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Craig Stevenson: On how to get and keep happy staff

South Taranaki District Council is known for its strong organisational culture and has got the gongs to prove it. Craig Stevenson tells Ruth Le Pla how he focuses on training, pushes staff to respond fast and what it’s like to have worked his way up from the rubbish trucks.

South Taranaki District Council’s chief executive Craig Stevenson would have to change some of his management practices if I worked for him. Not that he’s offered me a job, of course. It’s just that he has this idea of holding open-door sessions for any staff member first thing in the morning at work. And I’d be rocking up there every day just for a good old chat.

I’ve thought a lot about how to describe him and I’ve settled on affable. He’s very easy to talk to. At least he was when we spoke in Wellington recently. That’s all the more impressive given that we were both boggle-eyed with tiredness at the end of a day in which we’d travelled from our respective parts of the country, weathered back-to-back meetings and a press conference, and just emerged from a four-hour, 11-person-presentation session on royalties.

He says he’s not well prepared for our chat. But I’d caught him in one of the tea breaks asking my previous interviewee, Tararua District Council chief executive Blair King, for tips on being profiled by me. And, anyway, we both know the big topic is employment stuff because that’s what other councils travel to South Taranaki District Council to check out.

Stevenson’s region may be naturally blessed with the black and white gold of oil / gas and dairying. But he’s been able to add on the man-made blessing of a strong organisational culture and that – as any public or private sector leader knows – is priceless.

The proof lies in the consistently strong ratings the council enjoys in the nationwide IBM Kenexa Best Workplaces programme. New Zealand’s largest employee climate survey, the programme lets people working in public, private and non-profit organisations secretly spill the beans on what it’s really like to work where they do.

Last year 39,000 employees across nearly 300 organisations laid it on the line. Results are categorised by the size of the employer, which means South Taranaki District Council goes toe-to-toe with large – and presumably much better resourced – private sector employers.

“Our claim to fame,” says Stevenson, “is that we’ve made the final top 10 in our category for the past five consecutive years.”

Stevenson’s a bit bashful about his council being seen as a role model. “We pride ourselves on being reasonably humble about this,” he says, which in a jumbled kind of way sums it up quite well.

Every year two or three councils plus other organisations – which have included NZ Police, and gas and electricity giant Powerco – trek off to South Taranaki to pick up clues on how to get, and keep, happy staff.

“These organisations come along and ask why our people are so engaged,” Stevenson says. “And we say staff engagement is a by-product of an organisational culture so we work on that rather than on engagement as such.”

It’s hard to define organisational culture without sounding like a robot reading from an employment manual. Still, Stevenson makes a decent fist of it by saying South Taranaki’s organisational vision is to be “New Zealand’s most can-do council”. This, he says, sets up a clear expectation of what his council expects staff to strive for.

“Too many councils are too cumbersome, bureaucratic and slow,” he says. “There are still too many people within our sector who, it seems, are looking for reasons not to do stuff. As a sector we need to be far more nimble.” In practice, this means Stevenson encourages his people to jump-to, be prepared to think and act differently and take the odd risk. And he backs them if their good efforts are misconstrued.

Not surprisingly, one of the side-benefits of the Kenexa seal of approval is it’s easier to get, and hold on to, good staff. Stevenson says his council typically runs single-digit turnover rates, and in recent years has doubled – and in some cases tripled – the number of people applying for most jobs it advertises.

“I used to get 10 or 12 applicants for a group manager’s role: now we get 25 or 30,” he says. “And we received 98 applications for the last contact centre position we advertised.”

In the wonkish world of employment-speak it’s actually the inverse measurement of staff engagement that pleases Stevenson most. He says he’s most satisfied with the low number of disengaged people at his council.

Currently just 2.9 percent of staff are “statistically disengaged” he says, which in a council of his size means that’s just four people and I can’t help thinking he must know exactly who they are.

Stevenson contrasts this with the average 16.1 percent of total local government sector staff found to be statistically disengaged over the past two years: which, no matter how you look at it, sounds like a worryingly large number of people.

A key plus-point for South Taranaki District Council staff is a learning and development scheme which sees every single person benefiting from eight core training modules. For selected staff there’s also a comprehensive three-tier leadership development programme. These days accredited in-house trainers deliver most of the teaching which, Stevenson says, goes down a treat as most staff members particularly like learning from council’s own people.

Still, Stevenson’s keen to dispel the idea he holds on to staff because they get an easy ride. “People from within the sector, residents and even some of my elected members are quite suspicious of the engagement levels we’ve been able to maintain,” he says. “And I’m often asked whether we are paying too much, have overly-generous terms and conditions, or are spoiling staff in other ways.”

The reverse, he says, is true and staff often get a harder deal than their counterparts around the country. (For more on this see box story “Doing it tough”.)

Stevenson knows all about doing it tough himself. He started his 38-year local government career working on a council rubbish truck in the Naki. As a 17-year-old with lots of energy to burn, he says he learnt a lot of bad habits, took up smoking “and all the other things that go with working with a bunch of hard-bitten labourers” and “got to the end of the year with no money, a magnificent Norton Commando and a whole lot of other assets that I’d wasted my money on”.

He headed off to Palmerston North, got a job in the local council’s treasury department and entered the “Gliding On” world of walk shorts, cardigans and cash accounting. It was a far cry from today’s local government sector, he says, and lagging public perceptions of the huge changes since then appear to rankle.

In any case, it’s true that the Stevenson apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. His father was Hawera Borough Council town clerk. “Even though I didn’t realise it at the time, that had a significant impact on my values and public service ethic that I’ve developed over the years,” he says.

Stevenson believes local government remains full of people who “have a genuine passion for what they’re doing, are very hard-working and totally committed to serving their local communities”.

His Mum, now 81, remains “an avid local government fan who probably knows more about the sector and who’s where than half the people who work in it,” he says.

“She was very proud when I got into the sector.”

This article was first published in the October 2014 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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