Shaking Hands

Beyond Roles: Trust and Communication in Local Government Leadership

Well just how important is it? Trust and Communication in Local Government Leadership.  And actually, what’s even more important?  As local governments in several States across the country are gearing up for elections and for inductions post election, I thought it timely to bring some light to that relationship – the one between the CEO/General Manager/ Executive Team and the Mayor and Councillors (elected members).

I was a guest on a webinar with Locale Learning mid 2023 about sustaining a healthy relationship with the executive – the audience was a mixture of elected members and CEO/GM level staffers.  I said it then and I say it now, if you can’t make that relationship work, walk away, because nothing, and I mean nothing else, will work.  During this webinar I spoke to the following with my insights after 25 years in Local Government as CEO/GM/Deputy GM.  So what follows are my opinions, what I saw and felt in my experience.  It’s also what I learnt from some amazing and wise CEO’s and Mayor’s that I had the privilege of ‘growing up’ with, so to speak.

Note please – as a born and bred Queenslander (now residing in NSW) I will mostly use the term CEO from here on in, please take it to mean CEO/General Manager.

A strong relationship between Council and the CEO is crucial to maximising organisational success. I don’t think there is any argument there.

AND the relationship between Council and the CEO is fraught with many inherent difficulties and challenges.

In pondering the relationships I have had with over a dozen Mayors and more than 100 councillors, I thought about the elements in them that I would consider successful and those I would consider challenging – I was able to identify some common threads.

Some of the Challenges

But first, let’s address quickly some of the Challenges – I will pull a few out as we go that I think are really pertinent to the CEO/Mayor relationship.

Challenges like:

  • Personalities
  • Values misalignment
  • Personal interest
  • Role definition – that Strategic and Operational Divide oldie!
  • Communication
  • Political motives and political realities – A CEO may fail to appreciate the political realities and challenges faced by the Mayor and Council or may trivialise those challenges.
  • Lack of Information – the elected members don’t think they get enough information – more often – it is that aren’t getting the right information in the right way at the right time. Councillors feeling like they are a “Rubber Stamp – we all want to feel like we are valued and making a difference
The first thing

When I think of constructive and supportive relationships between the Mayor/Elected members and the CEO, there are three fundamental things that come to mind.

Agreed there are many elements of a successful relationship – but without these three, there is little hope.

The very first thing – the most important thing that leads to constructive, supportive and evolving relationships between Mayors/Councillors and the CEO is that….

We need to know we need one. 

We need to understand how important a good relationship is to our own wellbeing, our success and the success of the organisation. If you’ve ever been in a not so good one, you intrinsically know who much we need a good one!   Once we know we need one, we can then devote time and energy to that relationship – because we know how vital it is.

The other two things

The other two things that lead to constructive, supportive and evolving relationships between the elected members and the CEO are:

  • Trust
  • Communication

Sure we can also consider things like:

  • Role definition
  • Values alignment
  • Aligned personalities
  • Information sharing
  • Respect
  • Transparency etc

And these are all important – but in my experience they come out of Trust and Communication.

I now spend some time being a locum CEO, I head into councils as Acting CEO when there are vacancies – most commonly these are the result of a CEO leaving (of their own accord or through a settlement/sacking).  Locum CEO’ing is a peculiar gig – a cross between being a permanent position and a consulting gig – and it requires sitting down with the Mayor and Councillors to find out what they need and where they are at.  The MOST common things I hear are “we aren’t getting enough information “and “the trust was gone”, and I would hazard to say that one or both parties have not understood, nor put in the time and effort, to develop and or maintain a good relationship.

Trust

Let’s have a look firstly at Trust, in my view the most important dynamic influencing the relationship. 

Trust is like the air we breathe. When it’s present nobody really notices, but when it’s absent, everybody notices.”

– Warren Buffett.

Creating and nurturing trust amidst the challenges – It’s not about the roles!

It is a pervasive and deeply held belief that clarification of roles and responsibilities between a Mayor/Councillors and CEO/Executive Leadership is the primary means for building an effective partnership.  I have found that a focus on fulfilling prescribed roles and responsibilities has little, if anything, to do with what works.  It’s a given that as CEO I had roles to fulfil and as Mayor, they had roles to fill – but in the good relationships, a strict focus on roles wasn’t a defining factor.  A reliance on structure and role descriptions was evident only in low-trust relationships.  Yes it is important that we hold true to the legislation and look to the Strategic and Operational separation – because that’s fundamental to our governance.  But I have found that when we have to rely on this as our key means of operating, we don’t have the trust.

What might creating and nurturing trust look like?
  • Defining expectations – Agreeing on expectations is the one activity that comes closest to role clarification.
  • Co-create the rules of engagement – for meetings, formal and informal, including meeting norms and expectations.
  • Mutual commitment to the “no surprises” rule
  • Ask each other about the priorities during the period
  • What legacy does each want to leave?
  • Flexibility and dialogue were more important than following a job description. Trust made that flexibility possible.
  • Seeing each other not only as people with a role to play, but also as a resource offering expertise to each other.
Communication

“We want to know each other well enough to be confident in each other’s personalities and competencies”  Michelle McFadyen.

Information – too much or too little – or just right…how do you know?

Providing Council with sufficient information and the particular type of information that advances their decision-making is always a balance. A CEO doesn’t want to “drown” Council members in paper or electronic files. Nor will a CEO want to provide detailed information on operational issues for fear that Council will become operationally focused. On the other hand, Council needs to be well-informed and needs access to the type, quantity and quality of information that will enable them to fulfill their governance responsibilities.

A solution is to have the CEO check in with the Council on at least an annual basis about the information Council is being provided. The CEO could have a pre-meeting discussion with the Mayor on the issue and then explicitly ask Council members:

  • Are you satisfied with the type of information you are being provided?
  • Are you satisfied with the format? Does the format enable you to review the information in an efficient manner?
  • Is there any other type of information that you want for your Council meetings and if so in what level of detail and format? (with the CEO advising on Operational Vs Strategic)
  • Do you read the information provided to you?
  • Do you understand the information?
  • Is it timely?

This type of open dialogue goes a long way towards addressing any concerns about lack of information.

Meet regularly – Carving out frequent and regular time together:

  • Regular scheduled meetings with agendas
  • Informal catch ups
  • Make time for these – they are really important
How can the CEO/GM contribute to a solid and trusting relationship?

So how might the CEO contribute to this relationship – I can’t cover all the ways but here a few I think are important.

  • Be available to the Mayor/ Councillors as needed
  • Communicate proactively and transparently at all times.
  • Bring key members of management into council discussions at the opportune time. This provides a chance for the board to offer sage advice while getting a glimpse of whether certain managers could be considered in the succession planning process.
  • Remember – it’s not about me!
  • Seek to understand why each elected member is around the table – what drives them, what are their passions, what do they hope to contribute to in their term?
  • Support councillors in professional development and help them understand what is available to them
  • Support the elected members to understand where they can input to plans and processes – conduct workshops and briefings if necessary and advantageous
  • Remember that the elected members are part of the team – support and implement appropriate team development opportunities.
  • Wear their shoes – try to understand what it’s like from their standpoint (politics, community)
  • Respect the elected members experience, skills and education and their (normally) strong and lengthy connection to the community
How can the Elected Members contribute to a solid and trusting relationship?

It takes effort on both sides, so here’s some things the Mayor and elected members can do:

  • Be open and available to the CEO as needed
  • Read your papers – and ask questions before the meeting – I don’t know how many times councillors have asked questions/made accusations in a council meeting about something that, had they read the business papers in full, they would have had answers to in there – we put a whole lot of work into these business papers.
  • Be willing to provide guidance and support to the CEO, offering insights and advice that can help the CEO make informed decisions.
  • Learn how to ask better questions
    1. Assume positive intent
      Everyone is motivated by good, and doing their best. When you assume this, the tone of your question changes from judgement to authenticity
    2. Put curiosity first
      Seek first to understand, then be understood. The only assumption you should make is of positive intent.
      (Don’t ask questions to try and prove something you’ve already decided. That’s not a question. It’s an accusation.
    3. Serve the room
      Expand your scope, multiply your impact. Don’t ask questions that only solve one issue.
      Zoom out and ask bigger questions, about context, connections, or significance. That way, the answer will serve more people, and help you to solve a better problem.
      Example – Instead of: “Why did we spend $5,000 on that community group?”
      Ask: “What is the policy on our contributions to community groups and how is our grant program determined?”
    4. Keep it clean
      No ‘gotcha!’ moments. If you’re asking a question to try and trick someone into providing an answer, you’re not operating with integrity. Say what you really think instead.

Ask better questions… get better answers.

  • Respect the policies in place around interaction with staff, meeting rules and the like
  • Have a strong commitment to the council, be actively engaged, and bring a spirit of collaboration and teamwork to the table.
  • Wear their shoes – try to understand what it’s like from their standpoint (managing and leading a large organisation, staffing and resourcing issues, legislation and regulations, providing a safe work environment etc)
  • Respect the CEO/GM’s experience, skills and education

I feel that a segment on asking better questions and generally on the importance of the Mayor/Councillor and CEO/GM relationship should be in any new Councillor induction training.  Personally and I know when I have supported my Mayors and Councillors and helped them to ask better questions, they’ve been able to get the information they need/want and we have been able to navigate the Strategic/Operational divide more easily. They have built trust rather than diminish it.

What can we do together to contribute to a solid and trusting relationship?

Clear Expectations – Establishing clear roles and expectations is essential to building and sustaining harmony between the Council and CEO. Striving for clarity does not mean ensuring no overlap: as band mates on the leadership team there may be overlapping as well as complementary roles. The key to clear expectations is to discuss and agree on roles and responsibilities, and to get comfortable with changing the line-up to meet needs and circumstances.  Do this deliberately – don’t assume we are all on the same page.

Constructive Partnership  – promote and support a constructive partnership .  This is the foundation for a healthy relationship between the Council and CEO and exists when there is a mindset of interdependence and a culture of shared responsibility. We need one another and we’re in this together as opposed to them and us.  A strong CEO-Council relationship also sends a powerful message to staff, the community, and the State and Federal Governments.  It demonstrates that the council is committed to transparency, good governance, and long-term success. It inspires confidence and trust in the council’s leadership and is critical in attracting and retaining top talent.

Strategic Thinking – Both the Council and the CEO must engage in strategic thinking. Great CEOs help their elected members focus on strategic issues by bringing strategy-related questions to the board table, and by resisting the all-too-common act of putting operational matters on the board’s set list. When I have had cause to complain about my council’s “operational” focus, I look back (with 25 years and wisdom on my side) to find that in fact, I was responsible for that governing style. How? In my desire to give as much information as possible, I repeatedly presented detailed operational information and was offended when the council chimed in.

What pisses me off the most?

During the webinar, the host asked me the above question – albeit phrased a little differently.  Here’s a couple of key things I came up with.

  • Councillors taking complaints from community members as gospel – and then making accusations, seeking to blame, rather than seeking to understand – in almost 100% of cases, the complaints as given to elected members have been shown (upon investigation) to be at least in part, untrue, and sometimes, entirely untrue.  Time and again, and yet, the impulse it would seem, if to take them as gospel and make accusations before seeking to understand the facts of the matters.  That pisses me off.
  • Councillors who do not read their business papers prior to a meeting – don’t think we can’t tell, we can and it is disheartening and disrespectful, and that pisses me off too.  We put a shed load of work in to preparing reports for elected members in the business papers and for you to turn up, not having so much as read them, well, how do you think we feel about that?

As I did during the webinar, I also acknowledge that as long as my list above might me, Mayors and Councillors will have their own list about what pisses them off about us CEO’s/GM’s and it is just a valid as mine.  Let’s talk about our list together and see where that might lead us.

Two questions to ponder

In closing here, I think there are a couple of questions we can ponder:

  1. How can we all do our best work in order to contribute to the greater good?
  2. How am I contributing to a trusting and transparent relationship?

My final thoughts are that it is a marathon, not a sprint, this relationship stuff.  In Queensland this term of Local Government out of the 77 Councils there was a turn over of around 55 CEO’s (at last count).  We can’t afford that in Local Government (or any industry) so it is imperative that we all work together on this one.

Discontent can be contagious…

If you want support around Councillor Inductions, specifically about the Mayor/Councillor and Executive Relationship, along with training on how to ask better questions, please reach out via my website or email me at michelle@michellemcfadyen.com.  I’m also a mediator and conflict coach so if you’re already facing challenges in this relationship, I’m here to help.

Everything Counts!

Written by Michelle McFadyen

 

 

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