44 – The Executive. What exactly is its role?

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                                         700 words

This seems to be a common question. You frequently hear people saying, ‘that decision will need to go to the Executive’, or ‘don’t do that until you have been to Exec’. If asked, the people saying this often can’t say why they have offered this advice and reviewing the terms of reference for the Executive will usually reveal that it is not a decision making body. It is individual members who have the authority to make decisions. So, what is its role?

I have heard that one experienced local government CEO describes the role of the CEO, Directors and Managers as follows; the CEO seeks to ensure alignment between the elected Council and the organisation; the Directors run the organisation; Managers make decisions. In this context, the Executive primarily has an integrating function for the Directors running the organisation. It could also assist in achieving the alignment sought by the CEO if it is a forum in which the organisation responds to the changing direction and movement of the Council. This model works until the Managers feel they can’t make decision without recourse to the Executive.

Some people say that taking matters before the Executive is important for ‘visibility’ to the organisation and effective corporate oversight. This makes sense if the Executive adds value to discussion of the matter or if possession of information about the matter influences the behaviour of the Directors and the CEO in their roles. Having been to the Executive of several Councils on many occasions, I know that neither of these things happens systematically. More often, it seems that a visit to the Executive is simply the attendee’s part in a time effective process for the CEO and Directors to regularly cast their eye across the organisation and find issues that they believe are politically sensitive. Sometimes they are in possession of information about other activities of the organisation that can impact on a matter, or visa versa, and then this can be useful to know.

There has been an interesting phenomenon in recent times with the renaming or rebranding of the Executive. EGs (Executive Groups) have become ETs (Executive Teams). Typically the functioning of the Executive remains unchanged, although some have participated in team building exercises. I think that the Executive’s awareness that it should somehow function as a team is noteworthy. It implies teamwork in running the organisation. How this manifests itself is highly variable. It is often not the version of team work that most people think about – i.e. everyone fully understanding the other players’ roles, their strengths and weaknesses, and having plays that the team performs on the court to optimise the performance of each player. Many Executives seem to operate as a ‘team of champions’, rather than a ‘champion team’. Each runs their part of the organisation to the best of their ability.

So, have I provided any clarity about the role of the Executive? Probably not. There is very little clarity evident. It might be more useful to think about what their role could or should be. As the only formal grouping of the organisation’s leaders, the Executive could play an essential role in coordinating thinking about goals and integrating effort to implement them. This would be invaluable if it helped establish organisation-wide priorities and to focus activity around those priorities. It would be even better if the Executive actively measured and managed performance across the organisation in achieving goals. To achieve this, the Executive would need to lead by setting the organisational agenda.

Instead, they often seem to wait and then react to emerging issues. Organisational planning is done business unit by business unit. The Council Plan is reactive to councillors and their agenda. In this context, the Executive is a skilled group of ‘fire fighters’ putting out spot fires rather than a team of informed, focussed, and value-adding leaders.

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