Heather Shotter has a strong corporate background including 12 years as part of the leadership team at SkyCity and more latterly as executive director of two not-for-profit organisations. Now she’s taken on the chief executive role at Palmerston North City Council. Management asked her how leading in the local government sector differed from a leadership role in the corporate sector.
Heather Shotter says that when the chief executive role at Palmerston North City Council came up, she was immediately interested. “The more I learned about the city, the more I realised it had been almost a well-kept secret. Economically, it has a blend of industries that gives it both a strong foundation and huge growth potential. It’s the unique mix of challenges and opportunities for Palmerston North which caught my attention.
“Meeting mayor Grant Smith and other council leaders was also a major factor in my decision to take up the opportunity. They have a bold vision for the future of the city and are prepared to think outside the box to make it happen – like recruiting a chief executive from beyond local government. I was brought up in Hawke’s Bay, and I believe in the potential of regional New Zealand.”
What convinced you local government was the place to be?
I’ve worked in commercial organisations, membership organisations and the charitable sector, and one thing they all had in common was engagement with local government.
Right now, local government is an exciting place to be, particularly in the regions, because it’s never been more important to the country as a whole. We see this in the focus that central government is rightly giving to regional development. Thriving regions will help address inequality, make our national economy more resilient, and open up new competitive opportunities.
There’s huge opportunity in the regions, as well as a lot of challenges.
What similarities are you finding between leading in the corporate sector and in a local government role?
Leading any large, multi-disciplinary organisation involves similarities. You have budget imperatives, reporting imperatives, and staff and culture imperatives. While your objectives and structures might be different between the private sector and government, people are people. They want to be empowered to succeed in their work, and they want to be recognised for being successful. In either kind of organisation, one of your primary roles as a leader is to create a culture and environment that unlocks the potential of your people and unites them in pursuit of your objectives.
Have you noticed any major differences in working within a local government role? I guess the Mayor and councillors are the equivalent of answering to a board, but you also have some very involved stakeholders in the ratepayers?
In many respects, working with a mayor and councillors is similar to working with a board, but there are certain differences. Councillors will come from very diverse backgrounds, and they’re representing their communities of interest. Their challenge is to work towards a consensus view and provide clear direction and oversight to the rest of the organisation.
Just like a board, a well-functioning team of councillors is critical to the performance of the organisation. We’re fortunate we have a mayor and councillors united behind a shared vision, and a robust 10 Year Plan. That’s a strong platform for council as a whole to operate from.
Our nearly 90,000 ratepayers are similar to shareholders. But whereas shareholders typically care about a few specific indicators of value, ratepayers all have differing sets of priorities. Some people look for job growth and increasing regional GDP. Some care more about the quality of libraries and sports facilities, while others value being part of a community that has vibrant arts, culture, nightlife and events. Now, these aren’t mutually exclusive – in fact, the opposite is true, they tend to reinforce each other. But it means we have to balance a very diverse set of objectives, compared with a company that is simply trying to turn a profit and grow.
That’s why have to ensure ratepayers are informed and involved in council strategy, particularly if we want to do something bold, or different. We’ve just completed our 10 Year Plan consultation cycle, and were pleased to win Local Government New Zealand’s Award for Excellence in Governance, Leadership and Strategy for the innovative approach we took to that process.
What has been the most challenging part of making this leadership transition?
When you move to a new organisation, I think it’s important to build credibility. You can’t pretend you’ve arrived with all the answers on day one. A new leader has to be curious, listening and asking questions of their teams, discovering what works and what doesn’t.
At the same time, you have to be prepared to challenge people’s thinking, and propose new ways of operating if you believe improvements can be made. But if you don’t take the time to listen and build credibility, you’ll not only risk missing important details, you’ll struggle to bring teams along with you as you implement change.
My other challenge is that it’s a very busy organisation, and a very busy role. I love the lifestyle that Palmerston North offers; the arts and creativity, outdoor living, and just the warmth of the city and the community. But I tend to get caught up in my work, so have to discipline myself to make the most of that work-life balance opportunity. I think it’s valuable for all leaders to do that, but especially in local government, where actively participating in the life of a city is an essential part of truly understanding and appreciating it.
What leadership skills, or traits, are easily transferable between the two – and what are not?
Most of the leadership principles that work in business, also work in local government.
It’s equally important to hire well, and ensure your teams are interconnected, not stuck in silos. Just as in business, a leader should create an organisational culture where clear expectations and objectives are set, and achievement is recognised. Investing in people and enabling them to grow and develop within the organisation adds value to a council as it does a company.
I used to say to teams I lead in business: “Make decisions as if you were spending your own money.” In local government, you are spending your own money – and your neighbours’.
Everyone I’ve met in local government is extremely conscious of this financial responsibility and accountability to ratepayers, as we should be. But one of the associated challenges that I believe we can work on across local government is that this tends to make us highly risk-averse. From a ratepayer perspective that could seem like a good thing. But the world is moving ever more rapidly and opportunities are swiftly lost, which means local government has to become more agile, more responsive. That can be challenging without making some adjustments to cultural attitudes towards risk and innovation. I think this is one of the perspectives I bring to the table, coming from a different background into this leadership role.
How good, in general, do you feel the relationship between corporate NZ and the local government sector is?
I suspect it’s often better in the regions than in bigger cities. Here people in business and council move in the same circles, and you frequently work in partnership. This leads to extensive professional networks between key decision-makers of both kinds. You’re also often on the same page around key issues like the importance of attracting, developing and retaining talent in the region.
How could it be better? And why would this make a difference?
Everyone knows that there can be tension between business and government around processes, permitting, consenting and so on, and having been on the other side of the table I understand how it can be frustrating. But a factor that some in business could understand better about local government is that when issues arise, we are often the ‘last man standing’.
Local government has enormous responsibilities as guardians of resources on behalf of the community, not to mention a legal requirement to enforce legislation such as the RMA.Typically, all rules and regulations exist because something went badly wrong in the past, and communities ended up bearing the brunt of it. At the same time, local government must appreciate the costs of delay for people who run businesses, and do everything we can to make working together simple and efficient.
To that end, I’d also like to see people transitioning between business and local government more often. People who know both worlds and can add value at the points where they intersect are becoming increasingly important. M