Tips for the strategic leadership exam


This article, published in  PQ Magazine (December 2012), provides guidance for CIPFA students on the final strategic stage of the new professional qualification.

The Strategic Leadership (SL) module is one of two papers at the final strategic stage of the new CIPFA qualification and will be examined for the first time in December 2012. This article seeks to build on the information already published by CIPFA for SL, in particular the assessment strategy, syllabus guidelines, specimen paper and study materials.

The syllabus guidelines state that SL ‘is designed to provide candidates with the necessary knowledge and higher level leadership skills applicable to organisations within the public services…. the emphasis of the module is on the practical aspects of leadership in the contemporary public services environment.’

Also, a ‘key feature … is that students should answer examination questions from a practical perspective.  Theories can be used to support answers but marking schemes will not expect a particular theory to be covered. Students will be free to discuss any relevant theory and will gain credit if it is applicable.’

It is significant that this paper is assessed at the strategic stage, rather than the earlier Professional Diploma stage. At the later stage a question on leadership might ask:   ’Describe transformational and transactional approaches to leadership and assess which is more effective in motivating members of staff’.  To answer this you would need to show knowledge, and assess specific areas, of, theory laid down in the question.

In contrast, SL is likely to ask something like, ’How would you recommend that organisational leaders  address the challenges of motivating staff in the face of the current public expenditure cuts?’  This leaves the choice of theories in the hands of the student.  Although such questions are quite open-ended and practically oriented they are still best answered using a rigorous knowledge of theories as well as relevant practical examples and illustrations.  While the choice of theory is down to you as student, you need to ensure it is addressing the question.  It would be good to say briefly in your answer how it does that.  Occasional references to some aspect of the question can help you remain on track. Also, answers should combine practical examples with relevant theory.  As a rough guideline, a 50/50 split between theory and practice would take you in the right direction.

The SL syllabus guidelines state that ’Required reading is Public Finance magazine and students will be expected to show a good understanding of current public sector issues in the examination’. While you should read about developments in the public sector – over the last 12-18 months in particular – across a range of sources, Public Finance will probably be the main source of practical examples to draw on in the examination. 

The examination theme gives a valuable focus to your research telling you that the two compulsory questions will be in that area.  For your research on the theme you should seek to think through all its different aspects and implications.  Also, you should look around the edges of the theme as well as upon it directly.  For example, research into the specimen paper’s theme of ‘strategic alliances’ could usefully cover not only different sorts of strategic alliance, but also related leadership issues, such as collaborative leadership, political dimensions of leadership, managing networks etc. This would also give valuable indications of the kind of theory likely to be applicable to the two compulsory questions.

You will need some flexibility in the way in which you search the Public Finance archive.  A  search  on the term ‘strategic alliance(s)’ found only one reference, but 22, 28 and 184 references for the terms ‘joint working,’ ‘collaboration’ and ‘partnership’ respectively.

Obviously some references in Public Finance are more substantive than others. For example, the search revealed the 28 January 2010 article by Paul Jackson entitled ‘Sharing Properly’.  This provides two points that could be used in answers to the specimen paper questions:

  • Simple descriptive examples of projects, activities etc. and ball park estimates of monetary and headcount savings associated with them.
  • More conceptual points concerning good practice in shared service provision; e.g. understanding the drivers for change, using cost and performance data. 

Both of the above would gain credit in answers the specimen paper.  Examples of schemes and ball park figures claimed for savings etc. are useful at a descriptive level. Even more useful are points that allow you to discuss and assess good practice, risks, problems etc.  These practical points can either stand alone or complement/support corresponding theoretically based points.  

Of course, the use of practically oriented points is not to be restricted to the two compulsory questions but should occur in similar fashion across all SL answers.  Some parts of the syllabus are more practically focused than others, but even for the more theoretically focused areas (e.g. syllabus learning outcome A1 ‘Evaluate theories of leadership and apply to the public services environment’) you can still search for practical examples to support your analysis.

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