Peter Drucker once said that “the questions don’t change as often as the answers do”. So in this series, we ask the same set of questions to a number of leaders who are making an impact through their leadership and vision. Third in the series is Heather Shotter, Chief Executive of Palmerston North City Council.
1. What has shaped your leadership the most?
“I’ve been fortunate to hold leadership roles across a range of sectors – from corporate through to not-for-profit, and now local government. I’ve found this really valuable, as it helps you focus on what the core tasks of a leader are, over and above the specifics of any particular industry or organisation.”
2. What are the 4 or 5 key principles that define your leadership and why are they important to you?
“I think many of the principles of leadership are well understood, but knowing them is one thing – for me what’s most important is how you translate principles into action.
Hire well, train better –making your team as strong as possible is the foundation for everything. There’s no better investment than good people. Likewise, when you see potential to develop someone into a more capable person and a greater asset to the organisation; do it.
Point the way forward – A vision to aim for, well-defined goals and a clear strategic plan are the difference between just being an organisation (a group of people implementing processes) and an enterprise (a team going somewhere to achieve something). That’s as true for government and not-for-profits as it is for business.
Ensure success is shared – A strong team is one where success is a shared responsibility. That means everyone takes responsibility for their own contribution to the collective goals. And it also means people appreciate that in a team you are dependent on each other, you need each other to succeed. It’s the opposite of a silo mentality. Of course, to back that up, when you do achieve success, recognition for that is also shared.
Remove obstacles – When you’re looking to improve performance, often the first thought is: ‘how do we add capacity/capability?’ – usually meaning new resources, systems and tools. But it’s worth remembering that the other way to improve performance is to remove obstacles. What legacy systems and processes are costing your people time and not actually adding value? What could you do without? Removing obstacles and low-value burdens can often bring a more immediate performance improvement, and is hugely appreciated by teams, who’ll feel unleashed.
Make decisions as if you were spending your own money. I often used to say this in the corporate environment. Working in local government now, of course, people are spending their own money – and their friends’ and neighbours. Everyone I’ve met in local government is very conscious of that responsibility when making decisions. I think the key with this one is that it’s not about just cutting back your outgoings at every opportunity. It’s about always spending and investing smartly, with a clear understanding of the returns, and having considered your options.”
3. Do you think these remain relevant for the future, given the rapid changes and disruptions that we continue to face?
“Yes, I do – perhaps even more so.
Technology and ways of working are evolving rapidly, but human psychology is much more consistent. Core leadership principles provide an essential foundation, around which you can build a team able to respond and adapt to a changing environment in a way that’s consistent with your overarching goals.”
4. Which of the many global trends, interest and concern you the most and why?
In local government, you’re making decisions and investments that will affect the future of your entire city. So you’re frequently dealing with projects, factors and outcomes on very long, even generational timeframes. Climate change is a very real and present concern for all of us working in local government and city planning and creates particular challenges for us in New Zealand.
Palmerston North has some advantages when it comes to managing these challenges, we’re not a coastal city, for a start – but believe me it’s a global megatrend that’s in the background of almost all our planning, from water and land management, through to building regulations. Increasingly, future-proofing New Zealand’s cities and regions for climate change is becoming a national-level priority, as it must.”
5. How do you keep focused on what is critical for success as things change/are disrupted around you?
“A Council is a very broad organisation. Our teams span everything from animal control officers, to wastewater engineers, arts event coordinators, community housing managers and so on – not to mention the whole democratic services component. With such a multifaceted operation, change is a constant, and for leaders, there’s certainly a risk of losing focus by being pulled in many different directions.
That’s where the clarity of your vision and objectives becomes so valuable. We have a strong, uniting vision for the city, and a set of clear objectives that define it. Across the organisation, we always run that ruler over any decision, investment or project: “does this get us closer to where we want to be?” The clearer your definition of success, the easier it is to identify and focus on what’s critical.”
6. If there is one piece of advice you would give yourself at the beginning of your leadership career, what would it be?
“Stay curious. You don’t have to have all the answers, but you do need to ask all the right questions.”
Heather Shotter is Chief Executive of Palmerston North City Council and has extensive leadership experience in the private sector. Following senior leadership positions with SKYCITY, and two years as Executive Trustee of the New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation, (plus governance roles with public and private sector organisations), Heather became Executive Director of the Committee for Auckland, a membership organisation dedicated to accelerating economic and social development in New Zealand’s largest city. Born and bred in Hawkes Bay, she was pleased to return to regional New Zealand last year to lead the Palmerston North City Council in delivering an ambitious plan for growth, in a city where agri-business, defence and knowledge-intensive services underpin a resilient and high-performing regional economy.