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Sarah Norman: Lessons on system leadership from Dudley

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Tenacity, talented colleagues and storytelling can overcome tricky problems

Being a chief executive in local government is both the best job I’ve had and the hardest.

It is the best job because every day brings something new, there are great people to work with and there is the chance of real impact in a place you love.

It is the hardest job because there is no handbook. The stakes are high. Some problems you deal with have proved impossible to solve for years, and success relies on many others’ actions.

It is systems leadership at its best and worst.

Since starting in Dudley I have had to kick-start regeneration and turn around a failing children’s service, both important and deepseated issues.

Three-and-a-half years on we still have work to do, but children’s services in Dudley have changed beyond all recognition. Our relationship with partners is strong and challenging. Professional standards are high, and we have received seven successful monitoring visits, with a reinspection promised in the autumn.

Meanwhile, a wide range of regeneration projects are coming to fruition which will transform the borough’s physical nature and economy.

These include a light rail innovation centre, a business and innovation enterprise zone called DY5, and two university-level institutions in a borough previously with none.

There is also the replacement of a derelict seven-storey office building, Cavendish House, with a residential, leisure and retail development, served by a new Metro link to Birmingham and Wolverhampton.

On a bigger scale, West Midlands CA has provided a forum for systems leadership through our cutting-edge work on mental health. We estimate mental illness costs the region £12.5bn a year.

This includes direct NHS costs, and indirect costs from lost productivity, economic inactivity, the challenges for looked after children, and criminal justice costs. This is on top of the huge human costs.

In response, the Mental Health Commission was established. The aim was simple: a whole system review to transform mental health provision into a system that invests in keeping people well.

The result has been systemwide commitments to concrete actions in the Thrive West Midlands Action Plan.

They include an £8.4m pilot to support people with health difficulties into work; a trial offering fiscal incentives to small businesses to invest in staff wellbeing; a programme to train half a million West Midlanders in mental health literacy; and initiatives in criminal justice to keep people out of prison and support them on their release.

DY5 is Dudley’s business and innovation enterprise zone

So, what have I learnt from these challenges about systems leadership?

You need to be brave. Critical to the success of the Mental Health Commission was persuading former health minister Norman Lamb to chair it and NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens to back it. In both cases I had to make the elevator pitch. I could have easily chickened out. I am glad I didn’t.

You need to be tenacious. After initial promises, actually getting the money for the Thrive pilots has been frustratingly bureaucratic. Getting the Metro built will be just as hard.

Find ways to produce something great from little. None of us in local government have any money anymore. The cost of the Mental Health Commission was £250,000 – £100,000 of which was from NHS England. To succeed, it needed the enormous goodwill of people who gave their time.

Find great people who make things happen. My biggest successes have come through the fabulous people I have persuaded to work with me. For example, Tony Oakman, now chief executive at Bolton MBC, was fundamental to our children’s services improvements.

Tell stories to help people believe in change and it will help it happen. There have been plans for a Metro to Dudley for more than two decades. Telling a new story changes the narrative. You must build momentum to overcome intractable issues.

Really listen to and be guided by the people who experience our services. The use of a citizen’s jury as part of the Mental Health Commission’s work ensured it focused on issues that matter. It also gave it weight that made its work harder to ignore.

Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. In the end, most of what we achieve is through relationships. It is about finding a shared endeavour and working hard together to make it happen.

The Ignite leadership programme came along during my system leadership journey, giving me access to a network of other chief executives grappling with similar challenges.

We discussed tactics and ways around obstacles. We shared problems and good ideas. This has not just been about support, although there has been a lot of that. It has also provided me with challenge. Sometimes things can get stuck. Working with others on Ignite has helped me with my system leadership challenges to find new ways forward.

Sarah Norman, chief executive, Dudley MBC

This essay forms part of a new collection on system leadership from Collaborate and Solace

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