Do Chief Execs actually matter?
Recently I have discovered the excellent Freakonomics podcast. In the same style as the best-selling book by the same name, this podcast looks at the hidden meaning of everything, and how these things affect everything else; I highly recommend a download.
A recent hour-long special episode asked a simple question; would we notice if there was no president of the USA? I won’t spoil the show itself by going into the detail, but basically the answer was probably not as much as you might think. And this got me thinking: How much of the local government set up actually has power and would be noticed if they disappeared?
I’ll start today by considering the top of the heirarchical officer tree; the Chief Exec. Widely seen by many, especially those who view these things from afar, as having total power and authority over the organisation, the Chief is the one individual who has ultimate responsibility for everything which goes on under the auspices of the Council. Whilst from some angles this may indeed be the case, as with the US President it’s not anywhere near as clear cut as one may at first (from a distance) presume.
I need to make it clear that I’ve never been the head of a local authority, but I have spent two years as the head of a voluntary sector organisation. Having been involved in that organisation for some time I began by believing that the top position was in essence that of a benevolent dictator, someone who was in total charge and would be able to make decisions and push strategy and delivery wherever they felt it should go.
In reality however, the position provided little in the way of substantial direct power. Authority was permitted by members and the bodies which made up the organisation, but any delivery relied entirely upon their agreement and assent. The role I performed gave me a solid platform and the ability to get my voice heard by all, and afforded my plans and opinions a degree of authority others perhaps did not have. My role was not one of issuing orders and decrees and more one of cajoling, persuading and guiding, portraying the attitudes and traits I wanted to see replicated by others and essentially being the change I wanted to see in others. To those not directly involved it looked as if I pushed things a long way, however for those more closely involved knew that I simply provided the node and focus for others to direct their work.
My plans were a radical departure from the established norms, but simply setting them out at the start and then trusting others to put them into place was not an option; I had to bring others slowly on a journey, encouraging them to see things from my point of view and putting in place the attitudes and traits that I believed would need to cascade throughout the organisation and partner bodies.
This challenge is one that I see replicated significantly in local government. I have seen a large number of chief execs over my time, and every one of them has had a different style of leadership and working, as well as markedly different plans and theories about how best to lead their own organisations. Some have been willing to stand in front of others and be seen as the face of their authority, whilst others have preferred to stay out of the limelight and allow others to take credit for their plans.
What all of them had in common was the fact that they relied on others to put their plans into action, were constantly pressed and pressured from a huge number of angles and were forced to operate within the working environment they found themselves. Some joined organisations which had a very clear organisational ethos, with pre-existing plans and strategies and with a clarity of direction or a clearly defined need to address. Regardless of their own plans, these leaders had to move slowly and carefully, and could be seen as simply rubber stamping the work of those below them.
Others have joined organisations or taken on new positions and felt a need to make major changes. However, these have needed the consent of others to put into place, others who have their own opinions and who may have been working on solutions and plans of their own for months or years at a time. Coming in and forcing them to work differently simply would not work; senior staff need to be convinced that a different way of working is better than that which has come before or their own plans and ideas.
So why do we need chief execs anyway? What exactly do they do? If a group of senior managers are in place and are able to work up their own plans, sharing their own ideas and need to be brought on board in order for any new plans to be enacted, why not just cut out the hassle and let them do what they are already doing or planning to do? Studies of sporting teams show that the difference between a good manager and a bad manager can be as little as a few percent in terms of performance.
But this few percent is often the difference between success and failure. Having this individual responsible for directing things adds a clarity of direction, a focal point for others to use as a reference point and a single point around which others can base their own plans and strategies. Where everything is done by committee (literally in the case of local government) it takes a significant amount of negotiation and compromise to make progress; when a single individual is able to take more control and be responsible for refining direction down a certain route it is arguably easier to know what direction to aim your plans and where to hang your targets.
As the Freakonomics podcast discusses, those at the top of the tree may have low levels of actual power compared to the perceptions that others have, but their influence is immense. Influence over an organisation, over the senior staff within it and influence over strategic direction; next to such levels of influence, perhaps direct power is not quite as important as it may at first seem.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said “You can never really live anyone else’s life, not even your child’s. The influence you exert is through your own life, and what you’ve become yourself.” Perhaps seeing a strong and good chief exec benefits officers and their work far more than any number of orders or demands ever could.
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