Merton Council - An Interim Manager’s Perspective

30 March 2010

Merton was the fourth authority in which Sarah had worked as a corporate director, and the second in which she’d worked as an interim. She cut the cord of permanent employment six or seven years ago because she wanted time in the year to pursue interests outside work, but that doesn’t mean she sees the interim as a “steady as she goes” role.  In her experience interims often come in at a time of great change and in her view it’s their job to take on that change and to move an organisation forward.

After an initial assignment at Merton as Head of Sustainable Communities, Sarah took on the job of Director of Environment and Regeneration for six months from January to July 2009.  She describes the job as having four parts: firstly, the straightforward management of a team of 750 people with a budget of around 50 million pounds; secondly, ensuring specific frontline services were running efficiently and improving; thirdly, developing strategy, and finally, dealing with specific transitional issues that as she puts it, “came with the interim nature of the job”.

She says that many people wouldn’t choose the environment job, but she enjoys it precisely because of this range. “At one moment I’m developing long term strategy for the future of the town centre and the next I’m talking about health and safety issues for gravediggers. But that’s how it should be for the people on the ground. They want their town to work today and in the foreseeable future”.

What were the targets for the assignment?  Sarah went in as director with five key headlines which the council’s chief executive, Ged Curran, discussed and agreed with her.  Chief amongst these was to get the draft core strategy approved by cabinet.  Sarah describes this as an intensely political process with a big and small ‘P’ and it was taking place in a world still reeling from the shock of the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

As far as Sarah was concerned, the changed global situation demanded a new paradigm for regeneration and place making, because the discussion about economic development and what it meant for this south London borough suddenly threw up radically different issues:  how do you make your community resilient so that it can survive economic shock? How do you move away from dependence on oil and gas and other finite resources? She believes the ability to say to an authority grappling with such questions, “I don’t want to go with your conventional thinking”, is an important part of an interim manager’s job.

This aspect of the assignment meant that Sarah was also constantly talking to council members.  She helped them, in her words, to think beyond short-term electoral horizons as the draft core strategy went on its journey through cabinet to approval, but management issues as well as policy objectives were also a very big part of her six months as director. When she joined the department there was a team of five senior managers running it and only one of them – herself – was temporary.  Within the space of six weeks the team had lost one member to redundancy and two others had gone to new jobs. Sarah describes this as “enormously destabilizing” for the staff and a situation in which she had to show leadership in order to help the department maintain some level of continuity. As an interim there are some parts of the job in which, she says, she tries to keep a fairly low profile, but with that level of insecurity and instability, this wasn’t the time to take a back seat. There was too much at stake: she had to start the process of working out the department’s budget for 2010/2011 against the backdrop of a transformational process which the whole council was undergoing, and which had to be factored in to any budget calculations.  “I had to manage continuity whilst promoting change, and this was a challenge”, says Sarah.

If this was one of the most testing parts of this interim assignment, what were the others?  Sarah singles out two more: the waste development plan which involved intense and time consuming discussions with two other boroughs, and the snowfall of February 2009.

She had only been in the job for three weeks when the surprise blanket of snow descended and admits that her first question when she got into work on that Monday morning was, “what are our plans for gritting the roads?”. The situation required immediate action not just from the gritting teams but from management too.  “It was an occasion when it was important that you were being seen to be the leader”. She instantly rang the press office and got them to put something up on the website.  Over the next few days the priority was to get the rubbish collected and to keep up the recycling. Sarah describes the teams out doing the work as fantastic, but she learnt a lot too and was able to incorporate some of those lessons into arrangements for winter 2009/2010 with the result that Merton was well-stocked for salt, and for the second time was the first borough in London to get waste collection back to normal.

What are the skills and experience which underpinned this undoubtedly successful assignment? Sarah thinks she’s suited to being an interim because she learns fast, she brings a lot of energy to the job and she has a good breadth of experience in the field. All this enabled her to facilitate the handover to the permanent director who was appointed in mid-April, roughly halfway through her contract.  This transition and the recruitment of staff were two of the other key headlines she’d agreed with Ged Curran, and she made sure she met and talked to the incoming director regularly and also lined up staff to meet him.

What does Sarah have to say about OdgersInterim? She values their skills as an intermediary, particularly in getting the money and contract sorted out, and in managing the cash flow. Their network of contacts is valuable too, and she says, “Odgers is good at maintaining an air of exclusivity and excellence around the brand and this is useful for interims”.


Categories: Local Government

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