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Contextual leadership in a changing world

Source: Public Sector Executive Nov/Dec 2013

Bob Ross, employer relationship manager at Skills for Local Government, talks to PSE about new skills for a new kind of chief executive.

Skills for Local Government’s new report, ‘Asking the Right Questions’, was produced in partnership with the Local Government Association (LGA) and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) to identify the skills most necessary for council chief executives.

Structured interviews with 12 leading chief executives allowed researchers to crystallise their abilities and strengths into four elements to help them meet newly-arising challenges in the changing world of local government.

PSE talked to Skills for Local Government’s employer relationship manager, Bob Ross, about the four key skills and how they can be adapted and maintained into the future.

Ross said the number of chief executives who currently have this skill-set is “an impossible question”, but added: “Without a doubt, the ones who are leading their authorities through dramatic change must have these skills – or the politicians would not want them to be chief executives anymore.”

SOLACE will now take this research as a basis for evaluating its membership offer and will consider how it can be adapted to be of most benefit for its members.

A follow-up piece may be commissioned on values, attitudes and behaviours, something the chief executives saw as “an equally important part of their job”.

Learning together

In their interviews, participants highlighted that one of the best ways of developing these skills was through peer support; “helping each other through informal networks, mentoring, coaching”.

One of the key things, Ross said, was that many of these skills are difficult to teach. ‘Leading through trust’ is not something you can study in a textbook – even identifying how this can be achieved is challenging.

“There’s no training course available for some of these things. Elements like leading through trust and even the political understanding really have to be learnt through experience and doing, rather than in an abstract, academic sense.”

To help ensure these skills are in place, local authorities should encourage their chief executives to network with others who are going through similar challenges and share their experiences.

This is particularly important with new forms of delivery models, new partnership arrangements and entrepreneurial skills, Ross said.

“And they have to give their aspiring chief executives opportunities to expose themselves to these kinds of challenges, so they can learn on the job, working with people who are already chief executives.”

Flexible for the future

A changing landscape of local government could mean that what’s most useful now will cease to be so in the future.

But Ross explained that the flexible and contextual nature of the skills means that they will be applicable for many years to come.

“Without a doubt, everybody agrees that the changes local government is going through at the moment are not temporary. We will never go back to the old world of local government.”

“[It] will keep changing – and so these are a core set of skills that every chief executive will have to have and maintain from here on in.”

The second skill calls for chief executives to be able to lead “without a blueprint”; reacting to specific circumstances as they arise and being able to plan on their feet.

Ross said: “They’re inventing new ways of working, now: new service delivery models, new forms of partnership.

“I can’t see that they’re ever going to say ‘Oh we’ve cracked it – here is the model that will suit us forever.’ So they’re going to have to be constantly inventing new things and that in itself is going to become a generic skill.”

Shared leadership

Different ways of working are already beginning to play out across local government – and this is something chief executives must remain abreast of, Ross said.

“Leadership models and styles of leadership can change dramatically; we have extremes where local authorities are not sharing chief executives, they’ve actually got rid of them.

“Or the chief executives are shared across local authorities.”

In the future, this could mean chief executives aware of a whole system approach and working more in partnership with other public sector bodies.

He said: “I think it’s quite likely we’ll see a model where you have chief executives who are shared between different public sector bodies.

“There was an example in Blackburn where the chief executive led the local authority and the PCT [primary care trust, since replaced by clinical commissioning groups].

“I could see that growing.

“Already the boundaries between local authorities and health are overlapping – so why not start looking for shared chief executives across public sector organisations, not just local authorities?”

No more ‘we know best’

To manage the increased time pressures this would undoubtedly introduce, the other skills would see chief executives accepting that “certain other people are probably better at doing parts of the whole system than you are”, as they manage ‘place and space’.

Ross added: “Councils, increasingly, aren’t trying to solve all the problems themselves; they’re working with others to do it.

“What we need is chief executives who can identify who is best placed to work on particular problems and facilitate and support them rather than trying to go in and sort everything themselves.”

Historically in some authorities there has been a kind of “we know best” approach, but Ross said this has been forced out: “partly through money but partly through a realisation that that’s probably not true anyway.”

He concluded: “[The research] was an absolute pleasure – those people, how they keep so cheerful, I do not know. But they do.”

The new contextual skills

 1. Leading place and space: Chief executives should be the advocate, hub, facilitator and supporter of all aspects of the development of their community. This means more than just managing and contributing to partnership working – it requires creating local identity, community cohesion, balancing priorities and creating ‘whole system’ approaches.

2. Leading during complexity and ambiguity: have the ability to work without a blueprint, going beyond the management of change and towards new levels of innovation.

 3. Leading entrepreneurial organisations: need to possess entrepreneurial skills to invent new delivery methods, seek investment opportunities, create and operate organisations that empower staff and have a ‘can do’ culture.

 4. Leading through trust: should create a motivational environment where others will have enough trust to follow them, even when they way ahead is not clear. 


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