The adage 'strength through adversity' might easily be applied to Blackpool Council. In order to make savings it had lost almost 40 senior managers over the last three years as part of a 30% cut in the authority's workforce. It is now a much smaller organisation at a time when the demands on council services are growing. A critical question for councils such as Blackpool, is how do they motivate and support staff to 'do more with less' and to embrace changes across the organisation?
Blackpool Council has long regarded itself as a learning organisation. Consistent with its aspirations, and in an effort to make improvements and try out new ideas, it had undergone five peer reviews in the past four years. This philosophy led to it commissioning a new leadership development programme designed to develop skills, empower and engage staff, and unite them around a common set of values. The programme was based on Real World Group's (RWG) evidence-based model of Engaging Leadership, and was run by RWG and North West Employers Organisation. What set the programme apart, is that it involved elected members and 'aspiring leaders' in more junior roles, as well as the corporate leadership team, and the second tier of senior leaders.
Deputy Chief Executive Carmel McKeogh, explained: 'We have taken a high number of senior managers out and you can't do that without thinking about how you support those who are left. The demands increase and the pressures we are under as an organisation, and as a town, are huge. We need to make sure all of our leaders have a common purpose and understanding of what we are trying to achieve. That's why we identified the council's values. They were developed by the staff because across the workforce people have very different roles, and it can be difficult for people to see how they fit in sometimes– the values have been key to drawing the workforce together.'
Participants took part in a range of activities, from techniques for building resilience within their own teams, to using the evidence-based Real World Group TLQ 360-degree tool which assesses important 'engaging leadership' behaviours, to enable leaders to receive feedback from all colleagues with whom they work, in order to gauge their strengths and development needs.
The programme provided less senior leaders than is typical with increased exposure to elected members, and enabled them to have greater insight into how they work and their role within the council. The Corporate Team and Heads of Service also undertook 360-degree feedback using the TLQ, and received individual feedback. They also participated in group feedback workshops to increase shared learning across teams.
More unusually for an organisation of this type, and a reflection of the genuine commitment of the leader, Councillor Simon Blackburn, to embrace learning, he and his executive [Cabinet] also participated in 360-degree feedback. They utilised a tailored version of 'engaging leadership' – Real World Group's 'iGovernance 360', which is specifically designed for elected member roles in guiding the council forward in collaboration with senior managers.
To embed the new skills throughout the Council, innovative workshops were run to enable leaders to put them into practise in real-life scenarios with members of the community, colleagues they wouldn't normally interact with, and partner organisations.
A range of people from the Council were also trained in how to administer Real World Group's 360-degree feedback tools to increase internal capacity and reduce dependence on external consultants to help deliver ongoing change.
Feedback from individuals on the leadership programme was overwhelmingly positive. A survey undertaken after the programme found three-quarters of the participants believed that changes in leadership approach adopted by the council, had empowered them to take more of a lead role and 73% felt more supported.
Participants also made a range of comments in focus groups around the ways in which the programme recognised their needs as leaders in today's more austere times, lifted morale, increased a sense of shared culture, as well as leading to more collaborative working.
'We are still a learning organisation and committed to making Blackpool Council a great place to work despite the budget pressures,' says Ms McKeogh. 'The organisation is very different from the one it used to be. There's much more engagement with the staff, and managers are much more involved and closer to their teams.
'The message we were trying to get across to our managers is, you can come in, just do your job and go home, or recognise that you are in a privileged position and do even more.'
Based on the success that the Corporate Leadership team has achieved in large part through this programme, they won the award in the category of "Leadership" at the Regional Excellence Awards at the end of 2015.