Chief personality traits
Chief execs are few in number, and it appears that they could be something of an endangered species. As the need to balance the books grows ever more urgent and as more leaders and Mayors start imagining themselves as Executive Mayors, councils up and down the country could begin to see the officer at the top become a group of officers slightly below the top. Perhaps they will see their chief presiding over two or even more local authorities, or maybe they’ll simply ride off into the sunset as teams and services become more localised and self sufficient.
This and more was considered recently by the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers, also known as SOLACE, which is the representative body for senior, strategic managers in UK Local Authorities and the wider public sector. They released an excellent document which explains, from their perspective, the importance of the role and the huge variety of skills and knowledge which this one person needs to have. We really recommend you take a look; it’s pretty short and is as brilliantly plain English as it gets.
Whilst we at WLLG towers generally happen to agree with them, today is not a day when we are going to explain why (more to come soon though). Instead we thought we’d be a touch more whimsical about things and go through some of the characteristics of chief executives which we have collectively encountered over the years. Some characteristics are held by more than one person, and some people hold a combination of these which is unique to them. The best chief execs we have seen have a little of all of them, and know exactly how to use each to their council’s ultimate advantage.
The yes man or woman
Local government is a complex place for those at the top. Demands are placed on them from every angle imaginable: their own directors and senior managers all feel their own services are vital and above cuts (or should at least be insulated as far as possible), local residents waste no time telling them all of the things they think are being done wrong, politicians and their Leader are pulling them from pillar to post to support their political plans and goals all whilst Eric Pickles and much of the media tells the world that they are superfluous and are being paid too much.
Sometimes it’s easier simply to sit back and let them go at it, so the yes man or woman does just that. When asked if they support a particular political plan or direction they agree, having given the same answer to the opposition councillors not a week before. Their own views aren’t particularly swayed by either argument, but they feel that it’s better to pick your battles so agree for the sake of their sanity and then try to find some middle ground to work with. They might be seen by some as weak and puppet like, but usually use the goodwill they build up to subtly and surreptitiously change arguments and points of view without ever showing open disagreement.
The straight shooter
Somewhat opposite to this approach is the straight shooter. They rarely beat around the bush, telling others exactly what they think of something whether they have been invited to or not. They believe that there are three things to do when faced with any choice: make the right decision (the best outcome of course), make the wrong decision (not great, but not the worst thing to do) or make no decision at all (which is definitely last on the list for a reason). This means they simply say it as they see it, and make sure others know what they think.
Some see these chief execs as rude, or at best blunt, and if asked these chief execs would probably agree. They prefer generally to do things in the open and give very clear directions and visions to those who will then put things into place. Whilst some feel that this forthright nature can at times be a little abrasive, the idea is that officers and politicians feel like they know where they stand and that there is no subterfuge or ulterior motive to the answers to any given questions. Of course, that’s not to say that this is ever actually the case…
Some chief execs like to be the centre of attention. The like to have their team know when they are in a meeting, like to be the first to challenge people and keep them on their toes and enjoy others looking to them to have answers to even the trickiest of questions or situations. Others, however, take a more passive approach to things. In meetings they are often quiet, listening to what others are saying and biding their time, playing their cards very closely to their chests. Only once all others have had their say do they then choose to impart their wisdom or share their own thoughts, picking holes in otherwise solid plans or providing insight others will have missed.
For senior officers dealing with these types of chief exec, meetings can be difficult at best. There is a feeling of constantly being tested and probed mentally, of needing to share all information so that informed decisions can be made and a constant need to be on your toes and on top of your game. These don’t on the face of it sound like bad things, but there is a fine line to be trod to prevent them questioning their own judgement overly, becoming paranoid to the point of inaction and starting to plan things around what they think their chief exec will like and agree with rather than what they think is actually the best outcome. The best Chiefs of course know this, and provide public support as well as challenge to move people and plans forward.
The smooth talker
As a career in local government begins, officers can sometimes get quite far quite quickly by knowing their area of expertise inside and out. This knowledge and the skills related to it are enough to mark them out as proficient and able to operate potentially at a higher level. There is however a definite ceiling to how high these officers can go without also having exceptional communication skills, and the smooth talker has just these. They are able to talk about almost any subject at length, even those they know very little about, and are able to make any situation or problem appear less negative just with a well timed speech or memo.
Often times these Chief execs have a relatively high media profile, even if only locally, and are known for commenting directly on things others would simply ignore. In meetings they manage to somehow cajole colleagues into promising more than they intended to, and then building their confidence to go on to achieve these promises. They are also excellent at dealing with the many public pitfalls which befall councils and officers on occasion, turning problems into learning opportunities and development plans. Some may call them glib or naive, but smooth talkers need to know when to be smooth and when to admit to problems and openly deal with them.
No-one likes having to make things up as they go along. Even those who see themselves as innovators and reactionaries need a general plan and direction to follow, or a goal to aim at. The visionary provides this. They are inspiring individuals, managing to tie together a number of different and disparate teams and services to create a shared sense of purpose and direction, ensuring officers who may not know the full breadth of issues dealt with by the whole council still understand the role their own cog plays in the great local government machine.
Dispensing with detail for the sake of sweeping scope, they may appear to be somewhat detached from the individual nuances and effects that their words and ideas may create. Others may feel that they don’t understand the issues that will need to be addressed before their own vision can become reality, and problems can arise if this vision is not a shared one. Good chief execs of course understand this, and bring people on the journey of creating that vision rather than simply imposing it upon others. They might guide and steer the outcome, but they make people see more then they would do alone.
These are just some of the types of chief exec out there, there are of course many, many more. We may share a few more in the future, but suffice to say that the role of the chief exec is one which is nowhere near as easy as most think – it is more than simply sitting in meetings and passing judgement, relying on others to do the real work for you – it is in fact a life of constant pressure, constant challenge and balancing the wants, needs and aspirations of huge numbers of very ambitious and determined individuals and groups. It is massively underappreciated, and we at WLLG salute and celebrate our chief execs. It might be lonely at the top, but it’s never boring.
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