeral for the first time and being solemnly ushered to a front pew. However, that civic attendance is often combined with a much more direct personal involvement.

There is a cliché often trooped out about certain councillors that ‘politics was their life’ but we know that for many elected members, public service, their local community, and the council form a deep emotional motivator for them. By extension, it means that as chief executive you build relationships, trust and knowledge that go beyond the typical workplace relationship. 

One of the great joys of being a chief executive is working with the amateur politician far removed from the media stereotype of national politics and with that comes a different sort of relationship.

That’s not to be misinterpreted as friendship. In my last authority I spent years working within a traditional set of relationships never once referring to councillors by their first names yet knowing as much about them, if not more, than I do about some of my friends.

Successful chief executives need to build trusting relationships and with that for many comes understanding and confidences that go far beyond the rather sterile narrative of public management textbooks.

Those relationships mean that, alongside civic representations, you will be more closely involved in personal loss, grief, family troubles, job worries, financial problems and so on. I’d argue that only a heartless automaton could fail to be moved or engaged by this.

I’m sure many chief executives have had the strange conversation with a family member of a councillor where it is clear that, even though they have never met you, they know rather a lot about you and occasionally have rather strong opinions too. I remember once, some time ago, a leader’s wife advising there was ‘nothing about the council finances that finding a wife’ wouldn’t help me with.

If anything, this is the privilege they don’t tell you about. We are all told about the confidential and personal information we will have to handle as a chief executive and about personal political tensions. What’s unspoken is the rare task to stand in between the very personal and the very public, trying as best we can to support both.

Nick Walkley, chief executive, Haringey LBC


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