Councils, especially those in outer-urban areas, admit they’re hard pressed to compete with other organisations when it comes to enticing staff with high salaries. So what are they doing to attract and retain talent, and keep their workforce engaged?
That’s the question explored in a recent webinar hosted by leadership consultants Dattner Group, which heard from four regional Victorian and NSW councils who say they’ve managed to turn the tide in their favour.
‘No dickheads’ policy
Armidale Regional Council’s general manager James Roncon’s approach is straight down the line.
He says attracting and retaining staff are key challenges for all rural and regional councils. “We can’t be market leaders when it comes to salaries and wages, so we need another point of difference,” he says.
For Armidale, that’s a clear focus on culture underpinned by values-based leadership.
That, and “a very strong focus .. on a no dickheads policy,” he adds.
Roncon took over a dysfunctional operation when he became GM in 2021. Council had been at war with the community, executives were at war with staff, and councillors were at war with the executive. Council was suspended in 2020, and workers were “disengaged and deeply wounded”.
Today, he’s proud to say he’s part of a highly engaged and motivated workplace that has to ‘beat job applicants away with a stick’.
Listening, engagement, and ensuring the whole staff was involved in creating the path forward was what turned things around, he says.
The journey began with a comprehensive culture audit followed by the creation of a strategy map involving groups of staff. That was followed by a ‘world café’ in which the entire workforce was engaged via zoom meetings to provide feedback and input and agree on a direction for the organisation to “live and die with”.
The strategy has now been adopted by all staff, and councillors are also inducted into it.
Roncon says the organisation has also adopted the principle that expertise is secondary to the ability to grow, learn, and fit in with the culture.
If you’re 80 per cent suitable for the job with the capacity to grow through investment and training, we’ll take you on, as opposed to somebody who’s 100 per cent technically efficient but a terrible human being who will tear your culture apart.James Roncon
“We work on a simple principle,” he said. “If you’re 80 per cent suitable for the job with the capacity to grow through investment and training, we’ll take you on, as opposed to somebody who’s 100 per cent technically efficient but a terrible human being who will tear your culture apart.”
The proof has been in the pudding, Roncon says, with a significant uptick in high quality applicants and and staff who take pride in working for the council.
“People wouldn’t go out in public if you looked like a council employee with a uniform or a lanyard on that branded where you were from, for fear of ridicule and being abused,” he says.
“Now we’re actually beating people away with a stick. It’s been a massive and significant turnaround over two years.”
Happy community, happy council
Broken Hill GM Jay Nankivell says his organisation prioritises professional and leadership development, especially for women, as well as building connections between workers – and even the families of workers – with an emphasis on flexibility.
Like Roncon, he says employees should be taken onboard not just for their technical expertise, but their potential as future leaders.
Broken Hill undertook its cultural change program in 2018, with a focus on a concrete set of values based on “what the staff actually believed in, rather than a marketing campaign that no one understood”.
“Bottom up, every single person went through the program to say what was important to them in their work and family life and what they wanted to get from work every day,” he said.
It works both ways, he adds. It’s also made clear to new employees that if they want to join the organisation, they are expected to align with those values.
A clear message was that staff valued flexibility. Nankivell says workplaces have to get rid of the nine to five mentality and show they understand the value of giving staff time for family and recreation.
Like Roncon, he looks for people with the right cultural fit.
“More important than having the right technical skills our leaders need to be constructive and need to develop teams below them for future succession and have the organisational fit,” he says. “You can train the tech skills, you can gain the qualifications, but you can’t turn around an individual who doesn’t have the right values to fit in.”
When the community is happier with council, rather than continuously bagging you out, you have more opportunity to recruit within the community, and staff are happier because they’re not getting continuous negative feedback.Jay Nankivell
And organisations shouldn’t be afraid of encouraging staff who don’t fit to move on.
“It’s no longer just let them go through and put up with it,” he says. “If people aren’t performing ,or aren’t the right fit, leaders need to be able to make the tough decisions.
“We took the approach of helping staff that didn’t align with the organisation to transition out of the organisation to somewhere else where they were more valued and aligned.”
Today, staff members are no longer embarrassed to say they work for council, but instead act as its best advocates.
“They’re promoting to come and work for council, and having that positive relationship means we are able to actually bring a lot of locals back wanting to work for city council, whereas it once wasn’t the ideal employer of choice.”
It’s also important for council to foster a good relationship with the community.
“When the community is happier with council rather than continuously bagging you out you have more opportunity to recruit within the community, and staff are happier because they’re not getting continuous negative feedback.”
Tapping into the value proposition
Toni Lyon is Coordinator Organisation Development at City of Greater Bendigo. She says it’s essential to invest in change management, training and development, equity and inclusion, and succession planning if councils want to attract and retain quality staff.
Communication is also invaluable, and Bendigo uses newsletters and staff induction to get the message across that the organisation is committed to learning, development, job satisfaction, flexibility and staff support.
The council also employs two change managers, has a champion system, invests in leadership training and has in place a strong trainee and apprenticeship program.
Nearly 60 people have been through the program in the last five years and two thirds of those have continued with council.
“We’re working really hard to embed capability through a framework that’s clear around expectations and how we do things, and there’s a big commitment to diverstity, equity and inclusion with lots of learning opportunities,” Lyon says.
We get to make a difference every day in the community, and most people who work for us are really committed to that.Toni Lyon
She says it’s also important to tap into the thing that every employee wants – a sense of purpose.
“We get to make a difference every day in the community, and most people who work for us are really committed to that,” she says.
“We’ve been told it kind of outweighs the fact we can’t compete in salary anymore. It’s become, particularly with younger generations, what is the value proposition? What matters to people? Why do they want to do the work they do?
“I think local government is a great level to tap into that.”
Listening to stories
CEO Kerryn Ellis has overseen three-and-a-half years of transformation at South Gippsland Council – another once-troubled organisation that by March 2020 had been through some four years of dysfunction and bad behaviour by elected officers.
It ended with Council being sacked and taking the then CEO down with them.
There had been a breakdown of trust between community and council, Ellis says, and many capable staff had been damaged by the experience, as well as a historical lack of investment in leadership.
After Ellis took over, the healing began by letting traumatised staff tell their stories, and by listening to them.
Since then, there’s been a shift from a culture of blame to a culture of trust and support.
“If people have got leaders that have confidence in them, trust them and are willing to grow them its remarkable what staff can actually do,” she says.
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