Your values must be more than words

Published: 13/04/23

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Martin Tucker reflects on the importance of correctly promoting the appeal of working in local government  

Up and down the country, politicians are on the campaign trail attempting to win over voters in the hope of securing success in May's local elections.

Expect to hear all manner of pledges – whether it’s to fix potholes or, less likely, to freeze council tax.

In some cases, there will be the promise of a different kind of administration, from bringing greater prosperity by being a ‘business-friendly’ council to talking up ‘community-focused’ credentials.

In a roundabout way, this period has an impact on local government recruitment, particularly when you consider the people who are ultimately tasked with turning those promises into reality.

Some of the pledges you read and hear from parties during the election campaign will go on to influence and shape the future strategic visions developed with officers in local authority corporate plans. In many respects those documents are a shop window for prospective recruits to gauge what kind of organisation they’re applying to work for. 

There’s no doubt that from a recruitment and retention point of view these plans – and the many other forms of messaging that come from a council – have a bearing on an authority’s ability to attract and keep the best talent.

That’s why authenticity is so important in local government leadership. It’s not enough to simply describe yourself as a values-driven organisation – even if you truly believe that to be the case. You have to walk the walk.

t’s an issue that’s been explored by Professor Ranjay Gulati, an expert in leadership, strategy and organisational growth at Harvard. He highlights the gap between stating your values and actually embracing them and believes the biggest mistake leaders make is that they confuse making purposeful statements with being a purpose, or values, driven organisation.

Ultimately, he says, you’re judged by your actions: ‘Taking steps to embed purpose into your organisation’s DNA is what gets employees to buy into purpose statements. And when employees trust their leader to follow through on them? That’s when purpose really comes alive.’

In that sense, it’s a win-win. You attract talented people who are genuinely engaged in what you’re trying to achieve from day one and therefore your chances of success – in whatever endeavour – are enhanced.

Don’t for a minute imagine this is some kind of abstract theory. It’s a crucial part of understanding and capitalising on one of local government’s strengths. 

Councils are an ideal vehicle for espousing values, putting them into practice and seeing tangible impact on the ground. They can boost economies, physically change local areas and help to transform people’s lives. In the process, they make themselves an appealing employment destination for those looking for a meaningful vocation.

It has been well documented that those coming into the workplace for the first time are increasingly taking a more holistic view of an employer’s offer that stretches far wider than simply the salary and pension benefits. They want to know what kind of organisation they will be working for: what values and behaviours does it embrace, how does it support staff development and wellbeing?  

We all know that, for a whole host of reasons, the recruitment market is incredibly competitive, and this is where local government has an opportunity to stand out from the crowd. But much like the undecided voter who’s sceptical of the promises made by politicians canvassing on the doorstep, the best job candidates will often need to be convinced that your organisation’s values and mission are more than just words.

As Prof Gulati says: ‘Ultimately, the purpose statement is just a starting point – what matters is what you do with it. That means asking ourselves how the principles behind our organisation’s stated purpose actually translate to the organisation. If you are committed to serving your city’s most underserved communities, how is your organisation engaging with those communities?’

I wonder whether those of us who work with and in local authorities always remember that they can be such shining examples of purpose driven organisations, particularly compared to other sectors of the economy. It’s something not to lose sight of when you are putting together your next recruitment campaign. 

Martin Tucker is managing director of Faerfield.

First published in the MJ on 13 April 2023


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