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'The chief execs of tomorrow need first-class support'

Steve Atkinson
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In the late 1980s my boss told me I should ‘never be afraid of the big chair’.

It encouraged me to recognise the top job was within reach, although at that point it was still two promotions and 11 years away.

I knew then it was tough at the top but it is the place to be if you are truly committed to making a positive and lasting difference to the communities we serve. Catherine Staite argued recently in LGC that leadership is more important than ever in these austere times. I couldn’t agree more. Whilst the role of chief executive was not one to which I aspired until the later 1990s, I did have an ambition to step up; not for a promotion per se, but to get to a position from which I could identify improvements and have a greater influence on making change happen.

Over a local government career spanning 39 years, I have been lucky. In every job I have had, in four different authorities before becoming a chief executive, there was always at least one person willing to guide me. I benefited greatly from those around me who recognised my commitment and approach to public service, took the time to offer me opportunities to develop and supported me when I accepted them.

This was not purely altruistic. My colleagues were looking to improve the management of organisational and inter-organisational activity. They were far-sighted enough to identify their staff’s skills and support their refinement, using their own emotional intelligence to the full.

They recognised also that there are a variety of means of supporting that development. In my case, it was an MBA at just the right time, exposing me to a challenging strategic role of which I had little previous experience. This took me beyond my comfort zone to participate in senior management events.

Above all, my managers were prepared to take a risk and accept that some mistakes may be made. I like to think that they were repaid for their faith.

All of this demonstrates that management development is a two-way process. An individual must already have talent and the motivation to improve and be devoted to meaningful activity; managers must recognise that talent and nurture it. I recently took sat on the judging panel for LGC’s Rising Star award category. It was inspiring to read all the submissions and meet some of the people on the shortlist. In every case, their success depended on a combination of individual talent and ambition and first-class management support.

It is that combination which we must ensure is maintained into the future; giving our many talented employees the confidence and opportunity to perform at their best, as we enter increasingly difficult times in the public sector.

Steve Atkinson, director of Edenwich and former chief executive, Hinckley & Bosworth BC

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