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Through turbulent times – let’s celebrate leadership

Written by: Julie Towers is managing director of Penna
Published on: 12 Aug 2021

COVID response

Not surprisingly the spectre of COVID-19 loomed large over all local government leadership team’s 2020 and 2021. Many of the councils had been hit hard by the disease, including Blackburn with Darwen. The relatively new senior leadership team (SLT), in the words of chief executive Denise Park, has ‘faced some significant challenges, more than most other areas with some of the highest positive case rates in the UK and restrictions in place throughout [the pandemic]’.

Medway Council similarly faced COVID-related complications on top of the national situation. Chief executive Neil Davies outlined ‘a truly phenomenal and exemplary’ response to the pandemic, including the Kent variant. And at Norwich City Council, chief executive Stephen Evans said his team ‘consciously wanted to get on the front foot – right from the outset. We as a leadership team wanted something to frame our response and recovery’.

In a time of national crisis, these superb SLTs delivered remarkable solutions. For instance, Blackburn with Darwen created Help Hub. This support resource for residents was delivered within days by the council. Cross-authority teams were redeployed to make outbound calls to those the council identified from their datasets as vulnerable. Medway delivered 100,000 meals to vulnerable residents, applied for, and delivered military aid to deal with the Kent COVID variant and delivered a symptom-free testing programme for residents and key workers. At Norwich, a blueprint for recovery was developed and passed through their scrutiny committee and cabinet. This document has actions to be delivered upon over the next few years, including working on inclusive recovery with the University of East Anglia and other partners.

Pushing beyond the pandemic

All our SLT finalists have pushed on with pioneering and community-serving work throughout the pandemic. For Durham CC’s chief executive, John Hewitt ‘it’s all about the people who work for us and the people within our communities. It’s about focusing on outcomes and how we change people’s lives and businesses’. The SLT at the council has delivered a strong economic strategy – maximising the value of every pound spent in County Durham. 

Despite the ever-present pandemic, Buckinghamshire Council made the move to unitary in an almost entirely online working environment. ‘We’ve moved forward with a significant range of improvements to the new organisation’ said chief executive of Buckinghamshire, Rachael Shimmin. It was the strength of the communications put out by Buckinghamshire’s brand new SLT that meant employees felt ‘well-held, whichever predecessor organisation they were from’. Their strong internal messaging has allowed them to deliver to residents and employees their values of being ‘proud, accountable, collaborative and trustworthy’. The SLT’s modelling of these values have driven successes, including key improvements around adult social care user satisfaction over the COVID period.

New places, new faces

For some of our finalists, their journeys throughout the past year have involved entirely new leadership teams or delivering upon unitary ambitions.

Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council gained unitary status in 2019. Since then, ‘we’ve evolved the senior team to deliver our aspirations’, according to chief executive Graham Farrant. It’s this aspirational energy which drove the team to introduce a major transformation and budget-balancing savings programme. Their collaborative impetus as an SLT helped them deliver, on time, their 100 Day Plan which has developed into an ongoing ‘Cleaner, Greener, Safer’ place-focused campaign tackling anti-social behaviour and littering on busy beaches.

Shared responsibilities

For Norfolk CC, their ‘shared responsibility’ head of paid service model allows them to innovate and create great outcomes. Head of paid service, Tom McCabe, observed as the senior team ‘pragmatically got on with business…as COVID pushed and pulled our top team in various directions – we provided system-wide leadership’. The chair of Family Voice Norfolk says they ‘have valued an increased level of co-production’ and a resident receiving homelessness support said ‘my voice was heard, and I got an immediate response’ from the council.

The team at Royal Borough of Kingston Upon Thames gave great examples of how their distributed leadership model helps them deliver. The SLT is proud of how they used the opportunities from COVID to drive their transformation programme and improve diversity and inclusion at the council. Their gender pay gap is at 0%, compared to a gap in favour of men of 4.8% in 2020. In the words of Sarah Ireland, executive director for corporate and communities at Kingston; ‘Members and officers, with partners and the community are leading the organisation forward’.

Consistent traits of top teams

While all councils had unique stories to tell, it was encouraging to hear there were consistent traits in all these top teams:

The importance of keeping the customer in mind

Innovation is king

Working closely with politicians

Data is imperative – deal with facts and feelings

Leadership living and breathing the culture

Admitting when you are finding it tough – be human

Communication, communication, communication

Clear trust and accountability across the team

Strong financial management

No room for egos – respect the differences people bring

Seeing partners as equals

Remember to have FUN!

See you at the awards?

Thank you and congratulations to all the shortlisted councils. It’s been a privilege to witness your outstanding senior leadership. I’m hoping to see as many familiar faces at the awards presentation on 17 September as possible. A well-deserved celebration of the ongoing excellence in local government. n

Julie Towers is managing director of Penna

Senior Leadership Team Finalists

Blackburn with Darwen Council

Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council

Buckinghamshire Council

Durham CC

Medway Council

Norwich City Council

Norfolk CC

Royal London Borough of Kingston upon Thames Council