Image of Sam Robinson

Council Transition Support Expert Interview: Sam Robinson, leadership and culture expert

LKS Quaero is offering a complete package of Council Transition Support for amalgamating NSW Councils. This is part of a series of interviews in which our transition expert team members pass on some key nuggets of advice.

Sam Robinson works in leadership development, change management, organisational structure, and culture. As a consultant, Sam has worked in very diverse settings, including Antarctica and Malaysia; across the NFP, resources, and logistics sectors; and in local government in NSW, SA and WA. Sam is LKS Quaero’s Director, Leadership and Culture, and a lead facilitator of LKS Quaero’s training programs. Here is his advice for leaders of amalgamating Councils in NSW.

What are the key leadership and culture challenges in upcoming amalgamations in NSW?

There’s lots to do. Part of the challenge is knowing where to start and maintaining momentum on the most important aspects of culture and leadership in the new entity despite a range of competing priorities.

It is always a good idea to start with an honest look at the current state of culture in the organisation – we have seen that, in past amalgamations, inadequate emphasis on developing a new coherent organisational culture can spell disaster. In many Councils affected by amalgamation in the past, we still to this day see different arms of the organisations perceiving themselves very much as stand-alone entities, with resultant impacts on levels of cooperation and productivity.

This is not simply a matter of articulating a new set of values and behaviours; it is an honest assessment of what beliefs are currently held across the organisation – positive and negative – and why those beliefs are held. This can be about anything, including what some might think of as “small” but is that actually critically important (for example, who gets parking spaces and who gets an office). Once you understand the current state in detail, you can then work on a plan of what to keep and what you don’t want in the new organisation, as well as new shared positive beliefs. By doing this, you can build up an exciting picture of the desired state of organisational culture. The leadership challenge then becomes pretty straightforward: developing leaders to see themselves as critically important actors in changing culture.

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Council Transition Support Expert Interview: Susan Law, former local government CEO and strategy expert

LKS Quaero is offering a complete package of Council Transition Support for amalgamating NSW Councils. This is the first in a series of interviews in which our transition expert team members pass on some key nuggets of advice.

Susan Law has led and managed public sector organisations, including local government, health, and housing organisations, in New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and the UK. Now an escapee from the Council chamber, she is using her vast experience in complex organisational management, strategic planning, and organisational transformation, particularly during periods of change, to support public sector organisations to position themselves to meet future challenges.

As a former CEO, Susan has completed the amalgamation of three Councils, from forging a new culture to reviewing and reshaping services to enable consistency of delivery and equalisation of costs and revenues. Here is her advice for General Managers of amalgamating Councils in NSW.

From your past experience as a CEO of amalgamating Councils, what are the key challenges in upcoming amalgamations in NSW?

Once the new elected members are established, it is important to align members’ aspirations for the transition with what needs to be done. Sometimes, the Council members are accepting amalgamation only because they have to. There is a need to focus the Council on the future, helping them to understand how their aspirations for the community might be able to be met.

For those elected members who will be in an advisory role during this time, it is important to help them to understand that they have a valuable role in providing support and direction in an organisation that is in transition. Whether they have a part in the new Council or not, they have a critical role to play in ensuring their organisation and community are best represented and that means paying as much attention to the transition issues as they paid to business as usual in the past.

The same applies to the employees. The leadership has to be motivated and inspired, so it is very important to be able to paint a picture of the new Council that is not just two or more bits of old organisations bolted together. Nobody gets out of bed to come to work just to save money, so pictures of working for a successful integrated community have to be painted. It is crucial to communicate that the efficiencies gained are not gained for their own sake, but to enable the Council to build the infrastructure and provide the services that the communities need, now and into the next generation. Councils are in the long term game and it is exciting to be able to play a part at a critical stage.

The last key challenge is running an ambidextrous organisation. That is, the challenge is keeping the business as usual going and sunsetting the old organisation, all while overseeing its refulgence as the new organisation.

In greyscale, the bowed shoulders and head of a figure face away from the camera.

The Mental Well-Being Impact of Amalgamation

By Sam Robinson

During one of our recent Leadership Forums (Meeting the Challenge of Amalgamation in Sydney, February 2016) a presenter speaking about mental health asked the audience: ‘What springs to mind when I say mental health?’

The responses came thick and fast: depression, anxiety, illness, absenteeism.

‘That’s interesting,’ came the response from the presenter. ‘I said “mental health,” not “mental illness”.’

Should this be surprising? Many of us tend to think of mental health as something negative: the source of bad things, a dark unseen force, hidden and menacing. But, of course, like our physical health, mental health isn’t necessarily positive or negative. It is something that can be assessed, nurtured and improved. There are factors that we can predict will contribute to poor mental health. These factors may be psychological, biological, or environmental. Some might be subject to our control and some might not, including factors that are in the hands of other people.

These external factors are a continuing source of fascination for me and now must be on the agendas of all those people embarking on large organisational change. We spend vast amounts of time and energy actually at work, and of course we typically expend gigantic amounts of energy thinking about work when not actually ‘doing’ work. Work matters. So does our mental health. Where is the connection?

In New South Wales, local government affected by structural change is in an excruciating waiting period.

Close up of a monthly planner open on a desk, with blurry writing.

How Important is Planning to Success, Really?

By Graeme Cotton

We have all heard the adage that failing to plan is planning to fail. Is this true? Do we spend too much time on planning? Scrum co-creator Ken Schwaber has said that the reason for him creating the Scrum concept was the number of times project teams used a Gantt chart in an effort to ensure the project ran on time and to budget, only for 100% of them to fail to achieve the majority of these targets.

With businesses making decisions every day based upon their plans and investors investing in companies based upon those companies’ plans, surely there is no doubt that planning is a crucial element to their success? Strategic planning is a requirement for the world of business, never more so than now with a rapidly changing global landscape and a political world full of indecision. The real question is: how well do we really do it?

A group of people stand on top of a rock formation against a blue sky with small white clouds.

(Un)surprising Findings from Google’s Quest to Build the Perfect Team

By Sam Robinson

A recent article in the New York Times Magazine, “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team,” breathlessly told us about ‘new research’ that revealed surprising truths about why some work groups thrive and others falter… and then told us what we knew already about the most highly effective teams.

That’s not a bad thing at all – in fact, it was deeply satisfying to read about yet more evidence that the strength of shared beliefs within teams is the key to that team working well together. This has actually been known for many years and documented extensively in Systems Leadership: Creating Positive Organisations, but perhaps not in the same terms.

The article refers to ‘psychological safety,’ a group culture that the Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines as a ‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking’.

We tell our clients that culture isn’t simply “what we do around here,” nor is it a complicated abstracted academic concept encouraging analysis only and not action.

When I discuss culture with clients, it’s about “culture” as a group of people who share beliefs about behaviour that (members of the culture believe) demonstrate positive and negative values.

A sporting team in English colours huddles together.

How do you create the right culture to succeed?

By David Gourlay

Systems               Symbols               Behaviour           Leadership

Four simple words, but all of them simply have to be “nailed on” to achieve that winning culture!

Sport is always a trusty analogy when it comes to writing about business culture, so let’s consider the fate of two of Rugby’s powerhouses at the Rugby World Cup. As the fallout from England’s World Cup started, Head Coach Stuart Lancaster made no secret of his attempt to emulate New Zealand and his focus on building the right “culture,” on the premise that if you get things right off the pitch the rest will take care of itself… apparently not!

Most of us have worked in businesses that claim to have a great culture, but somehow something isn’t quite right, whether it’s a frustrating process, an outdated finance system, some annoying bureaucracy, or just a general feeling of disquiet around the office. Or maybe the processes and systems have just had a multi-million pound makeover but the frustration is arising from poor leadership or some dominant behaviours within the organisation that are both unproductive and disruptive.

Either way, you have a problem! How often is there a major investment in creating improved and more efficient systems and processes, without an improved culture magically appearing? And how often can you have great leadership and behaviours that are undermined by poor systems and processes?

A one way sign against a railing and white brick wall.

Pushing the Boundaries of Local Government Service Provision

By Graeme Cotton

Will porous boundaries change the ways in which Governments provide services?

The world is only becoming more and more globalised. The mass movement of people, ideas, and products across the world is causing the world’s leaders to second guess foundations that have been left by their forebears. The world’s largest organisations and startup companies are finding ways to avoid government legislation, whether at home or as they expand into new territories. Questions regarding citizenship and refugee status are circulating the globe. The definition of boundaries is being tested more than ever before.

Locally, we are not exempt. In New South Wales in particular, local governments are contemplating amalgamations.

JKF writing at his desk.

Lessons from Camelot

By Aidan Rave

Ted Sorensen’s seminal biography of JFK, written by the president’s closest and most trusted advisor only a few years after the grim events in Dallas in November 1963, offers a rare and unique insight into the workings of the presidency that came to be known as ‘Camelot’.

Of particular interest is a chapter devoted to the period of transition between Kennedy’s election victory in November 1960 and his inauguration and formal assumption of office in January 1961. During these three frenetic months, Sorenson describes how over a thousand government posts were filled, ranging from key cabinet positions through to junior advisors.

Each post needed to be balanced against the oft-competing demands of politics and the effective administration of the executive branch, requiring the recruitment team to know when to compromise and when to expend political capital and remain steadfast in the face of opposition. Despite the many challenges – US politics was no less partisan back in the 1960s than it is now – there is a clear sense throughout that Sorenson and his team were recruiting against a mission underpinned by a successful election campaign, subsequently set out so eloquently in Kennedy’s inaugural address.

Each appointment, be it political or administrative, was governed by an unambiguous credo. Even appointments that were intensely political in nature were still ultimately made to contribute to this overall purpose. There was also a palpable sense that the assembling of a new administration was in preparation for the work to come and not an end in itself, given that nothing was “real” until the formal handover in late January.

Contrast this with the nature of Organisational Development frequently observed in so many modern-day organisations. Too often, the ubiquitous “organisational restructure” is undertaken in a ritualistic manner based on the arrival of a new chief executive or in response to a crisis or opportunity rather than in response to a clear mission and ‘to do’ list.

A figure leaps off a mountainous landscape into a bright sky

The CEO of 2025: the Anti CEO?

By Susan Law

As local government internationally is undergoing change (from review to transformation and now reinvention), it’s a good over-a-glass-of-red discussion to speculate on the leadership that will be necessary to take local government organisations through the next 10 years.

Recently, a number of us local government tragics and leaders did just that and managed to capture our thoughts as discussion starters.

A person, viewed from behind, faces a train, with the unnoticing people inside separated from her by a window.

The Victim-Rescuer-Persecutor Paradigm

By Sam Robinson

One way where this might come up at work…

  • A team is “left to its own devices” for many years, used as a dumping ground for staff who are being moved on, there is little or no recognition for their work – apart from when things go wrong (then they really hear about it).
  • A new manager is appointed and intends to “make things right”. She goes about articulating roles, holding people to account and managing performance.
  • Team member(s) feel aggrieved and share stories about what a bully the new manager is.

Victim-Rescuer-Persecutor Paradigm

Originally known as the Karpman Drama Triangle (Karpman, S (1968) Fairy tales and script drama analysis Transactional Analysis Bulletin, 7(26)) this model is intended to show the destructive relationships that can emerge when people are in conflict. Karpman chose the phrase “drama” as he intended to focus on the perception that people can end up playing certain roles – often unknowingly. He does not and I do not deny that there are actually “real” victims. This model is about the impact of perceptions, and the influence of those perceptions on our behaviour.

In this model, there are 3 roles, the Victim, the Persecutor and the Rescuer. The roles are not static and can shift between different people and back and forth between roles. Typically, the situation commences when a particular person takes on a Victim role. All roles play a part in keeping this unhelpful dynamic in place.