“Chief executive (NOUN) – the person with overall responsibilityfor the efficient running of a company, organisation, etc.” That’s how Collins defines it. And as a working definition, it’s fine, I guess, writes Mark Compton-James. But it doesn’t really give meaning to the role in relation to local government.
A local authority chief executive is part cheerleader, part enforcer, part diplomat, part figurehead, part role model, part community engagement lead. Any definition doesn’t encompass the leadership, humility, decisiveness, inclusivity and focus required of the role is short of the mark: you need them to navigate the heady mix of different communities, political paymasters and demanding agendas that is local government.
That’s why I’m so fascinated by how they deliver change. Who better to discuss this with than Tom Riordan, the Chief Executive of Leeds City Council? (Tom has been Chief Executive of Leeds City Council since 2010. During his tenure, he has overseen a significant transformation of the city, which is midway through a £10 billion investment pipeline.)
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He tells me: “You’ve got to be clear. You’ve got to have a compass and that becomes the ambition for the organisation (in our case for the city too) and the values and behaviours that you demand. I’m quite a delegator, but I will be really, really clear on certain things that have to happen. And they’re around our values and how we work. So if we’ve agreed something, it needs to happen. And if it can’t happen, it needs to be reported back in an open and honest culture. That way, you’re not wasting energy and time on the dissonance of office politics.”
So the tone is set at the top. The chief executive models the behaviours they want to see in the rest of the organisation. That makes sense. But do you just issue a dictate from on high, telling people what their values are? Does that work? Clearly, Tom Riordan didn’t think so.
“One of the mistakes I made when I first became a CEO was stating the values of the organisation. What I should have said was ‘Here’s what I think the new values should be. Help me make this better. Help me make it work’. I think doing that genuinely is really important because people can sniff out when you are just playing at things.”
Building and designing your values together is critical. Collaborating around your guiding principles and everyone signing up to them means you have a shared rule book that can guide your decision making and support establishing the right culture. It also means you can hold each other to account.
But if you lead by living those values, how do you ensure lasting, meaningful change? If you’re a delegator with a relentless focus on the right behaviours and the right culture, how do you ensure the people doing the delivery are aligned? How do you deal with the change sceptics that throw up those inevitable operational barriers?
Unsurprisingly, Tom has some pretty clear ideas around this as well: “I guess I gradually kill sceptics with kindness. I identify the people who are a problem and make sure that I’m managing their change. I also create a culture where it’s their peers talking them round rather than me. That’s hugely powerful. After all, having a sense of your lack of power as a CEO is very important.”
You can’t help but like the man. His sense of humour, his humility, his relaxed manner and the bags of experience garnered across central and local government are obvious. He’s learned — maybe even the hard way — that leading large organisations isn’t a case of command and control, barking orders and like Jean-Luc Picard uttering forth ‘Make it so’. It is about hearts and minds.
Once those two critical components are in the bag, you can delegate to the delivery experts and justlet them get on with it. But I did want to explore the‘ lack of power’ comment about a CEO. That was an impressive degree of self awareness. I asked Tom to elaborate: “There was a phase, particularly in local government,where it was all about the culture of the heroic leader. The CEO goes in, turns everything on its head and it all becomes a bit too political at times. I don’t think that works. It’s about getting everybody on the same page. The great thing about local government is when you get the politics and the organisation aligned, it’s really powerful. The counter to that is when it’s not, it’s draining and it wastes too much energy.”
Our discussion so far had focussed on designing and implementing change. It is a challenge, no doubt, but how to make the change last or stick is often overlooked. I wanted to pick up on this. After all, it is disappointingly easy to Google a long list of brilliantly designed or envisioned but ultimately unsuccessful change programmes. I’m talking about the grandiose rebranding exercise, the complex technology project or all encompassing culture change initiatives that were brilliant right up until the point of implementation.
How do you make that changestick?
“I think you need a right brain and left brain in an organisation”, says Tom Riordan.
“If all you do is favour the creative people, the ones who’ve got new ideas, it can all become a bit Tigger-ish. But actually, the big thing about change is not having new ideas all the time. It’s sticking with the boring stuff and letting it work and letting it happen; respecting the lawyer who keeps you safe, the accountant who helps you hit the budget, the governance person who organises the meeting. That’s not often the case in big organisations and it is often why change fails.”
You also need to give people the opportunity to run with the new thing they’ve just built. Firstly, it is only in using something new that you get the data and insight you need to iterate and improve it. Secondly, change fatigue is a real thing: endless change exhausts your people and that’s no good for anyone.
It would be remiss, meanwhile, to interview a local authority leader in 2021 and not ask about COVID. Local authorities are among those on the front line of the pandemic. The impact on the services they provide, their budgets and their risk management goingforward has been huge. In London alone,www.londoncouncils.gov.uk estimates the total financial impact of Covid-19 is £1.9 billion in 2020/21 — comprising £1.1 billion in estimated lost income and an estimated £767 million in increased expenditure.
But regional differences make different parts of the country more vulnerable to the specific impact of the pandemic on health, familiesa nd children, education and employment. I askedTom about how COVID had impacted on his change priorities for Leeds.
“So there are still three big priorities and all COVID has done is magnify their importance. The first is health and well being. COVID has exposed the inequality in our society, particularly in certain communities. It was always the biggest challenge and it’s got bigger. But on the plus side, every household in the country now knows that public health, their own health is actually really, really important. COVID has brought that out. The healthier you are, the more likely you are to survive. That is a horrible basic equation for people to deal with.”
This resonated with me. Looking for the positive,the learning in what has been a grim year. It reminded me of something my boss always says “Change isn’t designed. It’s navigated”. That is what a real Changemaker does and it is what Tom Riordan has done. He’s learned from what has happened and is applying that learning to Leeds.
“Secondly, it’s about inclusive growth and the economy. How do we get the economy firing again after COVID? But we want to build a city that isn’t just for people who commute in and out, but actually benefits the people that live here. And it’s a place that we do business that can make a social difference. It’s hard to argue with that as a priority, but much more difficult to achieve.”
Tom Riordan, Chief Executive, Leeds Council on tech innovation, climate change, and district heating…
There isn’t a local government leader in the country who wouldn’t voice the same priority so I challenged Tom on how he was going to deliver against that: “I’ve been part of a programme run by MIT called the Regional Entrepreneurship Programme. So we’ve been workingwith Campania, Central Denmark, Guayaquil, Kentucky, Oslo, Monterrey and Sydney, trying to answer that very question.
“Out of that has come a challenge where we’re seeking entrepreneurs to come forward with tech projects in particular that are going to change the world. And we’re working with the University of Leeds to to drive that forward. New industries. New jobs. And it will be part of the answer to the youth unemployment we’ll have thanks to COVID.”
Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that during the pandemic more 16-24 year olds have exited the UK workforce than any other age group. The youth unemployment doesn’t bear thinking about. But Changemakers don’t have that luxury. Tom doesn’t have that luxury. He has to think about it. More than that, he has to find away to fix it. 16 – 24 year olds are more likely to losetheir jobs when furlough ends simply because those on furlough tend to be younger (according to HMRC). So this means it will get worse before it gets better.
Bringing tech innovation to the city is a smart move. Not a silver bullet but a smart move. But what about that third and final change priority?
“The third one is climate and the carbon challenge. We’re doing some amazing things like we’ve put a district heating system back into the city, reducing fuel bills, helping the decarbonising of the city centre. We’ve just announced a £200m retrofit of council housing, replacing old gas boilers. We’ve got the biggest electric fleet in the country. So we’ve done loads of good stuff…”
As mentioned earlier, the dictionary definition of a chief executive isn’t good enough. Leadership is about setting the tone and trusting the experts to deliver. It’s about horizon scanning and collaborating with others to solve shared problems. It’s about refusing to stop trying to solve those problems. It’s about learning all the time; understanding how you can do things better and adapting accordingly. Tom Riordan is all those things. But he’s also not alone. He knows he’s surrounded by a brilliant team at Leeds and he knows there are colleagues across the country and around the world wrestling with varying degrees of the same challenges. Like all those cities, Leeds isn’t perfect. But it knows which way ‘better’ is and never stops striving for it.