Fringe Box



Opinion: Choosing GBC’s Next Managing Director Is A Key Decision

Published on: 15 Dec, 2016
Updated on: 17 Dec, 2016

By Martin Giles

If you want a job in central Guildford with a £130k salary “package” and the chance to wear a swanky fur trimmed red robe at some public events – sorry but you are just a little too late. The closing date for those wishing to be in the running for the managing director post at Guildford Borough Council (GBC) closed last Friday (December 9).

The existing managing director (MD), Sue Sturgeon, announced her intention to retire in the spring, in the summer, so the council has had time to plan.

Sue Sturgeon (white jacket), the outgoing managing director at GBC, dealing with the “March on Milmead” in 2013.

But her retirement,coming just months after the early departure of her recent deputy, Satish Mistry, for reasons not fully admitted by the council, will mean that there will be two major changes at the top of the council officer tree in short order.

James Whiteman (left) with the deputy leader at GBC, Cllr Matt Furniss.

It would be surprising if James Whiteman, director of environment, who took over from Mistry as deputy MD, was not applying for the top job and others from outside will doubtless be throwing their hats in the ring.

It will have been hard to resist for many aspiring senior local government officers when they read the job advert: “Guildford is a vibrant and beautiful place with a strong track record of delivering change across a wide range of services” and “…we now have an exciting opportunity for the role of Managing Director. You will inherit a strong legacy…”

But the qualities demanded are outlined too: “[You] will bring the customer focus, energy, commerciality and entrepreneurialism necessary to take us on the next stage of this exciting journey. You will possess excellent stakeholder management and strategic partnering capabilities and be politically astute. Your leadership and strong track record of delivery will speak for itself.” It seems the new MD’s pants will be worn on the outside and the red gown will need to double as a Superman or Superwoman cape!

I suppose the clichéd use of “journey” was inevitable – perhaps the new MD will make our real journeys through the congestion of Guildford a bit easier. But let’s just hope, for the sanity of the selection panel, that this management, head hunter speak does not encourage The Apprentice style, self-aggrandising, hyperbolic cvs.

The job advert for the managing director vacancy ad GBC

Nonetheless this is a serious business. The next managing director at Guildford will take over at a crucial time in Guildford’s history.

Will the borough council’s instinct for putting commercialism above everything, as indicated in the qualities demanded, hold sway over our planning issues, in the same way they have done since the war, or will they be balanced by a realisation that “growth” should not be the be all and end all to everything?

An important question is how much power will the new MD have? After the difficult latter stages of former chief executive David Hill’s incumbency, in 2013 under Stephen Mansbridge, there was a change of view about the balance of power between council officers and councillors. Mansbridge wanted the council to be more councillor led.

It is difficult to argue against his view; councillors are the only ones elected but they are not meant to be full-time nor might they have the necessary skills to lead major areas of work.

Sue Sturgeon’s appointment after David Hill seemed to confirm Mansbridge’s preferred option of a more malleable, less independent head of service. Even the change of job title, from chief executive to managing director, implied a slight dip in status. But, for a while at least, the tension at Millmead was relieved.

But then came Mansbridge’s abrupt, self-inflicted, demise and his replacement by Paul Spooner who is viewed as less of a natural leader. He too might prefer a managing director who is easy to direct, as might his ambitious deputy Matt Furniss.

So who will stand the best chance? Someone from the inside, one of the existing directors, whose talents have been closely observed and who already knows the situation and the challenges – or an outside applicant, there are bound to be some, who bring fresh experience and perspective. The job is likely to be attractive, even if those applying are not completely taken in by the advertising blurb. The field is likely to be strong.

It is undoubtedly a challenging job. We need someone who is not so much an entrepreneur, prepared to take risks for the hope of profit, as someone who knows the difference between running a business and running a borough council, someone who aspires to help create a better Guildford, not just a bigger Guildford. And someone who can really cut through the chronic inertia and get things done.

And we can only hope that he or she will appreciate how urgently a change in culture at Millmead is needed together with the development of better, more popular policies to be devised following real consultation with residents in the borough the results of which are recognised and acted upon. Removal of the current bunker mentality and exercising true openness, one of the claimed values of GBC, should be top of the new MD’s “to do” list.

Only then can engagement with the rest of us really be achieved and democracy, more properly, served. It’s a tough ask, as they say. It will need some real skill, perception and strength of character, probably based on extensive experience.

But perhaps that is not what those making the selection will want at all.

Share This Post

Responses to Opinion: Choosing GBC’s Next Managing Director Is A Key Decision

  1. Jim Allen Reply

    December 16, 2016 at 9:11 am

    As long as who ever gets the job is open, honest and does not make the residents jump through hoops of fire simply to try and hide the obvious.

    Personally, I am pleased there are new brooms in legal, planning and overall control. The problems of Guildford Local Plan with 40,000 objections in two attempts surely demonstrates something is wrong.

Leave a Comment

Please see our comments policy. All comments are moderated and may take time to appear.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *