Thurrock Council - An Interim Manager's Perspective

31 March 2010

This was Malcolm’s first interim assignment and he came to it fresh from Bedfordshire County Council where he was Director of Children’s Services from 2004 to 2009.  With the introduction of unitary councils across Bedfordshire in April 2009, the county council was dissolved.   OdgersInterim, with whom Malcolm had enjoyed a long standing commercial relationship, took advantage of this natural break by approaching him with the Thurrock assignment in mind.

The job was for six months to fill the gap left by the previous director who’d moved on to another authority.  Malcolm was obviously well-placed to step in, but was it simply a question of holding the fort?  Yes, says Malcolm, but also of continuing to drive improvement, particularly in education, and of taking an active part in the corporate improvement programme.  Thurrock had had a poor CPA judgement and was keen to show it was able to move on from that and make progress.

Malcolm set about the task by producing his own diagnosis of what was required and what he could deliver and he then agreed this with the council’s chief executive.  Three months into the job he subjected this document to his own mid-term review.  He outlined clear and measurable targets.  These included developing a strategic partnership with schools and head teachers; a clear vision on educational standards; strengthening financial controls and management; introducing a more robust performance management system and supporting the Building Schools for the Future programme. 

To translate those goals into action Malcolm met the headteachers as a group as early in the assignment as possible.  Thurrock council is small, it serves a population of 160,000 and is responsible for just 54 schools.  Within the first few weeks Malcolm visited around 50% of them.

Size may matter in terms of making an assignment more manageable, but it doesn’t affect the fundamental challenges faced by any interim manager.  For Malcolm it’s about finding the balance between bringing in the immediate changes required to produce improvements, whilst not re-creating the service and department in one’s own image.  He says he constantly asked himself, “Why am I changing it?  Will not changing it impede progress?  Or am I demanding change because that’s the way I like things done?”

He thinks the other challenge and responsibility of an interim manager is to minimize the sense of hiatus.  “Once a permanent appointment is made, you can feel authority ebbing away.  But it’s crucial to carry on delivering right till the last day of the assignment”, In Thurrock the name of the substantive director was known within three months but if  he’d  just allowed himself, in his words, “to keep the sea warm”, he would have compromised the job for almost half its length, he believes.  Instead he made sure he worked closely with the incoming director and stayed effective.

Malcolm’s qualifications for the job were obvious and he thinks it was an advantage for the client that OdgersInterim could supply an experienced manager who was able to hit the ground running.  He had turned round a poorly performing council in Bedfordshire, so as he says, “a lot of the journey was familiar to me.  I was on familiar terrain in corporate improvement”. 

What was Odgers input to this assignment?  Malcolm says his consultants were very supportive, he had regular contact with them and they came to seem him two or three times as the job went on to make sure everything was going smoothly.

He thoroughly enjoyed the assignment and felt Thurrock gave him a lot of support and permission to make changes, not least because, he says, the chief executive wanted to see momentum towards improvement maintained.  The feedback at the end of the job was excellent and he thinks the chief executive was genuinely pleased with the outcome.  He left the council with the tools for better financial reporting and a more effective performance management system.


Categories: Local Government

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