CEX Survey: HR, OD and the Chief Executive view


21 Aug 2019

CEX Survey: HR, OD and the Chief Executive view

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

This second article looks at the impact of Human Resources/Organisational Development professionals as observed by their Chief Executives. Their insights on what HR/ODs should be proud of, and what they need to do more of provide a challenge which the profession should rise to. Our Lead HR Consultant  for our HR Executive Practice, Jason Wheatley gives his advice on what HR professionals can do to step up to the mark.

Come back weekly to read our series, and download our full MJ Chief Executive survey white paper below for more insights from leadership in local government.    


Local government HR professionals are lynchpins in the transformation programmes taking place across a great number of authorities. Long term thinking, a cross-organisational view point and increased strategy were all points at which Chief Executives felt their HR/ OD teams should step up. 

The Culture Challenge

Among the elements of HR and OD work which our CEOs praised were ‘managing change’, ‘upholding our unique culture’, ‘staff engagement’, ‘talent management’ and ‘sorting out the relatively few employee problems we have’. The leaders surveyed recognised that the HR/OD teams were important stakeholders in any initiated culture change, and that a key element of their work has to include ‘setting the blueprint for structured and sustainable organisational change’.

Typical Council size makes implementing change difficult, with one CEO grappling with a plan covering ‘all staff in every one of our 500 services’. Similar challenges arose for one Chief Executive in;

‘Genuinely engaging and empowering 12,000 diverse and geographically dispersed staff with common messages nuanced to their needs and an effective feedback loop to give them influence creating the organisation they are proud to be a part of.’ 

Working across this breadth of employees and specialisms is a challenge which HR/OD professionals in local government face daily. Our Lead HR Consultant in Executive Search and Interim, Jason Wheatley, has this to say on the role of HR in the transformation process and where they can best help their Chief Executive;

‘The senior HR lead has to navigate an interesting dynamic in the culture change process. Against the sector-wide backdrop of continual cost saving drives and a broad sense that ‘things should be done differently’ there are many voices calling for organisational change. Where HR/OD should be more strategic is looking at the motivation for organisational development (OD). On the surface, OD to many looks like a process. So an organisation might say, we need efficiencies, stronger values and behaviours; we’ll implement a senior leadership team reshuffle and assume that ‘change’ will then filter down through the organisation accordingly.

In reality, an intervention  like this doesn’t  do enough to embed the required cultural shift into a Council. Good OD is about making sure that not only does an organisation successfully travel from A to B – the whole organisation (from staff on the front line to the SLT) understand, buys into and learns from the journey, and continues along the same road.

I would encourage HR and OD practitioners to see cultural change as a top down and bottom up process. You have to canvas, involve and invite ideas from all employees. Practically, you have to measure staff engagement and tap into the mood of your entire organisation. Only then will your strategy and subsequent interventions be worthwhile and effective.  

HR/OD teams are often so busy with the day-to-day they don’t have time to take the required step back. I would implore all HR professionals to take time out to think and undertake an diagnostic prior rather than simply reacting. This is one of the best ways to help your Chief Executive.’ 

Consistency of message around any culture change is a key factor for Chief Executives, the ‘CEO and leadership team’ to the ‘Leader, Cabinet and Councillors’. Again, for Jason Wheatley, there is a role for the HRD and their team to play here;

‘Understanding the agenda of the HR portfolio holder is a key skillset for HR lead, particularly as the politician in question is often the Leader. Acting as the interface between the Head of Paid service and the politics is key. The motivators for both sides must be understood and included, yet HR and OD must be strategic in managing political expectations.  

Sometimes politicians are particularly integrated with Trade Unions, and can be anti-change. It’s important therefore to socialise change agendas with your politicians before diving into implementation.

Lots of HRDs would say this political nous is a given at their level. But for me, I don’t always see effective navigation of the politics. So, how do you upskill?

I would encourage HRs to use their networks, there’s great power in bouncing ideas off peers. If you’re new to an organisation, speak to your HR team – particularly those who have been in post a while. Use corporate knowledge and memory to your advantage. Similarly, go to networking events – expand your knowledge and connections. At Penna we connect leaders in their fields to encourage knowledge sharing and problem solving, so get in touch.’ 

Step up the strategy

A recommendation for improvement for HR and OD professionals was around increasing the level of strategy and innovation they directly implement, and giving consideration to the strategic implications of their decisions. While many Chief Executives praised the quality of their ‘policies and processes’, yet more said that considerations around ‘creative ways to enable, support and challenge managers’ and ‘innovation’ were required. Improving their cross organisational outlook ‘across the range of organisational priorities’ was mentioned by number of survey respondents for HR and OD. One Chief Executive wanted to see HR and OD be ‘more enabling to service directorates’, actively engaging on helping them achieve their objectives with strategic workforce planning. Another wanted an extension of HR and OD influence and advice to partner organisations;

‘For instance through workforce transformation, aligning workforce planning across local government and the NHS, driving culture change and supporting smarter working initiatives’

Jason Wheatley observes that;   

‘In the past few years, we’ve seen the HR lead’s position lessen in some authorities. They don’t always have a seat at the leadership table.

How do you change this? Demonstrate the value of HR and OD, and its impact. Of course, that’s easier said than done – particularly if the HR function is not currently credible. A good start is listening to your CEO and Directors, and what they need. Change the perception of your effectiveness and reach.

If you are the HR lead, regardless of where your position sits, you need time with your Chief Executive. This is something you should insist on, as their strategic advisor. Get time, answer questions, find solutions. 

In our executive recruitment, we are seeing greater demand for first rate HR and OD talent, but there is some way to go to create this strong talent pool. As a result, Penna will be driving some initiatives in 2020 to support the regeneration of this.’

With Chief Executives focused on balancing budgets and meeting increased service demand, it seems ‘the HR profession must either step up and demonstrate the value they add to the organisation, or be prepared to step out of the game. 

How we can help

We are specialists at Finding, Exciting and Securing HR professionals in local government, in both permanent and interim capacities.

If you would like to find out more about our offer, please get in touch with Jason Wheatley (Jason.Wheatley@penna.com). 


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

Read the final article in our Chief Executive series, the learnings and challenges for CEXs themselves

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