Recruiting the CEO
There is no doubt who’s in charge of high performing local governments. It is the elected Council. The elected members set the vision and strategy. They hold their CEO to account for delivery. But there is another side to the coin. The best performing Councils see their CEO as a trusted advisor and a partner; a leader in his or her own right. A strong relationship and capability across the two arms is a recipe for achievement – the vision is aligned, performance is driven and risks are managed.
So appointing the right CEO is crucial. But what are Mayors and Shire Presidents looking for? The recently released Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government (ACELG) report into factors affecting the appointment of CEOs sheds some light on this question. The research was conducted in Western Australia in 2013. Perhaps the most telling finding was that a large proportion of Mayors and Shire Presidents see the CEO in a master/servant relationship:
…the majority of CEOs and a minority of Mayors/Shire Presidents clearly saw the role of the CEO as a significant leader within local government who not only had to have the managerial skills to maintain efficient and probative services on a day to day basis, but also needed to be strategically future focused and to understand how to maximise partnerships and opportunities to meet the changing needs of the community. A much stronger view amongst Mayors/Shire Presidents was that the CEO was an operational manager that acted at the behest of council as an operational functionary.
This failure by elected leaders to value the potential of a CEO to assist the Council strategically has huge implications for local government performance. We suspect that domineering CEOs have played their part in this, keeping Councillors too distant and protecting their management authority with unnecessary aggression. On the other hand, there are Councillors who refuse to accept appropriate standards of behaviour and the limits of their position. Many Councillors have come to see power battles as the norm and seek a CEO they can control.
So, while extreme dysfunction is relatively uncommon, more-or-less suppressed friction is the norm. In our view, this promotes mediocre performance, where neither side fully understands a healthy governance-management relationship, or its power and potential to promote achievement.
Is improving the governance-management relationship the single biggest development issue facing the local government sector?