Passion led us here

A Temporary Role with a Lasting Impact – The Life of a Locum CEO

As I wrote this, I was on a REX plane – and had been for more than 7 hours out of Brisbane, with a final destination of Bedourie, Far Western Queensland, butted up against the Northern Territory and the South Australian border.  I was heading out for a few months as a locum to take up the role as Acting CEO while the council recruited for a new permanent CEO.  I’m familiar with the country having cut my teeth as a CEO at the Boulia Shire just north of Diamantina some well, many, years ago.

After 25 years in Local Government in Queensland and New South Wales, last year I decided to change things up and go out on my own.  My passion is Women’s Leadership Development, Mental Health Training and Workplace Wellbeing and I added in to that mix, locum or Acting CEO’ing and I can say one thing about this, it requires a unique approach.

Locum CEO’ing is a career unto its own.  It’s not the same as going into a council as its permanent CEO, and it’s not the same as Consulting to a council.  It’s somewhere in the middle of that.

During my better part of 6 months in the Diamantina as the Acting CEO, I paid close attention to what exactly it was that an Acting CEO can do that provides the absolute best value for the elected members, the staff and the community, and at the same time, allows for a smooth and thorough transition to the new incoming CEO.

This is what I came up with:

  1. Know your stuff

This might cause some contention, but I believe that if you are coming in to act as a CEO, you had better know your stuff.  There is no time for learning on the job – have your CEO experience under your belt, know the business of local government, do your research before you get out there.  You should be able to do the day-to-day job with your eyes shut.

  1. Take the Pulse – this is so important.

Where are the Mayor and Councillors at? 

Take time to meet with the Mayor and the Councilors, what do they need from you over the next few months, where can you make the biggest impact in this short time.  Try hard to hear what’s really going on, underneath what is being said.  Are they feeling like the communication was lacking in the past? Do they need more information, involvement?  Are they feeling like they are able to undertake their duties in the best way possible for them?  What are they really saying? Stay with the Mayor, keep him close, keep him informed, ask his opinion.

Where is the Council at?

Are they in financial trouble that immediately needs some action? Are they up to date on their RMPC claims? Is cash flow ok? Are they meeting their responsibilities under the 200 plus pieces of legislation we need to consider before we scratch ourselves.  Make a call to the Department of Local Government , chat to your relationship manager – what issues do they have with this council, what support can they offer you and the new incoming CEO.  Call the LGAQ, tell them you’re here and see what they can help with.  Likewise, LGMA are always a great support.  Contact your ROC – connect, network with your neighboring CEO’s and see what support they can offer you.

Where are the staff at?

Take your time with this one.  You’ve just walked in the door and you can bet your last dollar they’ve talked about you coming, they’ve Googled you, and they’ve stalked your socials.  They’ve asked around after you and they’ve probably heard good and bad things and there’s a fair chance that none of it is true.  They are likely nervous, change is afoot, and a new CEO is a big, big deal, especially in a small council.  Let them feel you out, answer their questions, talk to them.  Be there.  Don’t tell them how you lead, show them.  Over the first few weeks, have some conversations (outside of those you’re having already about the operations of the council) – What’s going on for you?  What’s working? What’s not?  Again,  try to hear what is not being said.

Where is the community at?

I know what a good small community feels like having spent much of my life in them.  I can tell how a community is going just by walking down the street, stepping into the pub or the shops.  It’s a vibe.  Because of that, I can also tell when things aren’t going great in a community.  Learn how to do this – talk to people, feel into the place, get out and about, go to the Trivia night, the local markets.  Listen, feel, pay attention.  Talk to some key community members, and then seek out opportunities to talk to some other community members, the quieter less prominent ones.  They often have some wonderful insights for you.

Then – sit down and decide where you will put your focus outside of the day to day operations.  What projects can you contribute to, what culture or morale issues have you identified that you can positively contribute to and how?  What do the Mayor and Councillors really need right now?  Do that.

Also…..fill the gaps.  If there are vacant positions, fill them asap – do not let the new CEO walk into holes everywhere in the organisation.  If a review of the structure is upcoming, then don’t cement anything in place, get in short term contractors or locums, but don’t leave the positions vacant.

Clean the CEO office and throw out all the years of paperwork stored in those cupboards – a new CEO doesn’t need that.  I knew the incoming CEO at Diamantina was stepping in to his first CEO gig, and there was no way I was letting him walk in to an office with decades of filing and paperwork in the cupboards.  Tidy up the office, put a plant in there, dust the desk.  Yes, it does make a difference.  And along these lines, set the new CEO up in all the systems before she or he gets there (IT, keys, banking, internal systems, external grant reporting systems etc.) and if you can get their sizing, order them some uniforms.

Leave a little bit of you behind – when all that is said and done, what else do you bring as a unique individual?  For example, I brought my passion for Workplace Wellness and Workplace Mental Health Training – so we carved out 2 days for 22 staff to attend the 2 day Mental Health First Aid Training.  From a total of 66 FTE’s – Diamantina now has one third as fully training Mental Health First Aiders.

Ensure a smooth handover to the new CEO.  The handover doesn’t get prepared the week before the new CEO starts – you must think about this from the first day you walk in the door.  Use a system and keep a track of everything as you go along – I used Microsoft Tasks which enabled the incoming CEO to have access to the historical emails and notes all in one place.  Work with the Council and the new CEO to ensure a smooth handover.

And finally, step back gracefully.  Once the handover process is complete, step back gracefully and allow the new CEO to take the lead. Be available for ongoing support, but avoid interfering in their work.  This is their gig now and you’ve done the best you can as an interim to set them up for success.  And that after all, is what you’re there for.

I am grateful to the Diamantina Shire – to the Mayor and Councillors for having trust in me, and for the staff and community who I grew to respect and love over my time there.  The only downside I see to this kind of work is the leaving ….the goodbye’s.  They can be hard, as it was when the time came to leave Diamantina Shire.

There’s word in Hebrew “Tugah” and we don’t really have an equivalent word in English – it means “sweet sadness”.  That’s how I feel when I fly away for the final time.  Sweet sadness.

Remember though, while your stay might be short, and the goodbye’s may be hard, you can make a positive difference.

Everything Counts.

Written by Michelle McFadyen

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