It’s a high-profile role, with plenty of perks, prestige and power. As a Chief Executive Officer of a local council, you will manage hundreds of staff, 100 services across a municipality, multi-million-dollar budgets and make a positive difference in the local community. Plus, the pay isn’t bad either with salaries ranging from $250,000 – $460,000+. Interested?
If you aspire to ‘step-up’ to council’s top leadership role it can be a rewarding job. However, aspiring candidates need more than an exceptional record of high-level competency in organizational and leadership skills. To succeed in one of the toughest, most complex and challenging jobs in the public service there is one additional skill candidates need to help them not only survive but to thrive in the role. Its to do with working with the Councillors.
A successful local government CEO also needs to be exceptional at handling the politics; they need to be ‘politically savvy’ with a high PI.
Political nous = PI
There’s a variant of Emotional Intelligence known as PI; Political Intelligence. This is defined as “a distinct set of skills and behaviours that are needed by people working in organisations … in order to manage effectively the political landscape”.
In local government, if a CEO lacks the skills of political awareness or ‘political nous’, even experienced CEOs with strong qualifications and skills, can fail spectacularly in this ‘small p’ political environment.
One thing I know for sure from my own experience in local government and as a coach to Mayors, combined with years of observation in the local government sector: highly developed PI is a critical skill for every CEO.
The unique role of a Council CEO
Council is not a ‘typical’ work environment. Under the State legislation, a CEO is required to take direction on the strategic action of the council. This will come not from a skills-based board (like with an ASX 200 company), but from a collection of elected officials. Direction comes from Councillors – all with different views, skills, backgrounds – and opinions (some very strongly held).
In a typical local council, politics may not be on the scale of a State or Federal level, however, there are many Councillors who are drawn to a faction in their local council. Many (but not all) Councillors have political and other affiliations as elected officials as reflects the communities they serve. The workplace can become a highly charged, political environment.
Some council chambers can be a labyrinth of connections, obligations, duties and paybacks. A politically savvy CEO will know how to navigate the challenges and not only survive but thrive.
In this workplace, Councillors only have one staff member to direct and performance manage; ‘their’ CEO. It’s a workplace where a common key performance indicator is the ability to ‘get along with the Mayor’. This is a KPI which is difficult to put metrics around, but failure to demonstrate Political Intelligence can be disastrous for a CEO as Councillors have the power to sack him/her at will (and often do).
The leadership challenge of the ‘Three Edges’
In this highly charged, political environment, a competent CEO must provide leadership at ‘three edges’. Management expert, Henry Mintzberg, suggests that managers in the public sector need to provide leadership at three intersections where “each edge has considerable demands in its own right”. Extrapolating this research to a local council, I suggest a municipal CEO would need to cover these three edges:
- The ‘operating edge’, where a CEO would connect with their managers and staff to bring about action from within the organisation
- The ‘stakeholder edge’ where a CEO needs to connect with all the ‘outside players that bring tangible pressures to bear’ especially on them
- And importantly, the ‘political edge’ where a CEO needs to connect with the local Councillors, who are the politicians that direct the organisation and its operation, (and perhaps also the state and federal politicians in their municipality for grants etc).
Can we expect a CEO candidate for a local council to have the skills and experiences to simultaneously manage and provide effective leadership at each of the edges?
Boosting a CEOs PI
Can an aspiring (or existing) CEO be taught how to better understand and manage the political landscape; can they boost their PI? The answer is a resounding YES.
Just like Emotional Intelligence can be taught, I believe Political Intelligence is a skill that can be learnt. This can occur through coaching, mentoring, astute observations and training. And there’s always the option to watch re-runs of British sitcom Yes Minister and observe the diplomatic language of Private Secretary Bernard and practice the poker face of Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey as they respond to every harebrained scheme and idea of their Minister, Jim Hacker MP.
Over the past decade of working in the local government sector, I have seen some very savvy CEOs in action; men and women who can manage the three edges. I’d like to share some of my observations for their characteristics.
Ten tactics of a politically savvy council CEO
Council CEOs with high IP are:
- Good at maths: The CEO clearly understand where the power lies; in the Councillors who have ‘the numbers’ and so control the voting bloc. They can count!
- Fair: they treat all Councillors fairly, with no ‘favourites’ – even those with the numbers now (as everything can change next election).
- Respectful: they listen and consider different views (with no eye rolling, interrupting, ‘mansplaining’ or patronising comment) and respond with a willingness to genuinely seek a way forward to address Councillors’ concerns
- ‘Street smart’: As an experienced executive they would have seen their fair share of ‘brawls’ at various boards or committees and at an organisational level. This gives them a sense when trouble may be brewing, and they can take pre-emptive action to manoeuvre around potential traps or ‘political shit-storms’.
- Loyal: They never, ever, disparage or gossip about ‘their Councillors’ to anyone, especially other Councillors or staff. This builds trust.
- Calm in a storm: They show an ability to analyse the situation and keep a close eye on ‘the politics’. They provide coaching advice and support when asked or needed, but don’t take sides in order to keep conflict to a minimum.
- Good collaborators: Can build partnerships and alliances.
- Impartial but not weak: Respects different and diverse opinions but will stand up for what is ethical, legal, and required such as issues of workplace safety and respecting others. They are not a push-over and can offer a forthright opinion when it is needed.
- Accountable: they are transparent and honest about organisational failures and work with Councillors to approve plans to address failures. They know the (operational) buck stops with them.
- Present: They exhibit a certain ‘stage presence’ which comes from earnt respect (from councillors, staff, peers and the sector) and expertise. This gives them an authority to ‘adjudicate’ if needed, in disputes.
Ready to apply?
Have you got a high IP? Do you have the diplomatic skills to ‘Lead up’ and work in a politically charged environment? Could you work with a diverse (and sometimes divided) group of Councillors to further the interests of your municipality and the residents?
The job of a council CEO is challenging sure – but the work also comes with rewards of exceptional public service. Why not put the term ‘local government CEO’ in the LinkedIn search bar and give it a go!
Ruth McGowan is a consultant to local government and supports Councillors as an independent adviser in the recruitment of their CEO. She is a former Mayor, Councillor and has been appointed to numerous boards where she wishes she had known then, what she knows now about recruiting a politically aware CEO.