Building sustainable resilience

The last time Heather Jameson and Michael Burton invited me to write a feature back in October, I speculated as to what 2020 might hold for us all – both as a sector and for senior officers and local authority workforces.

At the time I cheekily said that not even Nostradamus would take a bet on 2020, and I suggested that Private Frazer’s classic prophecies of being ‘doomed’ would be wrong. One month into the year, where are we? If nothing else, we have some certainty that the Government is likely to be in power for a decade and that this week we close the door on our EU membership.

I express no preferences with either statement; my point is only that a degree of certainty may make planning for our medium and long-term futures a little less challenging. Change is now our business as usual. Whether it’s about structures, customerfocused strategies, service digitisation, placeshaping or protecting the vulnerable (all within that ever-tightening financial envelope), it is fair to say local authorities have a job on their hands, but you don’t have to look far to find stories that inspire.

In many senses a local authority is only as good as its people. That is one of many reasons why we sponsor the The MJ Achievement Awards Local Authority of the Year category.

I also said in October that the sector is nothing if not resilient – toiling away and constantly reinventing itself under a huge array of ambiguity and challenges.

We have weathered 10 years of austerity. We are all still here. Yes, we have had local government reorganisation and some near misses, but compared to the private sector, where multiple companies would have folded under less pressure, it is a testament to our sector’s resilience that it has adapted, survived and arguably is thriving. But at what cost?

The question of resilience is interesting. I have written about the importance of mental health awareness and how that applies both to those on the payroll and to interim managers. I believe it is just as important to not assume that our senior leaders are, by default of their position, automatically resilient.

I am a passionate believer in local government, and an advocate of enabling local authorities to thrive by building the strongest, most diverse and inclusive leadership teams possible. I have previously expressed surprise that occasionally executive recruiters are kept at arm’s-length, which only makes it harder to build sector resilience through resourcing strategies. What about individual resilience? We know there are talent shortages in key areas, many of which are unique to local government, so there is little opportunity to poach that talent from other sectors.

Whether enough is being done to grow those talent pipelines, so that there are sufficient future leaders is not for me to dwell on. However, it does mean that if there is a decreasing number of people equipped – or perhaps willing – to take on the highest profile, riskiest and potentially most rewarding leadership roles, then we need to ensure those who do so are set up for success. And, whether they are interims or permanent is irrelevant.

Personal resilience comes in many forms. When I ask senior leaders several themes reoccur: ‘keeping going through adversity’; meeting that adversity ‘with curiosity’; ‘absorbing pressure’; ‘learning from mistakes’; ‘being tenacious’; ‘a desire to achieve’; ‘keeping a clear head’; ‘survival’; ‘Teflon-coating’… I could go on.

Without exception, these themes have a direct link to health and wellbeing. The flipside is ‘knowing when not to keep going no matter what’, ‘ignoring the noise’, ‘taking time out to reflect, rest and repair’ and ‘recharging the batteries, spirit and soul’. Those are not my words.

I was reminded about personal resilience by accident. I met a talented musician. He is a busker. He leads a life free of all material ambition or possessions save for his guitar, drums and the van he calls home. Seven years ago, he chose a nomadic life and performs 15-20 shows a week, often on London’s high streets. He gets moved on a lot, ironically sometimes by local authority officers. But, seven years in, he has just released his debut (self-financed) album and his performances have been viewed seven million times on YouTube.

I was struck by his positivity, his unwavering commitment to his trade and his humility and happiness. Rarely have I seen someone so delighted and grateful to be doing their job.

There must be a way of harnessing that energy and commitment and translating it into the workplace to foster a positive and inclusive culture around individual and collective resilience.

One starting point might be for us to challenge our assumptions about how resilient we are, or what might make us more (or less) resilient than others from one day to the next. And, there must be a direct correlation between feeling positive and working in a role and an environment that aligns to our values.

Senior leadership roles in local authorities are constantly evolving. In a world where authorities are always adapting to deliver their strategic agendas, we mustn’t lose sight of the need to inclusively attract, retain, motivate and inspire the leaders of today and tomorrow while also being mindful of each and every person’s capacity for resilience. It is a quality that is almost impossible to measure, and sometimes you find it in the most surprising places.

Neil Lupin is managing partner and local government lead at Green Park Interim & Executive Search appointments

Neil Lupin

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