Tips for the top: Are you a civil service star, a sector sage or an ALB aficionado?

Report offers wannabe public-sector chiefs a guide to the galaxy of arm’s length body opportunities
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By Jim Dunton

19 Oct 2020

A public-sector leaders’ group has released a guide to the skills and capabilities required to become the chief executive of an arm’s length body and it comes with the personal endorsement of Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport perm sec Sarah Healey.

Healey said the Association of Chief Executives report was a “first-of-its-kind” that would help people who aspired to lead one of the UK’s 400-plus ALBs to understand the skills they needed and also help organisations broaden their talent pipeline.

“I have encountered many committed CEOs who are an asset to their organisation and partner government department,” said Healey, whose ministry sponsors around 40 ALBs and other government bodies. 

“By understanding the skills of these CEOs in greater detail, we can develop more productive working relationships and enable greater collaboration throughout all areas of government.”

The report – titled The CEO In Government: Leading ALBs Well – includes snappily-named stereotypical entry routes to ALB leadership, characterised as “civil service stars”, “sector sages”, and “ALB aficionados”. But it aknowledges that a host of other well-trodden paths to ALB leadership also exist. 

According to the document, civil service star leaders come in two forms: those who have decided they want to move away from the central civil service, and those who see ALB leadership as a “diagonal step up” the career ladder and are eager – or at least open – to return to a department later.

The report said that both categories of civil service star would have similar core skills and have benefitted strongly from having been through effective leadership-development programmes – such as specific accounting officer training and general leadership training. 

It said ALB recruiters should be aware that the second category of stars tended to emphasise “the commonality” between the ALB they were applying for a job with and the broader civil service.

Sector sages also come in two forms, according to the report. The first has a history in the private sector the other category will come from either the third sector or other levels of government. 

Both categories of sage face the challenge of understanding government processes quickly, which is often harder for those from a corporate background as ALB chief execs are not able to “cut through” rules in the same way as private sector leaders. 

Other challenges faced by sages include a tendency so see themselves as experts, which can be a problem if they feel “there is nothing the civil service can teach them, given their expertise”. 

Finally, ALB aficianados are either promoted to CEO from within their own organisation or “transition” from another ALB – usually a smaller one. Difficulties include the relative step changes in either scenario and the need to deal with a broader range of governance and Whitehall machinery. 

For CEOs switching sector, the report says an “early sectoral and organisational listening tour” can be particularly useful.

The report was prepared by management consultancy Nous Group for the Association of Chief Executives.

Co-author and Nous principal Peter Horne said the guide was based on more than 30 interviews and survey responses from current and former ALB CEOs, board members and associated experts.

“We expect that aspirant CEOs, boards and others will find the conclusions informative and will guide their practice,” he said. 

“The CEOs clearly find their role rewarding – so a greater diversity of applicants would be welcome.”

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