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.

What leadership and culture opportunities should Councils look to seize?

You won’t get a better opportunity to develop a common new idea of leadership and culture. It’s a new entity, but it comes with the tremendous baggage as well as opportunities of two or more previous organisations. This is an opportunity to re-set leadership as something accessible that can be practised, honed over time, and applied to real work. This is no time for fluff. This is the time for targeted, context-rich development where leaders are working on real challenges as well as celebrating the achievement of bringing cultures together successfully. It’s hard work and therefore capable leaders will learn an enormous amount from the process. Institutionalising the learning is not only important for the success of the new organisation’s culture; the opportunity must be grasped for the development of current and future leaders.

What would be in your 30 day “leadership and culture action plan” to launch the amalgamation process?

The “must haves” in my view are:

  • Develop a detailed understanding of the current state (and not relying only on electronic surveys or tools)
    • Where are the major cultures and sub-cultures in the organisation? Why have they arisen? What remains to hold the beliefs of those cultures in place?
  • Develop the new future state together: what do you want people to say and do in this new organisation?
  • Look at why you are not currently in the future state (ie conduct a gap analysis) and come up with a theory for what will take you there
  • Develop a detailed action plan with tasks for people and timelines that will put the organisation on track for the future state
  • This is all leadership development! Use this experience to constructively to develop leaders. You will probably need some outside help to test thinking, but the organisation’s leaders should be able to do much of the thinking, planning, and implementation of this themselves

What else can leaders do to ensure the right leadership and culture decisions are made for the long term?

This will depend on the context of each new Council. The “baggage” of the old Councils will be brought into the new one and there is always a danger of thinking that “how it’s always been done” is the only way it should be done. Leaders need to be aware of their own biases – their adherence to certain theories and doctrines – and be careful that the interactions with new colleagues don’t harden these ideas into dogma. This is an opportunity for new thinking without throwing everything out. The interim General Managers will be crucial here to oversee a process that is not simply patching things together.

What should leaders of the new Councils be doing right now?

Taking time out for themselves is a good start. This is an inherently difficult time and people will need emotional support. Simply creating ways to connect with other people sharing similar challenges is a good idea. I advise being kind to yourself and making sure you get enough sleep, exercise, and proper nutrition. It is easy for us to forget these things in period of high stress and change.

Leaders need to be mindful of the different ways we each approach stress. There will be some people who will see the changes as positive, and others who will see them as negative. A leader’s role is to understand these reactions and acknowledge them – while always guiding people towards a constructive purpose.

How can you help with the leadership and culture aspects of amalgamations?

LKS Quaero is passionate about helping create positive and productive organisations. We can help leaders understand their new Councils with fresh eyes and support people in seeing their own behaviour and actions as critical to shaping a new culture.

Our offering includes skills-based work, like coaching and giving feedback, as well as our developmental program Foundations of Leadership, which gives leaders a common and consistent toolkit as they take on the challenges ahead. If you’d like to learn more, just get in touch.

Two upcoming programs are designed to help leaders understand their own organisation’s culture and develop an action plan, as well as plan for and manage mental well-being:

  • Organisational Culture and Amalgamation – A 90 Day Action Plan
    Location: Aerial UTS Function Centre, Sydney
    Timing: Wednesday 8 June 2016; 9am to 1pm
  • Mental Well-being and Amalgamation – What is the Impact?
    Location: Aerial UTS Function Centre, Sydney
    Timing: Tuesday 14 June 2016; 9am to 1pm

At LKS Quaero, we offer support to new Councils across culture and leadership, strategy development, financial analysis and advice, industrial relations, structure and recruitment. Transitioning to a new entity represents a massive opportunity. It’s a chance to re-set the vision, strategy, and culture for a new organisation. At the same time, there are pitfalls to be avoided across all areas of operations. See our Council Transition Support page for more information. If you’d like to know more, visit us at or follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.