Navigating your first 10 months as a regional CEO

A quick Google search will give you a range of lists to consider in your first ten months in office, and much of the information will ring true. But it may also be confusing and, at times, irrelevant to the unique context of leadership in regional councils, writes Fabian Dattner.

Fabian Dattner

Here are three tips that aren’t often considered:

1.You can’t run a council alone

That might seem like stating the obvious.

In regional councils, however, this is more true than most CEOs or GMs might realise. If it is your first gig in a council, chances are you came from another industry or functional leadership role.

In a functional leadership role, you have a hierarchy of decision-making and delegation. Your role was likely quite clear. Once you become the CEO or GM, while you have more power than ever before, it is, ironically, harder to exercise.

Questions to ask yourself:

– Who are my critical stakeholders? Administrator, councillors, executive leadership team, senior leadership team, team leaders, staff, community, media… Prioritise these stakeholders; you only have so much energy in the first three to six months. Focus your energy.

  • Who of these can help you lead? This is a very particular question for regional councils. If you are taking on a problem council, it is likely you won’t have some or any of the following: ELT, SLT, budget, Councillors or community engagement required for the road ahead.
  • If there‘s no executive or senior leadership, how do you build a team of people who care and are reasonably adaptable? Remember you cannot run the council alone; you are not the source of all the solutions. Ask yourself who can help – skill and will – and how quickly and effectively can you marshal them. Good people are everywhere.

Think of yourself as a conductor. You are starting with a quartet, not the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. The quartet can (and in our experience often is) best selected from a bank of representatives from across the organisation. They don’t replace executive leadership but they can be a significant help.

Read the Armidale Regional Council case study to see the results of this approach with their OPARC group.

2.For the first six to eight weeks, listen deeply

Listening is a skill. Deep listening is an art. As a CEO or GM, this is likely the first advice you will get. In regional councils, it is critical and will be an incredible resource for you. Sometimes your best source of insight is the wisdom of the crowd. Informal chats around the organisation, whilst important, are wildly insufficient to inform your planning.

Use a third party if you can, in partnership with your own conversations.

Third-party listening says a lot to the community you are going to lead. Staff who might be anxious or uncomfortable about yet another leader may feel genuinely unsafe giving feedback but will feel safer, and more respected with a third party like an external consultant or coach.

Qualitative (rather than quantitative) research is incredibly valuable. It should capture the voices of people and the stories they are telling themselves about what it takes to be successful in the organisation.

The key to research at this stage is that stories are reviewed for qualitative patterns, not quantitative data. It helps you (and your key team for leading the organisation) prioritise based on many voices rather than a few.

This is the wisdom of the crowd. Led this way, internal communities feel heard, and the journey of engagement begins.

3.Know yourself to know others

Whatever you haven’t dealt with in your own story will shift from a crack to a canyon in the top role. 

There will be far more stress than you anticipated and understanding what is most likely to affect you is crucial. Your lack of awareness will create anxiety and fear, and you may only hear what people want you to hear (which amplifies confirmation bias). Your authenticity, curiosity, and willingness to take feedback will amplify safety, vulnerability, and trust.

Most important of all, know the triggers that propel you to respond in less than constructive ways when communicating with or managing others.

If you haven’t done any development work, it’s a fine starting point.

*Fabian Dattner is CEO at leadership consultants Dattner Group.

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