62 – “The way to make it in local government is to forget ambition and pigeon hole yourself before someone else does”.

Posted by S. Dogood                                                               1000 words

pigeon hole

This was the advice I received during a discussion with a colleague this week.  Pigeon hole yourself he advised and local government becomes a good place to work.  In some ways he is right.  The discussion started me thinking about why that is the case and how it could be different.

The ambitious face a number of challenges.  First and foremost they can’t be threatening to the Executive.  Secondly, they need to be realistic about their skills and value.  Lastly, regardless of their own role breadth or experience, they run the recruitment gamut as there is always a hierarchy of preferred candidates for any role.  Hiring traditionally take the following hierarchy seeking to recruit someone who;

  1. Has done the job previously in another local government area (no matter how well).
  2. Is within the hiring executive’s network and they want you.
  3. Is a non-threatening but well performing employee at the hiring local government.
  4. Is, or has been, a high performing manager at another larger and more complex local government area.

Why is it that local government (and other public service) is full of people who believe they have what it takes but have pigeon holed themselves.   There are a special few who have met the right people and ridden their coat tails to executive roles, or happened to be in the right place at the right time, or who had high ‘emotional intelligence’, which allowed them to spin a story that people bought into.  Sometimes the ambition is blind and unbridled, identifiable by the litany of unfinished change implementations and low morale.

None of this means that the ‘cream has risen to the top’ – in some cases it will and in others it won’t.  It is a bigger problem when it doesn’t.  Why?  Because average performing executives stick around, sometimes for decades.  During this time there is little promotion opportunity for others.  Additionally it is human nature for the average performers to surround themselves with people who won’t ‘challenge’ them either professionally and intellectually.

As a result the ambitious don’t find local government to be a good opportunity to grow and make change.  This was exacerbated by the flattening of council organisational structures in the 1990’s to mimic the private sector.  The number of steps in the promotional chain and the number of senior roles have both been reduced.

Movement between organisations doesn’t occur as frequently as one might expect for a sector with portability in employment entitlements and a common overriding legislative direction.  There is risk in regularly exposing yourself to a six-month probation period.  It is particularly challenging when you need to move between functional responsibilities as a generalist manager making a move more difficult as a less attractive candidate.  The metropolitan area is much more competitive than regional areas, but a move to the country is a potential sacrifice for family and friendship networks on a gamble in that having been successful in a regional area you can return to the city – mind you plenty of people do this.

Staying where you are can have its downside too.  Unless you fit well with the ‘management culture’ (a euphemism for fitting in with the preferred style of executive or senior managers) you are unlikely to succeed.  Ability frequently counts for less than organisational fit.  No-one should underestimate organisational fit, but it should not be at the expense of high quality people with an ability to continuously improve the organisation.  Just focusing on organisational fit without understanding its interplay with healthy conflict, robust debate and integrity in decision making can lead to group think, staleness and, eventually, a revolution that will see a new CEO with a new style demanding a different organisational fit.

So if we return to the pigeon holes.  As my colleague stated you either put yourself in one or someone puts you in one; either way it is where many in local government end up.  Few people escape it.  You become that someone with potential who couldn’t crack it – you are either the organisational ‘Dalai Lama’ (the sage and learned expert) or the elephant in the corner that people use as a roundabout as work traffic flows to those more capable.  If you are not pigeon holed as one of these two, you are in serious danger of being the person who ‘should just get on with it and stop being critical’, or the one who always ‘keeps pointing out problems (whinging) instead of getting on board’.  Unfortunately, getting on board usually means setting aside your ambitions and settling.  The only other option is to move on and usually this means out of the organisation or the sector.

The problem with pigeon holing is that it hides opportunity – this is bad for the ambitious.  Pigeon holing is also sometimes a way to refrain from good professional development and avoid performance management.  I think about my colleague and wonder whether he has truly pigeon holed himself or whether this is just a little ‘white lie’ he tells himself because it is easier than facing the truth.

So, how could it be different?  Senior managers, especially executives, on fixed term contracts often feel a greater need to focus on survival and survival is dominated by the need to please councillors.  Pleasing Councillors is not so much about the brave and adventurous as it is about status quo.  As such managers are more inclined to surround themselves with people they find loyal and comforting.  The political nature of the work environment creates and perpetuates conformity and a resistance to change – the enemy of the ambitious looking to modernise or challenge underperforming organisational processes and systems.  To truly succeed local government should accept more risk and appoint people capable of creating genuine value for ratepayers, customer and citizens.

This would be a revolution within the local government sector and for its management.  Ambition could be harnessed, the individual guided, and, in a utopian environment, honest conversation would be held about the intersection of ability and ambition.  The ultimate aim would be to keep more good people in the sector for the ultimate benefit of the organisation and the community.