Hastings District Council chief executive Ross McLeod talks with Ruth Le Pla about mental cogs, going ‘glocal’ and why councils need new ways of working with their communities.
Ross McLeod could write this whole magazine standing on his head, eating a banana and gazing nonchalantly into the horizon. He’d never say that, of course. But he’s schooled to the max in the ways of local government and has a study track record as long and distant as a New Zealand horizon to prove it.
The chief executive of Hastings District Council says simply that it’s been “useful, logical and stimulating” to do all this professional development.
Even so, the rhythm of his language belies his passion for the topic, often switching gear to an excited stream of consciousness when he talks about his studies.
When I tell him I’ve yet to meet another local government CE with such a large and sustained body of learning he says he’s been motivated by several drivers over the years.
Besides keeping the mental cogs ticking over, all this professional development has helped him cycle through the various stages of a long career in the sector. And he’s been strategic enough to see what’s needed next.
“Early in your career,” he says, “particularly when you’re trying to build skills and tools that you can use in your work… and I did a diploma in local government and public administration when I’d only been in the sector for a couple of years… it’s good to take the opportunity to learn about some of the workplace frameworks and the tools involved.
“Then with the Masters of Public Management at Victoria I was getting into senior management roles at that stage and really wanting to build skills and analytic frameworks in things that I thought would be useful – and were useful – as I was growing into new roles and challenges.”
Even back in his whippersnapper days, a student version of today’s Ross McLeod was burying his nose in political studies at Auckland University. He’s since slipstreamed into studying local government, administration and public management in a dizzying series of leaps also spanning Victoria University’s School of Government and, later, a Master in Public Administration at Harvard University’s prestigious John F Kennedy School of Government.
For this latest bout of study, his whole family upped sticks to live in Boston for a year. So there he was at Harvard spotting the global trends that would likely have some kind of impact in Hastings in particular and New Zealand as a whole. It was a real kind of ‘glocal’ (global localism) thinking in action.
And while he acknowledges many of these global reverberations are much smaller in our part of the world he can also see the huge impact some may have on local communities here.
Living in an apartment complex in Boston, for example, his family saw UPS vans making daily product deliveries as internet shopping continued to eat away at traditional high street retailing. And he could see how urban centres were responding by transforming themselves to focus more on services such as restaurants, bars, banks, key cutting and shoe repairs – “the things you need to go to locally”.
For Ross, a big plus point at the Kennedy School was a smorgasbord of 250 or so study subjects from which he could choose.
“And you could also pick from courses right across the Harvard Graduate Schools – the business school, the law school, the education school – and you could cross credit automatically with MIT,” he says.
So clearly there was no excuse for not getting exactly what he wanted from his time at Harvard. Ross zoomed in on the courses providing context for the challenges and opportunities local communities are likely to encounter.
“For example, I did a course on the impact of the internet on government and government institutions and how that’s evolving,” he says. “Another one was on geopolitical context changes and what the rise of China means and what’s happening in that international relations space. Another was on inequality and underlying issues with that.
“So there was a real chance to look at what communities are going to face and how, perhaps, you could go about helping them meet those challenges.”
More specifically still, he was interested in delving into the sorts of leadership approaches and skills that will be most useful as we all gear up for new ways of thinking and behaving.
The cogs in Ross’ mind were whirring around looking at alternatives to authoritative leadership. This traditional approach works well when organisations are handling familiar challenges such as building a bridge and the boss’ main job is to organise resources. In that case, pretty much everyone knows, and agrees on, what needs to be done.
“Some of the research approaches don’t even call that leadership,” he says. “They see it as someone exercising the authority of their position to get something done.”
But what happens, say, when organisations and whole communities find they’re in a different world where the rules, behaviours and drivers are now radically different and there is no clear path ahead? What if people can’t quite fathom what the desired outcome or result should be? How to lead and manage then?
In those cases, Ross says he draws inspiration from Harvard Kennedy School’s Ronald Heifetz whose work on what he calls adaptive leadership challenges people to look deep into their own values and beliefs.
“So, at a societal level, for example, are we going to be able to address issues like climate change by just carrying on the way we are, hoping for a technical fix? Or are we going to have to look at changing our behaviours or values when they come into conflict?”
Ross believes people can, with practice, consciously decide to change their style of leadership.
“So often,” he says, “we default to a certain style without thinking about what we’re trying to achieve or what the outcome is that we want and what changes need to happen for us to do that. If you take the time to try and observe what’s going on, diagnose the specific challenge and what you need to achieve, you can pick your leadership style or leadership intervention to do that.”
He says he’d like to think he has a “more situational” approach to leadership. Even so, he says, this is easier said than done. “You have to look at what presses your own buttons and try and manage your defaults.”
Ross makes it clear he hasn’t come back from Harvard armed with a whole new grand plan. That, in any case, would be the role of elected representatives rather than the executive. He does concede, however, that he may have returned with sharpened antennae and a greater ability to join the dots between wide-sweeping changes and local nuances.
“To me, leadership is very much about how you can be most effective in the context that you, your community and your institution are in. Those are the sorts of things that interest me,” he says. “And having the year away was a chance to think in a structured way about how you interpret context, and position your community and your institution for the best.”
He laughs when he says that Hastings District Council is “between two bar stools – to use what is probably an inappropriate analogy”.
“There’s still a demand for business as usual. People still expect us to look after the water, roads, rates and rubbish. All those things are seen as fundamental underpinnings to a successful community. But you get judged on them when they’re not working and they’re only enough to get a pass score.
“So it’s about the things on top of that. What is going to drive success for your community? And some of those things are new and require different ways of thinking and different ways of working with communities.”
All of which means there’s an element of leadership in getting an organisation and the individuals working in it to keep delivering business as usual while at the same time scouting the horizons for new opportunities and new ways of behaving. As Ross says, “We’ve been trying to deliver all the normal things plus quietly change the way our community works.”
No wet dogs
As Ross McLeod headed out the door at the Harvard Kennedy School last year he was told not to be a wet dog. There was to be no rolling puppy-style in the nearest puddle with his newfound insights gained from his year-long studies into public administration.
This is regular advice for all recent graduates who can sometimes otherwise be tempted to shake their new knowledge over colleagues back home in an unwelcome manner.
The Hastings District Council chief executive says this was good guidance. “We were told we’d been puppies rolling in all this new stuff,” he laughs. “So don’t go and shake it all over everybody on the first day.”
In any case, Ross reckons his council is fundamentally on the right path. “We’re trying to work with people where they’re at to make the changes the community needs to make, or to get support for projects or initiatives that we think are needed.
“So I haven’t come back and said, ‘boy, that really needs to change’.”
BEING ROSS MCLEOD
Hastings District Council 2008 – Present
Director of Corporate and Civic Services & other roles
Waitakere City Council
1992 – 2008
Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government
Master in Public Administration
2014 – 2015
School of Government, Victoria University of Wellington
Master of Public Management
2000 – 2003
University of Auckland
Diploma in Local Government and Administration
1994 – 1995
University of Auckland
BA, Political Studies
1988 – 1991
This article was first published in the May 2016 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.