Making the leadership leap
So what’s it like ‘on the outside’ is a question that I often get asked as I work with leaders across the public sector.
The second question is usually how can you help me get ‘more with less’?
It’s an odd phrase – ‘on the outside’ conjuring up all sorts of images, most of them unhelpful in a world where we are trying to find ways to collaborate across boundaries to meet the challenge to provide a more customer focused approach within our localities with less resource.
So what about my time ‘on the inside’? Well in truth I found increasing amounts of my capacity being taken up by an endless stream of meetings: meetings about meetings, side meetings, pre meetings, actual meetings; emails- hundreds a day in the end, and phone calls. At one point I likened it to being like a hamster on a wheel. What purpose is this really serving?
Only last week I met a senior manager who told me that her life was ruled by 30 minute slots with not enough time to move from one event to the next. Ironically, the more senior you become the less discretion you seem to have with your time. What purpose is it really serving?
Looking in from ‘ the outside’ I’ve had the opportunity to work with leaders, many of whom have been carrying unrealistic diary schedules, with workload commitments to match. Without careful leadership, and an understanding of the culture and dynamics of an organisation it is easy to see how the capacity and capability of so many people is taken up ‘feeding a beast’.
It is all too easy to talk about an organisation as if it had a life of it’s own – a living thing. An organisation exists as a legal entity only on paper. Nothing happens unless the people who make up the organisation make things happen. So the majority of the governance, the ‘rules and protocols’ about how people do what they do is drafted by specialists in: legal, finance, human resources, and policy who work for the organisation.
What purpose is this serving?
In the last few years I have also begun to experience a proliferation of programme, and project boards. All in pursuit of improvement and efficiency. And so, I feel bound to add Programme Management to the list of functions that create an ever-growing set of mechanistic constraints that keep employees tied to templates, forms, and other documentation in the name of good governance, and contributing to making operational life overly complicated.
A client I worked with a few months ago became so obsessed with the mechanisms of programmes, policy and governance that there was scarcely capacity to actually get on and do the work to make the programme happen. It seemed that only the people at the front line knew what was actually going on and were forced to locally fix ‘work a rounds’ within processes to make them work in practice and serve customers needs. Ironic in a programme with an aim to be customer focused!
Achieving a shift in the culture within an organisation is key to delivering systemic change. The type of change required to enable the sector to meet the challenges thrown up by the economic, and demographic landscape means that leadership thinking about the design and management of work must change.
Defining the purpose and direction of the organisation is critical and must be understood in digestible terms by everyone in the organisation. In my experience this is all too often tied up in overly complicated statements, priorities, and plans for the ‘corporate organisation’, but do not translate easily in to something tangible and meaningful to either the customers or the front line workers who in the end will deliver the outcomes.
The design of the organisation: it’s values, culture, behaviours, policies and procedures, set the context and climate for operational life within the organisation, and will either make it or break future success.
However, to ‘insiders’ the culture of an organisation is largely invisible. You could liken it to the water that fish swim in. It’s a known, taken for granted environment. A culture made up of a history of systems, rituals, language, metaphors, and the visible environment. It is physically represented in: structures, systems, processes and practices; in leadership style; and by methods of reward and recognition.
So, if culture is about the predominant way of thinking and behaving within the organisation it is vital that leaders pay attention to the nature of the current culture and its influence upon other people’s actions.
Leaders influence organisational culture by their words, actions, and demonstrable behaviours.
Having an integrated approach to organisational purpose/vision seen through the eyes of the end user; organisation design; leadership style and behaviours; management practices; communications and stakeholder engagement is critical. Significantly all this must be supported by the right policies and practices to engender a sustainable shift in culture.
In the end we are all creatures of habit and become accustomed to the prevailing culture within our environment. This is matched by our expectations of others. A decision to change how we behave has to be matched by the intention of others in the group to do the same. Such change needs to be nurtured and supported otherwise individuals who experiment with a different way of behaving will feel the force of the prevailing culture from within the group resulting in conflict, and a reluctance to engage further.
So for me the purpose of leadership is to being clear in setting the intended direction and engaging key stakeholders to realise purpose, and then creating and sustaining an environment that makes it possible for everyone to work at their best more of the time.
Simple to say- a work of art to achieve. So, if what you are doing isn’t working why not do something different!