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Catherine Staite: How to ensure your management is robust

Catherine Staite
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Every review of failure in local government inevitably refers to failures of leadership.

‘Good’ or ‘strong’ leadership is frequently identified as a critical success factor in every aspect of the life of a local authority, from long-term, large-scale transformation projects, to the management of short-term crises. That would suggest that developing and maintaining leadership capacity is high on the to-do list of every council chief executive and director. In my experience, that is indeed true of many but by no means true of all.

Definitions of ‘leadership’ abound and there is no-one size fits all approach[i]. Every leader needs to develop their own authentic repertoire of leadership behaviours, which take into account the current context and situation and the capacities and support needs of those involved (Binney et al 2005)[ii]. Leaders need to be able to listen well and communicate clearly and with enough emotional intelligence and self-awareness to be able to reflect on their own leadership performance and learn from both success and failure.

One of the side effects of perma-austerity has been the creation of a focus on short- term savings, rather than longer-term capacity building. Another is a focus on action at the expense of reflection. As a result, very little money or time is allocated to leadership development. Between 2011 and 2014, investment in all ‘off the job’ training and development dropped from an annual median figure of £178 to £145 per person, which delivered a magnificent 0.9 of a day of development.

This makes no business sense because staff are the most expensive asset, their numbers continue to fall and local authorities need to maximize their leadership capacity if they are going to be able to continue to function at all, let alone demonstrate the agility and imagination to transform themselves to meet the challenges of the future.

Build a strong business case for investing in leadership development

There are two key ways in which councils can build leadership capacity. They can develop the leadership skills of everyone currently in a leadership role and focus on building leadership capacity among staff not currently in roles with leadership responsibility. It can be argued that, if you get the first change right, it’s easier to implement the second. There is a risk of too much reliance on leadership ability being co-terminous with seniority. We’ve all been managed by someone who has achieved seniority through time served or technical expertise without acquiring a single discernable leadership skill and it’s no fun at all.

By demonstrating that you are prepared to invest your own time and energy in leadership development, as well as by commissioning high-quality development, you will give a very strong message about the importance of distributed leadership to the success of the organisation. Thoughtful talent management can help both build leadership capacity in the short term and retain good leaders in the longer term.

Make leadership capacity-building part of everyone’s day job

Building leadership development into everyday work, including articulating leadership challenges, encouraging open discussion and providing regular, consistent and supportive feedback, will also help to build capacity. That means avoiding the temptation to dump some onerous responsibilities onto junior shoulders to see if they sink or swim. If you are a senior leader and do not want or know how to turn around a difficult situation, then you certainly should not delegate the job to someone with less experience and knowledge than you without the development tools required. However, bringing together a group of staff, under your leadership, to work together to learn how to tackle major challenges and at the same time to build their own leadership skills, will send a very positive message to the organization as whole.

Create the space to learn

Become a ‘learning organisation’ (Senge 1990)[iii] and turn both success and failure into opportunities for learning. Which one of us does not look back in cringing horror at some ghastly mistake we have made? Let us reflect on how we were treated at the time and how that made us feel, before we repeat the poor leadership we were subjected to then. In spite of all our good intentions, the default reaction to any error or failure is blame. We have to get past that.

I observe how the best councils match development opportunities to the current and potential skills of staff and I’m always struck by the numerous benefits that follow. Staff are happier and more confident and leaders are supported by a talented team. As a result leaders do not have to be good at everything and that is always a blessing. Resist the temptation to use hierarchical power to say ‘just do it’ and, instead, listen to what your team are telling you. That is a sign of a good leader and it enables you to model the behaviour you value in others. The most notable sign that leadership capacity is being strengthened is when everyone feels that they have a contribution to make - and then they do.

Catherine Staite, director of the Institute of Local Government Studies (Inlogov), University of Birmingham

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