CEX Survey: CEOs on CEOs – self-reflection on leadership


28 Aug 2019

CEX Survey: CEOs on CEOs – self-reflection on leadership

Our yearly survey of Chief Executives in local government provides a look at the ever-shifting landscape of public service.

In this final piece, consultant in Executive Search Ben Cox gives his take on our CEOs reflections on their own roles.

Read our full series below, and download our full MJ Chief Executive survey white paper below for our insights on leadership agendas in the public sector.

In the final article of our Chief Executive survey series, we asked leaders in local government to turn their reflectivity on themselves, their own development and challenges.

Our CEOs personal learnings tended to be people-based. As one put it, ‘the effectiveness of a CEO is enhanced or limited by the quality of the management team that supports them’. This is certainly something we have found in our consultative work as Ben Cox, Associate Director, Public Sector Executive Search, knows well;

‘If the CEO has a management team which can’t sustain, adapt or grow services without their personal daily involvement there is significant future risk for the organisation. This is particularly the case where change and ambiguity are increasingly becoming the norm in local government. 

It’s impossible to expect the CEO to possess an in-depth and up-to-date knowledge across all areas, with things as fluid as they are. A CEO must have a team of experts around them, while they steer the ship as an agile generalist. Senior management must ensure effect service delivery, while working with the CEO to harness new ideas, outlooks and innovation. Good leadership is about sharing knowledge, managing risk and ensuring strong succession planning.’

Politics brings challenges, even at the top

Working in a political environment brings its own challenges, and a number of Chief Executives mentioned navigating the civic element of Council life had created one of their biggest personal learning developments.

‘Managing the expectations of politicians’ was an answer echoed by a number of respondents. With a fresh new intake of politicians stepping into Cabinets countrywide following the local elections, this learning will be put to the test for Chief Executives during the remainder of 2019.

Much of our work at Penna involves work with both officers and politicians, so we know the dynamic of the political interface well. The political reality of a CEO is different from that at Director level. Ben Cox explains the nuanced change at the top;   

‘CEOs are the final frontier in managing ambiguity and navigating political situations. For Members, it’s not sufficient to simply work with budgets. They expect results against quantitative and qualitative targets with explicit key performance indicators.  

Where things get tricky is around the requirement for far more political sensitivity than at SLT level. CEOs find themselves tested against unstated or implicit targets by politicians, which are far harder to navigate.  

This is why many on our Aspiring Chief Executive programme find our module on navigating the politics helpful, because of the step-change in Member’s expectations at the top.

Local government resources are scarce, and are being rationed. So CEOs must set strategy which is more business-like and commercial, while still serving the community. The CEO must seek clarity from politicians on their agendas here, for this to then be challenged where necessary or filtered through the organisation.

The recent elections have seen widespread changes in political colour. With new Members on board, collaboration is essential. CEOs and politicians must agree a long-term vision and purpose which extends beyond the next round of elections and has cross-party support.’

Working through change:

An alternate priority for many Councils centres on transformation. Accordingly, the implications of working through change was an observation for some;

‘The uncertainty and anxiety caused to staff by the term ‘transformation’ and the implications of sudden/radical change’.

The need for robust leadership in uncertain times came through strongly in this year’s survey, as it does in many of our Chief Executive appointments at Penna. For Ben Cox, the core tenants of the Chief Executive role include;

‘Resilience and the ability to deal with ambiguity, along with the confidence to do things differently. The courage to explore commerciality to ensure core services are sustainable is also key. 

Visible leadership and the ability to communicate the rational for change is also important. CEOs must understand their staff are suffering change fatigue. A leader must have the gravitas and emotional intelligence to unite teams around common purpose, values and direction.’

Evaluating their own necessity:

Making the right decisions for an organisation is key for any Chief Executive, and requires a keen sense of the remits and necessity of all roles. Even their own.

Accordingly, the biggest learning for several respondents was handling their own exit or, as one put it, ‘Managing myself out of the organisation to create headroom for our talented team’.

This ties into a broader public sector trend of sharing the responsibilities of the top role between politicians and Directors, which Ben Cox has seen play out;

‘Shared responsibility between politicians and wider senior management is increasingly important. We’ve seen a clear need for increased politicisation of senior managers. Politicians themselves also need to upskill on managerial and commercial nous. 

All future direction needs wider management buy in. If senior managers and politicians are aligned around future direction then any changes in administration or CEO succession planning, should have less impact.’

How Penna can help:

We are specialists at Finding, Exciting and Securing leadership in local government, working on Chief Executive appointments UK wide.

If you would like to find out more about our offer, please get in touch with Ben Cox (ben.cox@penna.com).


Read the first article in our Chief Executive series, what Chief Executives want from their Middle Managers 

Read the second article in our Chief Executive series, what CEXs want from their HR and ODs

To download our full MJ Chief Executive Survey, click here.