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Taking the chief’s seat

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To become a chief executive requires a certain ‘X-factor’. Sally O’Reilly looks at how that can be developed.

Climbing to the top of the career ladder in local government definitely has its attractions. Landing a job as a chief executive means that you can make an impact on the local community, work in a role far more challenging and diverse than that of most private sector equivalents and even in certain councils command a higher salary than Prime Minister Gordon Brown. But while the role of chief executive might appeal to you, how can you make sure you impress recruiters?

Graham Goodwin, director of recruitment company Gatenby Sanderson, which places chief executives in local authorities, explains what employers are looking for. He says that the way a candidate thinks about a council as an organisation is a good indicator of whether they are ready for a leading role.

“Someone who is ready to lead an organisation will talk from the top down, looking first at the organisation in strategic, big-picture terms, and then drop down to talk about how the key services are delivered,” Mr Goodwin says.

“People who are thinking like managers will stick to talking about their particular service area. They may then go on to talk about the organisation as a whole, but they see it from a service perspective.

"Leadership potential also means getting to grips with big concepts like place-shaping and worklessness, and analysing the authority in those terms.”

However, those who are uniquely focused on strategy may fall short as chief executives, Mr Goodwin adds. “Applicants with central, corporate experience sometimes lack the ability to connect to what individual service areas will have to deliver. The question then is: the theory is good, but how would this work in reality?”


Being able to apply your experience with intelligence is clearly a priority. But recruiters looking for the 'X-factor' will also be seeking applicants who know they are capable of carrying a senior role. Self confidence without arrogance is essential.

“There are no half measures to total success. You need the personality to inspire others combined with self-belief and sound judgment,” says Richard Crouch, head of human resources and organisational development at Somerset CC. “And you also need total authenticity the confidence to be yourself, not someone you believe others would like you to be.”

Councils may have ambitious ideas about what they need in terms of leadership competence, and as a senior manager it makes sense to take the initiative and find out how you measure up against the ‘ideal’.

One approach, recommended by management guru Sharif Khan, author of Psychology of the Hero Soul, is to use strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats analysis (SWOT). The process of looking at these concepts is often used when managing projects or analysing specific issues, but it can also be used on your own personality. The SWOT analysis a strategic management tool taught at Stanford and Harvard business schools can also be used in your own professional development as a leader.

To do a SWOT of yourself, start by listing all your strengths, including your achievements. Then note down all your weaknesses and qualities that need to be improved. Include any doubts, anxieties, fears and worries you may have. Externalising these makes them easier to deal with. Then list all the opportunities that would enable you to use your strengths. And finally, itemise the threats or obstacles to your progress.

If you want to find out more about where your strengths and weaknesses lie, there is no shortage of tools on the market, including the internet.

But if taking on the mantle of leadership sounds like a daunting prospect, it may be worth remembering that in local government the most successful leaders are often those who know when to step back and let others manage the processes.

You don’t have to do everything. The higher up the hierarchy you go, the more time you should be spending thinking, and the less doing.

“The buck does stop with the chief executive officer, and you have to take responsibility for what the organisation does,” stresses Gatenby Sanderson's Mr Goodwin. “Delegating effectively doesn’t mean you don’t know what is going on but you do need to create time to think.

"If you can articulate a vision that helps others see how and why their role is important then that is inspiring leadership.”


  • Think about what kind of leaders local government is looking for

  • Make sure you are up to date with current thinking about leadership and what makes an organisation tick

  • Develop your self-knowledge

and don'ts...

  • Rush out applications for senior roles before thinking about your career plan

  • Assume that you know what being a leader means, and that you are ideally suited to such a role

  • Expect your HR department or line managers to identify your learning needs and provide you with the career development you need

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