Opinion: CEO's resignation will please many

By Danielle Nicholson

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Outgoing Hamilton City Council CEO Barry Harris
Outgoing Hamilton City Council CEO Barry Harris

Hamilton City Council chief executive Barry Harris' resignation last week has sparked speculation about the future of the organisation.

Harris called it quits last Monday after three and a half years in the job. It's fair to say, there are many who'll be pleased to see him gone. And given the turmoil that Harris has overseen at city hall, it's surprising it's taken him this long to throw in the towel.

The organisation has come under scrutiny for its culture of bullying and harassment and poor staff engagement. And it's likely that the coroner's hearing into the death of Dr Raymond Mayes will be held this year. Dr Mayes' wife has asked the coroner to investigate whether her husband's death was triggered by workplace bullying after the museum went through a major restructure which resulted in budget cuts, staff losses and an increased workload.

So who'll take up residence in his swivelly leather chair? And will it be for the better of the organisation?

Opportunity for change

Two stalwart councillors believe Harris' resignation is an opportunity to make positive changes in the organisation, particularly around its culture.

Councillor Martin Gallagher told Hamilton News last week that he wouldn't be looking for a chief executive who would be a "change merchant", nor one who would " just reinvent the wheel again".

"I'm very respectful and mindful that staff have been through huge organisational changes over the past three and a half years, some of that by necessity obviously but I certainly wouldn't be looking for a change merchant."

Dave Macpherson concurs. "Everytime there is a new CEO there are big upheavals. The staff will be worried now and we're still going through the aftermath of the current ones. They're going to be on tenterhooks, wondering what else is going to happen....another new CEO comes in with bright ideas and changes things around."

Macpherson believes now's a prime opportunity for a culture shift.

A whistleblower report last year slammed the organisation for its entrenched culture of bullying and harassment. PSA delegate and council staff member Allan Halse was critical of council's culture and played a support role for dozens of council staff members who found themselves in employment disputes.

Halse was sacked in January after an investigation into allegations made against him that he had provided information to the media without authorisation, had breached council's policy on protected disclosures, and that he had published derogatory statements about council on an internet site.

Macpherson said in January that "council management intended to dismiss [Halse]" and "the dismissal was pre-meditated, is unjustified, and designed to further cover up many of council's staffing problems. I believe the CEO's actions in this matter will bring the council into further disrepute, and are reprehensible."

In response, Mr Harris said council is making headway on health and safety initiatives at the organisation.

Increase engagement

Halse, who was headhunted for the Hamilton City Council role, said his brief included addressing staff engagement.

"A staff climate survey had shown staff were disengaged; it was my brief to increase engagement."

Council's organisational development GM Olly Te Ua provided Hamilton News with the results of council's last staff engagement survey. He said the survey "enables us to see how our staff feel about working for HCC, consider trends from our previous surveys and benchmark ourselves against other organisations. One of the main measures of the survey is staff engagement. Engaged employees are considered to be 'fully involved' with their work and an advocate for the organisation."

This year 795 employees (89.9%) completed the climate survey and the engagement score was 21.3%. This is an increase of 0.7% from the previous year's result.

Te Ua said "we have achieved the highest engagement score in four years (our engagement was at its lowest three years ago with a score of 12.8%). The local government engagement benchmark score is also 21.3%."

But compare that with staff at Christchurch City Council. After a tumultous year and the resignation of controversial CEO Tony Marryat (former Hamilton City Council CEO) the staff engagement has dropped from 66 per cent to 53 per cent - even so, that's still well above the results at Hamilton City Council.

Since his departure, Halse has set up CultureSafe - a business that provides education on workplace bullying, and aims to be a 'turn-to' for people who are victims of it. Halse says he'd be only too happy to return to council to proffer advice and guidance to management about how to turn the culture around.

While staff would likely welcome him with open arms, the senior leadership team and Mayor would probably sooner walk over hot coals than have Halse back in the building.

Who'll take the reigns?

So can a new CEO boost staff engagement? That depends on who lands the top job.

Could Mayor Hardaker do a Michael Redman? When Tony Marryant left the CEO role at HCC to take up the same role at Christchurch City Council, then-mayor Redman moved from his mayor's office to that of the chief executives's and deputy mayor Bob Simcock took over the mayoral chains.

While Macpherson doesn't believe ratepayers got bang for their buck in Harris in terms of the length of time he's spent on the job, there's no doubt we would with Hardaker, who puts in long hours.

"Most CEOs do the extra yards because when you're running a big orgnanisation you put your heart and soul into it, you go above and beyond. You could never accuse Barry of doing that, in my opinion.

"A wag said to me you could take half of Barry's salary, give it to Julie Hardaker and she could do both jobs because she's doing half of the CEO's job anyway as it is".

A chief executive-Mayor? There are plenty of municipalities around the world that use that system. But we can't adopt that here because a mayor appointed as a CEO would face conflicts of interest in both roles and would be precluded from participating in a high proportion of council decisions as a result.

If Hardaker knows the role inside out she'd no doubt be a top contender.

But whether she's the right person to boost staff engagement and lead a change in culture is another matter.

- Hamilton News

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