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Local Government Leaders Podcast: Episode One

In the first episode of our Local Government Leaders Podcast, we’re joined by two distinguished guests: Rob Huntington, the Chief Executive of Rossendale Borough Council, and Sharon Senior, Director at Northwest Employers. Together with Philip Emms, Principal Consultant in our Local Government practice, they explore the landscape of leadership, reflecting on personal journeys, challenges, and the evolving role of leaders in local government.

Rob and Sharon bring a wealth of experience and wisdom to the table, offering valuable insights into their careers and the broader dynamics of leadership within the sector. From navigating political landscapes to fostering authentic leadership and nurturing future talent, our conversation covers a wide array of topics crucial to understanding the complexities of leadership in local government.

Listen here:

Local Government Leaders Podcast episode 1

Topics covered in this episode of Local Government Leaders:

  • Exploring leadership journeys and values
  • Navigating challenges and seizing opportunities
  • Cultivating resilience and authenticity
  • Nurturing future talent

Whether you’re a seasoned leader in local government or an aspiring professional looking to make your mark, there’s much to learn and discuss. Stay tuned for future episodes where we’ll continue to delve into the intricacies of leadership in local government.

Thank you for tuning in, and remember to connect with us on LinkedIn or directly with Phil Emms.


Podcast Transcription

Please note that while this transcription has had some editing, it was originally auto-generated and so may contain minor errors, spelling and grammar mistakes.

Philip Emms   0:09
I’m Philip Emms of GatenbySanderson and this is the first in our new podcast series where we’re looking to talk to leaders in local governments and their role in leadership and what leadership means to them. What it means to them in their career and how they’ve progressed in their career to roles in leadership. I’m joined by Rob Huntington today, who’s the Chief Executive of Rossendale Borough Council, and Sharon Senior, who’s the Director at Northwest Employers. Sharon and I have a close relationship with each other and have worked on many things over the years do with leadership and talent work within the sector.

So, Rob, just briefly introduce yourself, tell us about tell us about your career.

Rob Huntington   0:54
Thanks, Phil and thanks for inviting me to have this conversation about leadership, specifically leadership in local government. I’m currently the chief exec of Rossendale Borough Council. Rossendale being a small district in the county of Lancashire, one of 12 district councils in Lancashire and a part of East Lancashire. With specific opportunities and specific challenges, as we all have in local government.

I started in the role…. it’s coming up actually to 12 months. So, it’s timely that we’re having this conversation because I can reflect a little bit on my experience.

My journey getting to this role? Well, I was doing a little bit of sorting out at home last night and I actually found my letter. The first appointment letter of the first job that I ever had in local government. And it was the 1st of June 1989 where I was appointed at Lancaster City Council. As a as a trainee on a starting salary of £3792.00 per year and I suppose that’s where it all started to be fair. It was a time when you could join local government and you were supported to train and get professional qualifications and all of that. So that’s what I embarked on doing and I think having that experience very early on in local government, which is a, you know, a fantastic sector to work in, and the breadth of experience that I got both at Lancaster and in, in, in other roles, which I’ll talk about in a second, has sort of led to where I am now really, I mean in Lancaster, which was a District Council is a District Council and is one in Lancashire, ironically. I you know, I worked in probably every, every department that, that and every service that the Council delivered. Which led to me staying there for around 11 years and then moving on to the Audit Commission.

The Audit Commission being a fantastic experience of understanding how local government exists and what it does and why it does what it does. Which again is no longer here, but you could say that Offlog is a is the Audit Commission reinvented, but that’s my own personal opinion.

Yeah, you know, a fantastic experience of which help me really, really understand how local government works. Which then led to working in both Trafford Council and Sheffield City Council and St Helen’s Council in in director roles, all relatively large local authorities, metropolitan or unitary, unitary authorities. And led me to the role here now at Rossendale.

And I think the reason for that journey was that every one of those opportunities that I had was about really making a difference. And I think local government helps you, make a real difference at a very local level, no matter what role you’re in. That is absolutely something that chimes with my values and motivates me to do the job that I do.

Philip Emms   4:26

It’s quite interesting around your value base, what drives you on a on a day-to-day basis, but what what’s it is?

We supported your appointment and then we’ve got to know you, Rob, over a number of years and I want to find if your career path is, is it may be a bit more snaky than others, but I what I think is that’s quite an interesting journey that you’ve taken to get there. As you say, you worked in almost every part of the business in, in certain authorities. So, what have you taken from your earlier career and what, if anything, your early career that defines you as the leader and the chief exec that you are today?

Rob Huntington   5:07
It’s a great question. I’m intrigued with the word snaky! In terms of my career.

I think really goes back to a passion, a passion for me, wanting to make a difference really. And the motivation behind where I’ve been and where I am now, as, as absolutely been that that passion for, for being able to, to, to demonstrate change and demonstrate making a difference at all levels.

I mean some of my some of my more senior roles have been around change and transformation and I think that’s that probably reflects where my motivation has sat. You know I’m always striving for looking at the art of the possible and how we could change things for the better and I think it does absolutely sit behind that.

I think the other thing as well is being authentic in terms of how you do that. There’s no point putting on a different face for work. You are who you are, and I think that sort of that, that ambition and aspiration for change and for doing things different and to some extent. And I’ll put this out there be a little bit of a rebel, has been a real motivator.

Philip Emms  
And so I should say snaky is. That’s quite interesting. I’ve never thought about that term is. It’s not a snaky in the natural sense of the word, but as in a as a coiled snake.

No, I think what I mean by is, is there’s some, you know, maybe you’ve come from a kind of a, if you’ve been an accountant, for example, that that path might be more linear by definition. But as I say you’ve moved around into different places in a positive way which kind of has given you that breadth of experience in into different places, I think.
Which gives a more I think makes you more rounded individual. The other thing is my experience, you know, experience that you’ve had from elsewhere.

Rob Huntington  
Yeah, yeah.

Sharon Senior  
And I think if just to build on that Rob, and my role, it chimed a little bit, although I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s quite as snaky, but my background was started off in retail in the private sector before moving into public sector. And one of the words that you used Rob was about opportunities and I think that’s what. Local government really offers, doesn’t it? There’s a great deal of different opportunities to further your career and to develop and expand in different directions and just picking up on that point around change and transformation.
And the role of a leader, given the current context of local government and you know the kind of pace for change, what do you think leadership looks like now as a senior leader in local government?

Rob Huntington  
Great, great question, Sharon.

Hey, it’s pretty evident, isn’t it that that the environment that the sector is working in at the moment is quite a challenging environment and that’s you know, there are many reasons for that. We all know there’s a recruitment challenge. We all know there’s a financial challenge. We all know there’s a demand challenge in relation to the demand on, on a lot of the services that that local government provides.

But I think that the way around that because, there is a there is a view at the moment which I like to challenge, which everything is bad and some there’s some real deficit thinking around the sector and you read, you know, you read the, you read the trade press, you, you read the headlines around local councils and it’s about failure and it’s about bankruptcy and it’s about not enough money and all of those.

That that’s quite a difficult environment to be in as a leader, but the only the only way around that, the only sort of solution around that is to is to focus on what is possible and have a shared vision and a shared sort of purpose really around what you want to achieve.

I’ve come into this role as, as you know, it’s my first chief exec role. I was assistant chief exec at St Helens. But you know, being at the helm is a real leadership job. I think you’ve got to be very clear and consistent in that vision and the delivery of that vision and bring people together aligned to that and look at the key opportunities that that are out there with the resources that you’ve got and build on what is possible basically.

So one thing I’ve done here is been very clear around the opportunities that exist in Rossendale as a valley in what is a very complex environment of local government within a two tier system of a County Council and 12 district councils as well as two unitaries in the county. So being very clear around the opportunities that the valley will provide in that in that arena. And doing the best that we can with the resources that we’ve got and bringing people along with you.

So, you know that is about profile that is about relationships that is around a network of stakeholders that are an extended part of the family which have got more resource, that’s about workforce. That’s about your senior leadership team. All those things are the really key ingredients to making that happen within that challenging environment and you know,

I think that’s key to leading an organisation and key to leading a place really. Otherwise, we will always focus on the things that are that are a challenge rather than the things that are an opportunity.

Sharon Senior  
And I think that’s so true. Isn’t it? Like you say that, you know, the public perception and some of the media coverage just paint it in quiet, you know, the bleak picture really. So I think that that whole resilience and as you say that leadership and you know really looking at the opportunities is so important. But that’s quite a challenge, isn’t it when you know from a personal point of view to keep that going when you know as a leader you do set the tone for the organisation, and you want to be motivated and encouraging people. But then you know, how do you reconcile that with, you know, with actually this really tough at the top and everyone’s looking to you. So just how do you keep yourself focused and how you know, how do you manage your own resilience?

Rob Huntington  
I think again great question and a lot of self-reflection going on here, which is it’s a little bit of therapy, isn’t it?!

The sector as a whole… we’re lucky in, in, in the local government world because there is a there is quite a strong network of support behind us as individuals. So, I’m not the only chief executive in local government as an example. So, and I’m not the only district chief executive.

So organisations, there’s NW employers, there’s Solace, there’s the LGA, there’s a whole host of organisations that that provide levels of support for senior leaders and chief execs, which is really helpful and really useful. And I’m a real advocate for, for getting involved in in those networks.

Personally, I’m involved in a in a specific Solace-led initiative, which is for serving chief executives, where we talk about some of the issues that we face. And again, a little bit of a therapy session, but it’s with peers. I’m very supportive of sector led improvement. Whoever leads on that sector led improvement and again that’s a way of you know chewing the fat basically with, with peers.

So all of those things help me in terms of my own personal resilience and also you know I’m fortunate to have a good team around me from a senior perspective and a great workforce so all that helps.

But I also think as a leader you you’ve got to be visible and you’ve got to be, you’ve got to be able to answer questions both from our politicians and from the workforce, but also engage them in, in, in some of the in dealing with some of these challenging agendas. So you know I’m very passionate about involving the cabinet here and the leader in Rossendale in some of that co-design work around where we’re going and where we’re in. So they’re not that, just there to, to sign off decisions which again helps me for my own personal resilience perspective because it’s not just on my shoulders. You know we’re working on this together.
And the same passion goes around engaging the workforce. So yeah, that’s probably one of one of the ways that, a few of the ways that I deal with it.

Sharon Senior  
And load loads of different ways there Rob, and it is that I think like you say, there’s networks in that there are, you know, support out there. It’s just a case of tapping into it and knowing what what’s there. And I think just building on that what you just touched upon around the political dimensions because obviously that you know working in local government, it is a political landscape and as chief exec, how do you manage that balance or how do you find that balance between your role in, in that place leadership as the chief exec of the Council, but also some of then the political aspirations of the cabinet and you know, the political leadership at the time, the current administration.

So, I’m just interested in the dynamics of that and what that means for you as a leader and the skills that that requires?

Rob Huntington  
Yeah, I mean, I’ll go back to the three areas around place leadership that I think are the again the key ingredients really. So a common vision around what I would want, but also what the political leaders of the organisation would want for the area, for the place and in my in my instance, the valley, as we call it.

And then I think it’s around the key responsibilities and being clear around the responsibilities of bringing that to life. The easiest way you do that from, from my perspective, is that there’s alignment and there’s that common purpose between the political vision. Specifically, if you have a leader in cabinet model. And the organisational vision, place vision, the two should be the same so that you the dynamics then work, don’t they?

I think the difficulty is where you’ve got that within a within a two-tier system of local government where the where the politics can be different. And you are relying on maybe a County Council supporting some of the delivery of that and it might not be a political a political priority for that, for that county authority.

So, from a leadership point of view, it’s about being able to balance what is possible, but also you know, I see my view as a as a leader, as a custodian of place, the leading politicians should see their view as a custodian of place.

Well, all politicians in the valley should see that, and it and it’s about building the relationship between the two so that you can deliver on the vision that you’ve set. I mean our vision as a valley is that we have a thriving local economy based on the townships, the towns that make up the valley.

It’s as clear as that now, and we’re all on the same page with that.
And you know that that that helps from a, from a leadership perspective.

Philip Emms  
Rob I find it quite interesting that role you play, and this is not in a way disparaging to districts. But the districts by definition are  smaller places, you know they’re not big, big cities, they’re not big urban entities, which naturally have size, scale and kind of brand imagery that go with it. So, do you think that role therefore that you play is different because you’re in a smaller place, do you think, think that’s more of a requirement in your role, do you think?

Rob Huntington  
I could answer that question Phil by saying size doesn’t matter.

I think it does and it doesn’t really. So, there are challenges that that, that are around at a district level because we don’t necessarily have the availability of resource the bigger, bigger local authorities bigger, you know unitaries do have. However, the majority of unitary authorities have that the bulk of their budget is based on social care.

So for me the ability to make if I don’t have social care, that’s somebody else’s responsibility not you know, although it impacts on the area. That enables me to make more of a difference at a local level. And I think the role that districts play is that they can make more of a difference at a local level.

You know, you look at some of the some of the big challenges, some of the big policy challenges that we’ve got around housing around climate change, around how do we how do we lift and regenerate and level up in a way you know our places. A lot of that is happening at a very local district level. If I align that to what’s happening that what’s happening in my previous authority at St Helens, which is a met, they’re same topics, it’s just different scale. So, there are differences. I suppose the main difference is resource availability, but I quite like to roll my sleeves up and get involved, and I think you’ve got more of an opportunity to do that at a very local level at a district level.

And you know, engagement with stakeholders and engagement with residents as well is a lot easier if it’s a smaller, smaller area.

Sharon Senior   20:02
And talking of rolling your sleeves up this cause, there’s an element of that that is about kind of that authentic leadership and you know and for me some of that is around showing vulnerability, bringing your values, your beliefs, you know, so you’re the whole person really to the role and the and the work that you do. So how do you manage that Rob to make sure that your team do that as well? So, it’s not just you that’s authentically leading, but how do you encourage and nurture that within the team that you work with?

Rob Huntington   20:32
Yeah, it’s also about culture, then, isn’t it Sharon really because you know, authentic leadership is absolutely around bringing yourself to work and also in my view, working with a with a purpose and passion, but also with a level of consistency.

So, people know who you are. I’m a very passionate person around organisational development and culture and what that means in an organisation and I think one of the things that I’ve introduced here since I started is a is a real focus on the values in the organisation, on engagement on you know me being visible and my senior management team being visible because we’re small and it’s easier to do that. I’m actually seeing a real difference in in how the organisation is starting to work as a result of that.

I think there was there was a little bit of a culture around and keep your head down and I’m seeing that that’s very different now. And people are being honest, and people are being, you know reflective and it’s great to see. So creating an environment that that allows that and creating an environment that allows people to have their views and to be included and to be involved and to work on things that they demonstrate an interest in is something that they know I’ve really encouraged so.

Phil Emms

So, Robbie, you talked there around people bringing them whole selves to work and developing that and allowing that to flourish in, in, in the workplace of local government. But you and I and I know, Sharon we we’ve spoken numerous occasions about our concern and future talent in local government.

So, what do you think the sector needs to be doing to ensure that today we’re attracting, we’re invested in the people that are going to be like you, the chief execs in a number of years’ time?

Because we need to be worried about that problem now. Really, if we want to make sure we’ve got, say, people like you, Rob, that are ready to be a chief exec in.
Say 15-20 years’ time, what do we need to be doing differently?

Rob Huntington  
I think the sector has got a little bit of an image problem still.

I mentioned earlier that that there’s a there’s a recruitment challenge in the sector and that still applies. So the image of the sector needs to change and I know that there are there’s a bit of activity now, the LGA have been working on some campaigns. But that it’s still, I think it’s still seen as you know a little bit of a stuffy sector to work in and actually it isn’t that at all, you know which sector delivers over 600 services? Has got so many different opportunities and jobs?

And all of that needs to be raised in terms of an image and a profile. I also think there is something around job design. So the nature of what the type of jobs that exist in local government and the design of those jobs needs to be a focus for, for current leaders, actually. We know there’s been a huge requirement on data and you know business intelligence and we’re all having conversations now around artificial intelligence and what that might mean for the sector. So, who within our organisations is doing that? I see there being a gap.

So there’s so there’s an image issue, there’s a there’s a job design issue I think, and then there’s a let’s move away from some of the traditionality of some of these roles that already exist and think about the art of the possible so that they do become attractive, and they do nurture some of the future talent.

And also, I think generally, and I know this happens in in lots of local authorities, what’s the focus on growing your own and what’s the focus on that talent development within and what can that look like really?

Philip Emms  
I say look, I’ve got to agree. I do think part of the problem here is people don’t know what local authorities do. So, I’ve told this story before about my father spent fourty four years in local government, predominantly within housing. And I landed at GatenbySanderson 14 years ago, not really understanding a clue what local authorities did. And I think, well, if I’ve got a father who’s spent so long in local government, and I didn’t really understand it, you know, what chance did anybody else got? You know because there’s so many opportunities out there from social care, professional disciplines. You know, you could take a professional career in finance and planning engineering construction you could be working on a multimillion pound you know development regeneration scheme. You know whatever you could be in kind of policy strategy. You know whatever it might be and I do think that’s a real challenge for everybody and even as an organisation as well you know it’s we are not a local authorities but fundamentally our business model is flawed if we don’t have more people coming into the sector and you know the talent coming into the sector now to I said to be the leaders of the future, fundamentally. Sharon?

Sharon Senior  
And I think just to finish on that, I think the there is something about that say identifying the future talent, but you know joining it all up, because I think it feels like at the moment we’ve had to be quite reactionary, you know because we’ve had shortages in various professional pockets. But actually, if we don’t do some of that longer term future focus thinking now like you say, we’ll end up you know in in a in a pickle further down the line, won’t we? So there is something about how do we join all of that up and I think not just you know within an organisation but across the region actually you know are there some are there some opportunities think that graduate programmes can we get graduates moving around.
To get some real exposure and with, you know, we’re investing in our future workforce, the really, really important topic we could probably do a whole another conversation on that one, couldn’t we?

Rob Huntington   28:50
Yeah. And there is a fundamental question, isn’t it? What is local government? What will local government look like in the future? What capabilities do we need to deliver that, that, that new version?

I think the other point really being that residents that pay their council tax will only see the services that they receive, which will then all impact on their perception of what local government is or what their local council is. And I think, you know, we have got to do a lot more in relation to that whole image and that profile, job design and the jobs that are available really.

Philip Emms   29:35
Rob Sharon, thank you for your time today. It’s been a fascinating conversation, which we could go on for at length. I’m sure our listeners will want to do that and maybe pick up a conversation with any of us individuals, and please do connect or on LinkedIn or e-mail, etcetera. Do reach out to us and we’ll be continuing these round table discussions around leadership in, in local government. But Rob, I’ve saved a killer question till last for you.

Rob Huntington  

Philip Emms  
What? As a as a Yorkshireman and what everybody else on the phone is wanting to hear is if you’re starting salary was £3789.00. How much was a pint of beer?

If you can remember that far back into your formative years.

Rob Huntington  
Well. I think it’s about 80 pence.

Philip Emms  
We won’t be asking the ratio of income to pints of beer! That’s great. Again, thank you for your time.

Rob Huntington  
Thanks Phil. Thanks.

Sharon Senior  
Thank you.


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