There are many things councils do exceptionally well. The complexity of coverage, even for a relatively small council, is significant. Expertise has evolved over time to manage community resources, infrastructure and special projects responsibly. There is always a focus on helping local business, elevating the visibility of arts precincts, and evolving libraries into quality community hubs. Roads are maintained, water is secured, and storm events are managed.
All these activities are undertaken by staff who care deeply about the community they are part of, live in and serve. Sometimes the culture of councils, however, does not match the complexity of the tasks people are working on.
This comes about for a variety of reasons including:
Significant rollover of most senior roles (GM/CEO)
Poor behaviour on the part of elected members (councillors)
Underdeveloped leadership skills (we don’t know how to lead values-aligned organisations, or engage fully with our stakeholders)
Real anxiety about dealing with difficult conversations with staff, between levels or with councillors
Lack of skill around managing performance (poor performers, disruptive, aggressive, lazy performers aren’t dealt with properly)
The net effect is that good people compensate; do the complex tasks anyway but don’t feel supported or connected.
The art then is twofold IF engagement is important and IF people recognise that culture drives strategy.
First and foremost, ELTs must be willing to hear the truth as seen by the staff. That can mean hearing tough news about people’s perceptions of what is working/not working. When things are bad, that ‘downloading’ can go on for 6 months to a year and frankly, if you try to stop it, people become resistant or resentful. We don’t just trust someone because we are asked to, leaders must demonstrate that change is real by making the change (sounds simple).
And if people continue to grumble it’s because they are afraid of not being heard and have, in many instances, real trauma generated by top-level changes and no care for people. Second, ELTs must be open to mapping out what change needs to happen and in what order, based on the feedback they have from staff.
When culture is a headwind, things get held back and this is what you will see:
Blame and judgement
Frustration and anger
External bad behaviour
Work to get by
Limited or no accountability
When culture is a tailwind, this is what you will see:
Responsibility and accountability
Cross-functional dialogue and insight
Shared values and behaviours
Continuous learning and development
Leadership at many levels
Real reward and recognition for effort as much as results
It seems, on the surface, a compelling case for investing in culture, doesn’t it?
At the Dattner Group, we acknowledge First Nations people both here in Australia and around the world. We thank First Nations people for the countless millennia of teaching, caring, learning, leadership and culture, and we pay our deepest respects to the wisdom of Indigenous people and custom past, present and emerging.