SOLGM asked Ruth Le Pla to go see for herself the New Zealand heats of the
Australasian Management Challenge. She came away exhausted and impressed.
When one team member quipped to me during a break that the Management Challenge is like the worst imaginable day at the office, he was only half joking. The Australasian Management Challenge simulates a super-charged council executive’s day on speed. It’s quick-fired and unpredictable. Teams of six to eight mid-tier council officers battle through a series of tasks that would test the mettle of far more experienced local government leaders. That’s the whole point.
For years, teams have typically come from a cluster of councils centred around the Hawkes Bay / Bay of Plenty region. Their strength stems from learning from each other. The pool has gradually widened over recent years to include contestants from more far-flung areas. This year, Christchurch City Council’s ‘Rock Stars’ team, for example, fronted up for the pre-match evening function in magnificent red wigs.
On the main day, team members don’t know what they will have to do, how fast or to what degree of detail. They’re observed every step of the way and their written reports are scrutinised line-by-line over the following few days.
To make matters worse, some tasks overlap and conflict, scattering resources as teams subdivide into smaller units.
I’ve been invited to the Silverstream Retreat in the Hutt Valley to observe – and play a small part in – the first day of this year’s New Zealand heats. The winning team from the two-day event will go forward to represent Kiwi councils at the Australasian finals in August in Canberra.
This year, 15 Kiwi councils have entered teams. I’m working alongside the first eight of them. We’ve sworn not to divulge too many details about the exact mechanics of the day. That keeps any surprises fresh and alarming for the next cohort to tackle the challenge in years to come.
I can divulge, however, that tasks are meant to replicate the everyday lives of senior local government officers. And I’m grateful I don’t have too many days like that.
So, if that’s the worst bit, what’s the best? Well, when I talk with pretty much anyone during the challenge – and I’m given plenty of opportunities to do so – they all say how valuable the day is.
For starters, it’s a heap of fun. It’s high-energy, collaborative stuff that would – imagine this – make you want to go work for a council. Read that again. Slowly. I’ve never written such a sentence before.
Moving right along with the good stuff, team members look for the best potential in each other. Many teams sellotape up hand-made posters stating their values. They espouse supportive concepts like ‘work hard: be humble’, ‘there is something good in every day’ and ‘be the best version of you’.
But the best is hearing stories of how individuals have blossomed over the previous months spent preparing for the challenge. Mid-tier council officers who were once too timid to speak up are now up on their hind legs debating, presenting and sharing their views. Accounting geeks tell the funniest jokes. Comms people have learnt to count. Ok, now I’m getting carried away.
Chief facilitator (aka judge cum moderator) Glenn Snelgrove pushes the point that it costs just $5600 (plus GST) to register a team which equates to around $933 per participant and, as such, offers the best value-for-money training anywhere in local government. In fairness, many others echo this sentiment unprompted throughout the day.
And my small part in the proceedings? I got to role-play a pushy, testy journalist – a role that wasn’t too far removed from real life.
As Miranda’s mother would say, “Such fun”.
It’s the end of a long day. Contestants gather for a final group session and Glenn Snelgrove throws out a challenge of his own making. It’s nothing, and yet everything, to do with the day’s activities.
Glenn is chief facilitator, aka judge cum moderator, for the New Zealand leg of the Australasian Management Challenge. He’s been involved since 2011 and has been running the show this side of the Tasman for the past five years.
Glenn is the guy who makes sure due process is followed, teams are treated evenly and fairly, and in the following days gets stuck in marking the written material from the teams.
He challenges any young person thinking of local government as a career to face up to a critical step change.
“You have to start thinking of your customers, your ratepayers, in a very different way,” he urges. “You have to think about enriching their lives.
“Imagine I’m a customer waking up in the morning and council texts me saying there are roadworks on SH86, here’s an alternative route. That will enrich my life. It will stop me being in a road jam.”
He urges team members to think forward to 2030. “What we are doing today is not what communities will want in the future.
“Start thinking as though you’re the customer.
“Consultation is a statutory process: it’s not a community process,” he says. “The auditors make you tick boxes. Think outside the boxes.”
This is the fifth year in a row that Whakatane District Council has entered a team and Cashy’s third appearance: once as a team member and twice as a mentor. She’s council’s manager strategy and community development and last year won the Brookfield’s Emerging Leader of the Year Award at SOLGM’s big awards bash.
“This year’s team is a young, enthusiastic, energetic, bright bunch of people,” she tells me. “They’re innovative and they’ve got ideas. So, when we go back to work I’d like to look at how they can stay together as a team – either just them or working with the alumni.”
Like several other regular entrants to the challenge, Whakatane District Council has created an alumni group for previous contestants.
Cashy suggests there may be benefit in challenge contestants working as an ongoing sounding board or innovation team within council.
“A lot of them have only within the last year started working at council,” she says. “So, they bring a lot of knowledge and expertise from a non-local government perspective. We can only learn from that and the diversity that different people bring.”
Such moves could mean the challenge may not only benefit individuals and standalone councils but the sector as a whole. Let’s face it, local government doesn’t have a great rep for being young and innovative, energetic and exciting.
“But it can be,” says Cashy.
“In over 40 years in local government – and well over 20 of those years in senior management and leadership roles – this is the one programme I’ve seen that provides opportunities to expose people to what it’s like to be a leader in local government.”
So says Mike Maguire who has been involved in the management challenge in one way or another for some 12 years now. He mentored teams from Hastings District Council for around eight years and this time around bears a badge saying ‘observer’. As far as I can fathom, to all intents and purposes that means ‘judge’ but the titles are a little confusing sometimes.
Mike says most mid-tier council officers who take part in the challenge “come out the other end fit to be leaders”.
“They learn enough skills and personal development to be better at their jobs. They’ve seen more about the real problems in local government and have developed the skills to work across their organisation with people from different backgrounds and different discipline sets, and understand how to work together.
“If someone walked in the door and said, ‘what could I do to be better?’ I’d say, ‘get yourself on the Management Challenge’.”
This article was first published in the May 2018 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.