SOLGM has been running a programme for executive leaders for three years now. Ruth Le Pla asked Kathryn Ross, a member of its first ever cohort, what difference the programme has made to her skills and her career.
When Kathryn Ross applied to do SOLGM’s LG Executive Leaders Programme back in 2016 she was stepping into unknown territory. Kathryn was one of 14 participants selected from councils around the country to undertake SOLGM’s first-ever such initiative. At the time, Kathryn was GM strategic planning and policy at Far North District Council.
About a year after finishing the 11-month programme, she stepped into her current role as chief executive of Masterton District Council.
Three years on from the launch of the programme, another group of potential local government leaders will be lining up to start, in November, the long demanding haul. (See the box story Have you got what it takes?)
Training kicks off with a two-night / three-day residential placement in which group members come together to explore their operating context, the leadership required for the future and how they can develop individually and collectively.
Three one-day workshops will follow in February, May and September next year. These are designed to combine speakers and topics relevant to the particular group, with action- and brain-based learning and development.
All participants get two one-on-one coaching sessions by Skype or phone to agree personal goals. This can be followed by individual coaching every month, or every alternate month, if requested by a participant (although these additional coaching sessions are not included in the programme’s standard fee).
The programme finishes with a review.
This is all underpinned by personal learning organised by the individual, which could include secondments, acting roles, shadowing, site visits, courses, reading and job swaps. Participants will be strongly encouraged to create reflection habits as a learning tool.
Stepping through the door
Sounds exhausting and time-consuming? Kathryn admits she had some initial qualms about the amount of time she would be able to dedicate to such an endeavour. Those qualms faded within the first few days. On day three at Wallaceville, Upper Hutt, she realised that thoughts about what might be happening “back at the ranch” were no longer galloping through the back of her mind.
She was relaxed and focused on the time and effort she wanted to put into developing herself and her team.
“The bigger picture for me was to become a credible candidate for a local government CEO role,” she says. “I wanted to increase my self-awareness and identify areas for improvement. I needed to focus on how to get the best out of me and the people with whom I was working.”
Kathryn says she aimed to learn how to up her ability to read and understand others, “and therefore be more able to bring them with me and lead”. She wanted to stop being busy: to focus more on the people and the strategic issues of the business.
Looking back, she says she had also thought it was part of her role at council to help “fix” the senior management team.
She came away with all of that, and more, she says, although she realised that sorting out other people isn’t her role. Rather, she should focus on being the best member of a team that she could be.
She also went through the typical birthing process of many managers: grasping the notion that her strength will stem from being her authentic self rather than a cardboard cut-out of some imaginary “other” chief executive.
I wanted to increase my self-awareness and identify areas for improvement. I needed to focus on how to get the best out of me and the people with whom I was working.
Another aha moment was around the importance of followers. “Otherwise, you’re just a lone woman taking a walk.”
She also rediscovered the power of questions. “I realised my job isn’t about solving things but about creating the environment for other people to find their own answers.”
Along the way, Kathryn formed a clearer picture of her own strengths. “My ability to be strategic, use critical thinking, carry a high workload and be resilient meant I had to slow down, set the scene, frame things for people and chunk down information.
“I learnt I had to get their buy-in, so they understood where my brain had leapt to. That was quite important for me because sometimes I just didn’t get why people didn’t understand what I could see.”
Kathryn says she hadn’t expected the programme to give her insights into how mental, emotional and physical well-being inter-connect and feed each other.
“I remember learning how the brain likes movement. So, getting out and going for a walk or investing time in being calm and de-stressing increases your mood and patience and improves your decision-making and focus.
“It sounds so trite but being happy and looking after yourself allows you to also look after all the other important things.”
She also saw the value of sometimes stepping back instead of always pushing forward and keeping up the workload. “I realised I do need my mornings for some strategic thinking. I don’t need to respond to all the immediate, and often not urgent, demands.”
Kathryn commends the programme for its emphasis on brain-based science and learning, led by presenter and Continuum Consulting Group director Jennifer McDonald.
“There are lots of things you think you know but going through it in a structured way helps you to understand why people react as they do.”
Take, for example, the simple fight, flight or freeze reaction. “It’s important to understand that when people feel threatened you will get one of those three responses,” she says. “So, if you haven’t created a context where someone has trust and feels comfortable, you may well be setting up the conversation to fail.
“Or if you’re looking to take people on a change journey, they will already have made their decision about whether they’re even interested in listening to what you’ve got to say. People are so hard-wired to this.”
Most people in management or leadership positions will understand this, says Kathryn. “But having the idea put through this lens gives you another way of looking at how you lead.”
Take, too, learnings around attention and timing. “We all learnt that if you rushed some of the exercises – or did them late at night or under a bit of stress and pressure – you really didn’t do as well as you could have done.
“On one level, you already know that, but you think ‘I’ve got an hour at the end of the day, I’ll do it then’.”
Kathryn says that because programme participants had physical evidence – such as scores and marks for each piece of work – to back up this hunch, it became evident that working in that way was not productive.
Meanwhile back at the ranch
Back at the Far North District Council, Kathryn fronted up with a plan to deliberately tailor her delegations to others. She wanted to be able to focus more on the people and strategic issues where she knew she could add the most value.
Not long after completing the programme she was invited to step up into a new role as GM of the council’s infrastructure and asset management group.
“So, all the things I’d put in place in my strategic planning and policy role – the clear work programmes, the delegation to the right level, the coaching, all of that – allowed me to move from one group to leading a whole other group.
“I had real confidence that strategic planning and policy had the right people doing the right things. I also had confidence that I had some of the competencies for my new role and didn’t feel nervous about moving into an area for which I had no direct technical experience.”
Such a career move doubtless also played a part in Kathryn gaining her current appointment as chief executive of Masterton District Council.
Kathryn also points to more subtle long-term benefits from taking part in the Executive Leaders Programme. Three years on, she’s still in reasonably frequent contact with many others from her cohort and knows she’s part of a rock-solid network of council managers across the country that shares professional and personal advice. They catch up regularly at SOLGM events.
“We were all second-tier managers, when we started the programme,” she says. “I’m not sure that everyone came in thinking they wanted to be a CEO. A few came in looking at enhancing their leadership potential. It’s now a group of people that share their information and support very willingly.”
She also tells me about a “fantastic” exercise right at the start of the programme that got them all bonded, laughing and working together. But let’s leave some surprises for the next cohort.
This article was first published in the August 2019 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.