This month we speak with Nigel Morris, CEO of the District Council of Yankalilla.
With just over 6 months in this new role, it was a great time to catch up with Nigel to learn what challenges/benefits he has found working as a CEO in a rural council, having just come from a background as a GM in a metro council. Nigel tells about his achievements in his first 6 months, his plans for the future, and much more...
Hi Nigel, thanks for speaking with us.
How long have you been the CEO at District Council of Yankalilla?
I started in December 2015.
What was your last Council? What roles did you have and how long were you there?
I was at the City of Burnside for 7 years, originally as the Manager of Information Systems in 2008 and then a series of GM roles, starting in 2009 with Corporate and Community under a two GM structure then in 2012 General Manager of Corporate Services under a three GM structure.
In the calendar year 2014 the three City of Burnside general managers undertook a rotation of roles. Each rotation was for four months, in order for each GM to gain in-depth experience in the role and to ensure that the business of council continued uninterrupted. The rotations initiative resulted in the Council receiving the LG Professionals SA award at both state and national level for Innovative Management Initiatives – Metropolitan Councils.
At the start of 2015 I permanently took up the role of GM Urban Services before leaving for Yankalilla at the end of the year. I was also given many opportunities to perform acting duties as CEO including during the Burnside exciting times.
How would you describe the transition from GM to CEO? Has there been any surprises?
Not really – from my acting CEO experience I knew what to expect. I did realise though that at Burnside, Paul Deb (CEO) was the main point of contact for the Elected Members while the GM’s were a bit more removed. Now I’m the CEO, I know what that means!
I was however surprised Paul never taught me how to deal with cattle loose on the beach.
What have been your initial impressions about the transition from working in a metro council to a rural council?
Coming from a council that had everything in place in terms of processes and procedures, certainly Yankalilla has a number of priorities in that respect to work on in the short term. For example, when I arrived here the limited indoor staff with multiple roles were still working to a nine day fortnight, so we had to deal with that.
It’s essentially about moving forward – the Yankalilla Elected Council was keen to establish their key priorities to become a more progressive council, embracing best practice procedures and processes but also looking to grow in economic development and tourism.
What is the best thing about working in a rural council?
The depth and breadth of operations you get involved with. In a metro council you can be working in a small section of a department – or even as a GM you essentially get involved, on a day to day basis, with just your own portfolio. In a rural council there are less staff but all the same responsibilities so everyone needs to be more ‘multi skilled’, especially as CEO! It’s very hand-on. It teaches you all aspects of the business. Also – it’s rewarding because you can easily see the changes you are making – and believe me, you get immediate feedback!
I am now dealing with things for the first time including Community Waste Water Systems (CWMS), 415 kilometres of dirt roads, tourism, unmade roads going through houses, beach access ramps, beach shacks built in the 1950s on Council road reserve, jetty maintenance, cows on the loose, escaped pigs, dead kangaroo allowances, residents that like to bring me rocks and having the best bakery in the state directly across the road.
Do you think it’s a valuable step in the development of any senior manager to work in a rural council for a time?
Definitely. It’s a different perspective and the learning opportunities are simply remarkable compared to an urban council.
Like metro Council’s we still have to produce Annual Business Plans, Long Term Financial Plans, Strategic Plans, Asset Management Plans, Annual Statements and Annual Reports. We have the same governance and legislative requirements including Internal Controls, Audit Committee, Development Assessment Panel, budget preparation, delegations, code of conducts, policies, section 270s, freedom of information, conflict of interest provisions etc. we just need to do all these same things with less people. A CEO of a rural council will need to be hands on with all these requirements, getting that valuable experience.
What were your main priorities as CEO for your first 6 months?
It was interesting because actually, in the interview process for this role they asked me to prepare a presentation to pretend I had been there for 12 months and I had to present what I had achieved in my make believe first 12 months. So in fact I had largely already prepared that agenda before I started.
The priorities as set out by the Elected Members (and my presentation) were to get the finances more sustainable, improve our asset maintenance including roads and facilities, improve governance processes, do some cool stuff and sort out some people management issues (such as a new EB).
I’ve also concentrated on making things clearer for the EM’s, the staff and the community in terms of our priorities and finances – such as the preparation of a clear Annual Business Plan and long term financial plan to guide us along with the completion of the new website. It’s about building trust though effective communication.
Concentrating on savings and efficiencies we’ve already been able to reduce our operating expenditure to a position where we now have a surplus budget while at the same time we’ve increased our capital expenditure by over $1m. This is critical as we want to ensure our assets are well maintained - not only for our residents but also to attract more tourists to the area.
You recently presented as part of the ELP (Emerging Leaders Program) Rural Day. What was some of the key advice that you shared with the group?
I explained that it is certainly a different experience working for a rural council. It gives you much more rounding, prepares you for many other opportunities. One example I shared with the group was in my first week here I went to fill up my car at the local service station. I had forgotten my pin for the petrol card – but no worries, the service station operator knew exactly who I was and just put the pin in for me!
Such a tight knit community is great for these sorts of things but it also means you are also very visible and accountable - which is also good as it keeps you on your toes…!
You participated in the ELP program eight years ago, and are now a Chief Executive Officer. How did this program assist you in your development and would you recommend it to aspiring local government leaders?
I had a fantastic experience in the ELP Program in 2008. I actually received a ‘Highly Commended’ award in the Emerging Leader of the Year at the then LGMA awards.
I found it very valuable. My appointed mentor for that year was Mark Withers (now CEO, City of Port Adelaide Enfield) and he gave me a great piece of advice – “always put your hand up for new opportunities, because that’s how you learn and grow.”
So that advice led me to seek new opportunities (I think I moved on to a new job within about 4 months of getting that advice!) and also take up other challenges as they came along - such as the GM rotation at Burnside and of course this new CEO role.
I think the program made me very motivated about the future – it showed me what is possible from a personal development standpoint and how great local government is. So yes it was very valuable and I’d recommend it to anyone.
What are your priorities for the next 6 months?
I have just implemented a new organisation restructure so bedding this down is a priority. We have also just adopted the 2016/17 Annual Business Plan with over 40 specific projects so are busy getting these projects started immediately.
One of the cool projects for this year is the continuation of the Free Wi-Fi rollout into the district with Yankalilla, the Normanville Foreshore and Caravan Park set to go online this year. We completed the roll out of free Wi-Fi for Normanville late last year and we already get over 120 people logging on per day in Normanville, so we think it’s a great initiative for the area. I can’t wait to see how many people use it when our population triples over the summer months.
Outside of local government, what keeps you busy?
In the last 6 months or so I’ve taken a new job, got married, bought a unit and had another child….so I’m pretty busy at all times!