At the time of writing, we are around two and a half months into lockdown. For much of that time, the local government sector has been responding to the national crisis at the local level, working to translate and deliver centrally-devised interventions, dealing admirably and at extreme pace with all range of ambiguity, issues and challenges (not least financial). Consistently ensuring that the needs of communities are front and centre in decision making has been a constant.
We are now entering a period where the focus of the sector is shifting from immediate crisis management to the rebuild and recovery phase. It is important to recognise that local government will be the first port of call for many needing help in our communities during this next stage.
At Solace, the breadth of services we offer means that we are constantly engaging with the local government sector, wearing a number of different hats. An interesting reflection is that no matter which hat we are wearing, the discussions we are having of late have ultimately been about leadership. The conversations suggest that there are a number of consistent themes and messages coming through in terms of what comes next. It is equally clear that there aren’t any quick fixes and there are a range of issues to contend with, with many questions still unanswered at this stage.
I thought it would be useful to share some of those themes here to give colleagues some assurance that what you’re going through is likely the experience of many others. You are not alone.
A key leadership challenge is around capacity. Ensuring that the right leadership capacity is in the right place with the right focus is critical in order to ensure that the recovery phase is well planned and delivered in a complex system with many moving parts. At the same time, there is a clear awareness of the need to spot the opportunities that have arisen during the crisis management phase to ensure that advances that have been made in recent months are capitalised on and that we don’t revert back to the old ways of doing things out of habit.
Linked to the capacity issue is one around forward planning. What does recovery look like? There are a lot of ideas flying around at the moment, but there is also a strong sense that this is uncharted territory with no reliable roadmap to follow. At least not yet. For example, all the old transformation plans that seemed so clear back in February, are they still fit for purpose in the context of changed priorities and changed focus?
A key component to effective leadership is the ability to build and nurture relationships. How do we rebuild when our partners are responding at a potentially different pace and from a different starting point? Where relationships have been strained at a time of crisis, how do we rebuild on a personal level and move forward positively and honestly?
Financial considerations are another critical leadership consideration. The Covid response has been expensive and the cost of lockdown in terms of lost income for local authorities has been huge. What are the levers that can be pulled to not only balance budgets but proactively assist communities in rebuilding?
For some, the advent of coronavirus meant taking on new roles and responsibilities in a senior leadership position. This creates a range of leadership challenges in their own right.
Establishing oneself as a leader in a virtual environment is a relatively new concept and there are a number of different stakeholders with which that must be done – be that staff, politicians, other managers or external stakeholders. Some local authorities plan on remote working being the default for a much higher proportion of the workforce in future. What does that mean in practice as a leader? What are the workforce challenges inherent to that approach? Issues such as on-boarding new staff, training and development and staff welfare are all questions to which there are no easy or straightforward answers.
As the use of technology embeds, we are also learning more about its limitations. Technology won’t always be the answer. It will work in some situations, but perhaps not be so effective in others. There is also something around appropriate behaviours, protocols and etiquette around the use of technology in human interaction that have yet to develop. In any event, the desire to connect in physical space is still there and shouldn’t be discounted too quickly.
Finally, there are questions around personal resilience. This has been a hugely challenging time and it has taken its toll on all of us as individuals, whether at work or at home. The need to reflect, refresh and renew personally will be key. Enabling and respecting a reasonable balance between the job and personal life will not be a sign of weakness, it will be a sign of enduring personal strength.
The above are just a handful of some of the recurring themes that are presenting themselves during our conversations, whether through our membership, our webinars with Business Partners, our virtual events, learning and development programmes or recruitment. We are at the beginning of a very long road when it comes to the rebuilding phase of COVID-19. Throughout this period, effective and clear leadership will be critical as we all find our way in the ‘new normal’.
Just as importantly, these are challenges that the whole sector is grappling with. Now more than ever, the need to draw on our networks, to share our ideas and share our learning is clear. You’re not alone and the team at Solace are there to assist. We’re in this together. n
Steve Guest is head of executive recruitment and assessment at Solace in Business