Is now our perfect storm?

Written by: Neil Lupin is managing partner at Green Park Interim & Executive Search
Published on: 30 Jun 2022

It’s a busy time of year for local government. As you read this, you may well be at the latter stages of the Local Government Association (LGA)  conference in Harrogate. It is a welcome return to listening to speakers in person for the first time in three years. Plus it has been wonderful to see colleagues together networking again in real life rather than via a screen.

With so many chief executive roles changing hands since 2019, the attendee list looks a little different from previous years but the spirit of determination to press on is undiminished. Indeed, it is quite something to see how far the sector has come despite the darkest times in decades.

Last week saw a change to The MJ Achievement Awards, a stellar event hosted for the first time at the Park Plaza hotel instead of its previous home on Park Lane. It felt good to be back again and personally I like the daytime format, even if it is a strange sensation to emerge from the awards gala into bright sunshine.

We have sponsored The MJ Local Authority of the Year award now for a decade. While a lot has changed in our world since 2013, what hasn’t changed in the sector is the incredible effort undertaken by so many for such little recognition. In my view the awards go far deeper than to celebrate those who wrote a bid, presented as a finalist or stepped on the stage as a winner. They are a very bold statement to remind us all just what goes on behind the scenes not only to keep the wheels turning but inevitably to keep them turning ever faster with fewer resources.

It truly is a joint effort, with workforces coming together, and to my mind it is crucial that we applaud them, as who knows where we would otherwise be. One thing we are told time and again is that to be recognised as a finalist – let alone an award winner – is genuinely uplifting for organisations as a whole. Even the worst national rail strikes in a generation couldn’t dampen that spirit.

A recent front page headline in The MJ read ‘Sector counts cost of perfect storm’. Probably unsurprisingly, COVID aside, the article reflected on the numerous challenges facing local authorities including the cost of living crisis, supply chain issues and spiralling inflation. These factors and others are putting an unprecedented squeeze not only on the population in general, but also on local authorities seeking to help. The knock on effects are barely imaginable but have to be planned for even as the country begins to recover from the worst of the pandemic.

The article went on to also talk about how difficult it is to attract and retain talent in an increasingly candidate-driven market. Are we in the eye of a perfect storm when it comes to talent attraction and retention? I’m sorry to say that I believe we are. After 25 years in the sector, I would suggest that this is pretty much as tough as I have ever seen it. All the evidence points that way.

The headlines are not dissimilar when thinking about recruitment. The pandemic delayed retirements and scuppered moves, meaning we find ourselves in an incredibly busy market now. You only have to look at the turnover across the London borough’s chief executives to see, quite plainly, what is reflected across the sector. In that market alone there has been about a 35% turnover in role in the last 18 months. There has been the usual range of moves, from the appointment of interims to internal candidates and existing London chiefs moving to pastures new.

That is to be expected and in every case it creates further movement both within the organisations those people leave and the ones they arrive in. What is evident is that, taking nothing away from the excellent appointees, these roles are very hard to fill. It takes a certain person to want to be a chief executive.

And it is inevitable that some organisations will seriously struggle either to attract or retain senior staff. That in turn serves only to put further pressure on officers at all levels.

The market for interim managers remains buoyant at all levels. I’ve said on many occasions that when we come together, such as at the LGA conference or The MJ Achievement Awards, we always refer to local authorities as peers. Rarely if ever are they referred to as competitors, but when it comes to talent, those other local authorities are your competitors. That has always been true for permanent hires, and increasingly it is the case for interim management hires as well.

It is often assumed that if all else fails there will always be an interim manager able to step in. With the market becoming increasingly candidate-led, that is simply not true.

Interims by their very nature choose what work they undertake. That means they rarely just take on a role because it is there. Yes they need to actually be good at what they do and that needs to be tested, but beyond that, they will be interviewing you as much as you’re interviewing them.

Factors such as remote or hybrid working, leadership culture and just how deliverable the requirements are will all be high on their agenda. All in all it means that getting the right interim is a competitive challenge. Planning ahead and presenting yourself as an employer of choice is critical. Good hires don’t happen overnight and a good interim can be a huge boost to the organisation.

I often refer to interim recruitment as pre-emptive executive search, in that our role is to have already identified the best potential candidates so when a client needs someone we can provide a high calibre shortlist within days. Applying a similar rigour to both permanent and interim hires is no bad thing as long as the local authority is willing and able to move at pace to secure the right individual. n

Neil Lupin is managing partner at Green Park Interim & Executive Search
Email: neil.lupin@green-park.co.uk

Tel: 07967 826026