164 – Who should push back with the councillors? The CEO, Directors or Managers?

Posted by Whistler                                                                                          600 words


I think this is a good question and it is one that every manager will ask themselves at some point. It may take a bit of experience to ask it. Individual councillors regularly ask for the organisation to do things that are outside policy or they become conflicted. So who should be saying no?

In many councils there has been an organisational correction about the type of contact councillors can make with staff. Usually this happens after a councillor has attempted to influence a junior staff member to do something outside policy. When councillors complain about the staff member because they won’t do what they asked (or if the officer complains) the organisation reinforces the rule that councillors can only talk to senior officers – i.e. the CEO, Directors or Managers.

This partially solves the problem and often introduces new problems. Councillors, if they are behaving, can get a lot of value out of contact with Coordinators and senior operational staff. They often seem to trust them more than more the Executive or managers. I have often wondered why. When they can no longer talk to these staff, it sometimes undermines communication and trust between councillors and the organisational leaders.

Making the councillors deal with senior managers limits their access to people and information about things that are important to them. This creates bottlenecks with senior officers and a workload that can distract the CEO and Directors from leading the organisation effectively. Councillors can require a lot of Executive time to deal with the variability they introduce.

CEO’s don’t like to say no because it can be career limiting. They are appointed by the council. Upsetting individual councillors, especially if they are in a controlling group within the council, isn’t wise. Some CEO’s always step up and let councillors know the boundaries and push back in a timely and sensitive way. Some never do. It depends on their level of insecurity.   I have heard one CEO say at a leadership development course that one of their biggest challenges was telling the council ‘no’ when they wanted to make a decision that was most likely illegal.

Directors have a similar dilemma. Although they are not appointed by the council, upsetting the councillors can be a career limiting move for them too. If they are not seen to be supporting the CEO and toeing the line they will lose the support of the CEO. An Director who is unpopular with councillors is a liability for a CEO.

Managers are really the last place the buck can stop. If they don’t say ‘no’ the councillor will have their way (unless a less senior staff members says ‘no’, in which case go back to the first paragraph).   Sometimes, as a manager, it feels as though you a painting a target on your forehead when you deal with councillors. This is the obvious risk in being the one to tell a councillor that they can’t have what they want.

The less obvious risk is to your career. Typically, if you are a manager who says ‘no’ to councillors, and you work for a CEO who never says it (and then, usually, neither will their Directors), you will be over ruled. At that point the CEO is likely to explain to the councillor that you are an officer without the experience to understand what should be done. Or that you simply aren’t ‘getting with the program’. You might be ‘managed’ for this behaviour. More likely you will be isolated or moved into a less influential role (restructured).

In a worst case you will not have your contract renewed. The CEO needs team players.