Many local government lawyers bemoan the fact that they're not at top local government table but would like to be. If this is you, the first question is, do you really want to? Really? O.K. Best first (as George Orwell's 'Newspeak' would have it) doubleplus look before you leap. For if you don't, things could well turn out doubleplusungood. And sharpish! And they could anyway, even if you check your mirrors carefully before moving, as a glance at the local government press will usually show. But that's not to say there aren't many chief executives who have a thoroughly stimulating career, getting on well with their members and making a real and positive difference to their communities.
There are also some excellent lawyers at top table. But why aren't there more? Surely with all the analytical and strategic skills hardwired into them at birth they should be up there with the best of them? No doubt; but by and large they're not. Why? A few reasons spring to mind:
- The 'we're not going back to having that lot pulling the strings again' syndrome. Ancestral memories of powerful (and sometimes overbearing) Town Clerks as custodians of the 'thou shalt not' remains a strong subliminal force. Lawyers will often have an uphill struggle against this pervasive but often unspoken perception.
- Respect for professionals has fallen as they're now often seen as mere commodity purveyors. If you want petrol, go to a filling station; if you've got a pain in your legals, see a lawyer. Whilst this may miss the systemic value that lawyers can add, it's how many people see things. And, of course, perception is reality.
- Lawyers are seen as much less necessary nowadays with the expansion of primary legal powers (e.g. in Part I of the Local Government Act 2000).
- 'We don't want a b….. lawyer up there telling us what we can't do and spending all day shuffling the heretofores'.
- 'We don't want someone with a narrow professional focus.We want a modern dynamic manager who can make things happen and take us into a different league.'
You could no doubt add a score more. Of course not everyone is going to have all or any of these or other prejudices. But a lot will. And forewarned is forearmed.
So here's a few things you might think of doing to increase your share price in the top table sector:
Sharpen your political skills, insights and antennae. Understand the political perspective, where different types of members are coming from. Develop an instinct for how different types of actions are likely to play in the political environment. For politics can be a different country - they do things differently there!
Examine how you see and define yourself. Does your sense of self at work depend on being a lawyer? Or is this just part of the senior corporate player equation?
Become a leading light in your own authority in the first instance. Find your unique selling point - your USP - and use it to add value to your authority. Get yourself noticed at top table (for the right reasons!). Go the extra mile. Take an interest in corporate matters. Get before CMT and add value.
But make sure you develop, nurture and add value to your team and those that you work with and manage. As part of this facilitate their success and wins.
Once you're a leading light locally, spread your light nationally. Take the opportunity to work on a national project, perhaps through the LGA, the SLG, ACSeS or the DCLG.Write articles in the national local government press. Join a national working group. Speak at national conferences. But don't neglect your work or team back at base.
Network. Take the opportunity to meet a range of different local government players when the opportunity arises. Get yourself known (again for the right reasons
Consider doing some management training. This will develop your skills and will also assist with networking.
Take on or lead on corporate projects. This will not only be good experience but will help stop you being typecast as a lawyer (or worse a b….. lawyer!).
Observe other chief executives and how they operate. Whilst it will be essential for you to find your own 'voice' (for your modus operandi has to be wired into who you really are) you can pick up a lot of useful tips from watching those already in harness.
Take a mentor. Someone you trust and admire who's already in a position to which you aspire (preferably from another authority or organisation to avoid complications). This can often give valuable coaching and advice.
Be a mentor. Apart from being worthwhile in its own right this will help sharpen your emotional intelligence, self-awareness and people and management skills.
Be nice to know. Understand the other persons point of view.
Learn resilience and tough-mindedness. You'll need these in bucketloads! But whilst you'll no doubt need to be tougher with yourself than you are with others, equally don't over-stretch yourself. Give yourself a break and avoid a breakdown!
Start applying for jobs that will take you into the ballpark where you'd like to be. An example is an Assistant Chief Executive post. The interview experience will be useful as will the accompanying documentation.
However, don't overdo the job applications. Done properly they're very time-consuming and require a lot of research and effort.You also don't want to get a reputation for constantly being on the interview circuit but never called out for the job.
However, it's important to make sure that whatever actions you take dovetail with who you actually are and what you want out of life (including family and other commitments). For you won't want to squeeze into a role that just doesn't fit you. And climbing the greasy pole can be very timeconsuming and ultimately sterile, especially if you happen to hit one of the ubiquitous snakes on the snakes and ladder board.
But if you really want to achieve top table and have the skills, experience, self-belief, determination and resilience you wil do so. Good luck!
N.B. An edited version of this article is shortly to be published in Municipal Journal