Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Helping NHS London managers to coach across the capital


Following our work with the SHA in 2009 to help establish a capital-wide board level coaching resource, OPM was commissioned the following year to run two ILM Level 7 Certificate in Executive Coaching and Leadership Mentoring programmes to increase the number of senior NHS managers equipped to provide coaching across the capital as part of their role. The successful delivery of these programmes led to us being asked to provide a series of advanced skills CPD workshops for registered coaches.

What we did

From 2011 to the present day we have worked collaboratively with learning and organisational development managers to create a strongly practice-focused approach to enabling the coaches to build their portfolio of coaching techniques. Themes for the one-day workshops, delivered by David Love and Helen Brown, have included:

With each workshop we have located the topic firmly within the context of the current challenges in the capital’s heath service so that coaches have had opportunities to explore ‘live’ issues that take account of the realities and pressures faced by their coachees (and indeed themselves, as NHS managers). During each workshop participants have opportunities for coaching practice, which is supported by structured observation questions, feedback from peers and feedback from the workshop facilitators.


All the workshops we have delivered to date have been extremely well received by participants, whose confidence and skills have been strengthened through their involvement.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Simulations and Futures

Anxiety is the worst mental state to be in – it’s what happens when we feel threatened by events outside of our control – it’s what happens when we are afraid of what might happen but feel paralysed to do anything about it. For leaders in the public sector – politicians as well as managers – anxiety levels are now running high.

In heroic cultures, and bureaucratic cultures (and the public sector is both) we tend to repress our feelings and put a brave face on things. And since we don’t own up to emotions at work, we are left trying to deal with high levels of anxiety on our own.

The first round of cuts was painful, but achieved mostly by salami slicing – finding waste and inefficiency yes, but also stopping doing things that were less important, or not easily missed, or would not show up for a while. Finding the new cuts is proving far more problematic – there is no-where to go now without cutting services that the public depend on – but no-one wants to hear that.

So public sector managers are trying to be innovative and creative – and are trying to find radical changes that might save millions by working in new ways. Many of these experiments are exactly that – experiments – but there’s a huge amount riding on them. We don’t know what will happen in the future. We don’t know if, or how, change will work. So anxiety returns.

Futures work – environment scanning, developing future scenarios – even full scale simulations are a brilliant way to turn the energy that fuels anxiety into action. If we translate our thoughts about the future into exploration – we see how many changes interact together – we get the full measure of the things that worry us – and we discover opportunities we hadn’t thought of.

I recently worked with the top fifty or so managers and senior politicians in a courageous, go-ahead council – working within three different political, social and economic scenarios for 2018. Each scenario had different threats, and different opportunities – but in each the objective was to take over 50million out of the budget causing the minimum harm. We worked in three cross-departmental teams – at high speed – we had to find the savings in two and a half hours! The worst case scenario was very tough (and I made sure the leader of the council had to tackle that one) – but by facing it – and exploring – both managers and politicians were able to think the unthinkable. Of course there was a lot of guesswork, and a lot of ‘rounding up’ – but what was impressive was the level of courage, the care for residents and the lack of defensiveness – managers trusted each other and were willing to make cuts in their own departments to protect the value they saw in other council activities.

The honesty with which managers confronted the hard facts meant that they stopped looking for easy ways out, and contemplated all sorts of radical innovation. All three groups found ways of making the savings – but when we put the solutions together, we found that between them they saved 80million –giving us a range of viable projects to develop and 30 million headroom. We knew that not everything would work, and we could give politicians the assurance they needed that some of the worst case options would probably not be needed. But staring at the options focussed minds, and strengthened resolve. Working in the future didn’t give certainty – but it helped everyone see what the choices were – and understand what the consequences would be if innovation failed. What made the whole exercise successful was the transparency – the willingness to think together, to wonder out loud, to check out ideas in real time with politicians – and to share learning.

So if your managers, or your politicians, are paralysed by worry about the future – get them to spend time living in it instead. Not only is it energising, it helps to actively plan a way through.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Qualified or not, public services need to equip themselves to work with more volunteers and lay people to get the job done

The long running squeeze on funding is forcing public services to think very differently about their workforces. Long gone are the days when organisations struggled to recruit quickly enough to meet top down directives to increase the number of front line staff. Instead, public services now have to face up to the task of cutting the size of their workforces in response to ever decreasing budget allocations and changing responsibilities. It’s demoralising and difficult work.

It is in this context that the current war of words on whether teacher’s need to be qualified or not – between Nick Clegg, Labour and teaching unions on the one hand, and Michael Gove and Boris Johnson on the other – is taking place. But, whilst interesting to watch, this discussion is actually something of a distraction from the broader changes that are happening elsewhere across public services.

In a climate of providing more for less, public services need all the help they can get – and often this means pulling in volunteers, parents, community organisers or other willing local people to help them run services, whether this is a local library, care home or youth service.

Of course certain jobs – such as teachers, doctors, nurses, and social workers to name but a few – will quite rightly remain the preserve of those with the requisite qualifications and experience. There are also many skilled and important roles discharged by non-qualified staff that are critical to the successful running of public services which it would not be appropriate for volunteers to deliver. These also need to be protected. But, in order to help these professionals do their work as effectively as possible a number of support positions exist, which increasingly are being carried, or are able to be carried out, by a cadre of highly capable and enthusiastic volunteers in receipt of the necessary support and training.

Several of the programmes OPM has been working on recently are heavily reliant on such voluntary staff, many of whom do not have formal public service qualifications. The National Citizen Service for 16 year olds for instance – which OPM helped to evaluate – involved local voluntary sector bodies drawing in help from volunteers to run everything from outward bound trips to the country side to supporting social action projects in the community.

The evaluation found that providers of NCS need to change the way they worked in order to recruit, train and support good volunteers to help them provide the service. Those that did it well were adept at communicating and selling the benefits of being involved; supporting volunteers with excellent induction and training, linking involvement to career development and skills acquisition, and providing good supervision and support throughout.

Another project we’re evaluating – the Sure Start Programme delivered by 4Children and funded by the Department for Education – aims to get parents and community groups involved in taking over ownership and management of children’s centres. In this case, 4Children needed to provide a substantial amount of training and support to parents to give them the necessary grounding they needed to take on formal roles and responsibilities, such as help with understanding governance, legal frameworks and engaging with communities and the local authority. In doing this, they also had to be very flexible, providing advice at times and locations that suited busy parents who often had full time jobs.

Whatever the outcome in the battle over whether teachers need to be qualified or not, it will not stop the wider drive to involve more unqualified (at least in terms of formal public service delivery roles) people in the public sector service delivery.

This is not about pitting qualified staff against unqualified volunteers, rather, it is a recognition that in cash strapped world of public services, increasingly non-statutory positions will be supplemented (as opposed to substituted) by lay people in either paid or unpaid roles – as a pragmatic way of ensuring services run efficiently and effectively. The public sector needs to be at the vanguard of this movement – encouraging and enabling those who are willing and able, to contribute on delivering services to the public Learning about what works in recruiting and supporting these people will be an important skill of anyone who wants to lead and manage public services in the future.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Systems leadership – are we any closer to knowing what it is?

I went to a wonderful overnight event last week, as a ‘systems leadership enabler’ (I didn’t know that was what I am, but it seems to fit!) The LGA, NHS and a range of professional and educational bodies are jointly funding an exciting project called “System Leadership – Local Vision” to support ‘systems leadership’ in a number of pilots across England. This is not just about fancy process or lots of diagrams, the aim is to achieve real improvements in outcomes.

This was the first time the ‘enablers’ – many of us colleagues with experience from Total Place – came together to compare notes.  We are a highly experienced group, and have built on learning from Total Place but it was clear that in exploring how to make complex systems work – we are all working at the edge of our knowledge and experience – developing a new sort of practice to meet new circumstances – and creating theory and interventions together. It feels a bit like team coaching felt a few years ago – we know its right, and we know it is making a difference, but it’s hard to pin down what exactly is involved.

In the first place, given the swirling, interlocking agencies, partnerships and levels – it can be quite hard to work out what is the ‘system’ we are being asked to work with. There is no single, or simple ‘client’ – and often it turns out that the people in the room in the first instance are not necessarily the people who need to come together – and that the issue we are first asked to work with is not necessarily the most important issue. The work emerges over time. It reinforces the problems with conventional ‘procurement’ when trying to support big system change – because success relies on trust that an experienced consultant will work honestly to find the right place to intervene – and on the consultant having the ability to listen hard, and attend carefully without carrying too many assumptions – so that we work effectively on what really matters.

That thought –‘what really matters’ is what is driving the work. Busy, over-stretched leaders will not devote proper time to think and act in new ways about something they don’t care about. If system change is to be possible – then it is about finding the outcome that matters so much that leaders will commit enough energy to overcome the discomfort and difficulties of making the change.

Colleagues talked a lot about relationships – making them real, bringing leaders together to talk and think openly – so that they learn to understand each other, see the dilemmas that each other face, give and take. No system change is going to be all fair weather.  Leadership will never come from a single person – instead there will be a network of key people, who need to develop relationships strong enough to weather the difficulties.

We talked about ‘helping the system see itself’ – enabling every leader to see what others can see, rather than their own narrow perspective – so that there is a collective space in which to understand how different agencies may be seeking conflicting results, or different boards may be at cross-purposes.

I came away thinking that our most successful interventions seem to be around  creating a ‘leadership network’ – a group of leaders who agree on what they are trying to do, and can work together in a range of different settings in order to make change happen. These leaders may include politicians, community leaders, doctors and local authority executives. And while its important to make formal structures and process effective – the most important stage in system change is to create an ‘alliance of the willing’ – a group of people who share a purpose and will work with all their heart to achieve it. Hopefully, in the places where I and my colleagues are experimenting over the next year, we’ll be able to show that it works.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Cutting leadership development in children’s services could prove a false economy

In our leadership work with directors and assistant directors of children’s services, we are seeing a noticeable trend towards councils promoting from within, often at the same time as restructuring.

While this is an understandable response to exceptionally high levels of staff turnover, with the average tenure of a director of children’s services (DCS) now under three years, the implications for cohesive system leadership are worrying.

Read the full article on the Municipal Journal website (£)

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

How will today’s young people shape tomorrow’s society?

This is the question we’ll be tackling in early July at a memorial lecture and discussion hosted in memory of longstanding OPM Director Kai Rudat, who very sadly died last year. It’s a fitting topic, as anyone who knew Kai and his passion for the issues of youth participation and engagement will recognise. And it’s also a vital issue, with even the most optimistic among us conceding that the future we are likely to bequeath to the next generation will look more challenging than that which we received ourselves.

It is therefore with great pleasure and with keen anticipation that I am able to announce the evening’s contributors: a group well able to do this subject justice.

Beginning with a keynote address from Dr Maggie Atkinson, the Children’s Commissioner for England, the event will also feature a panel discussion including Lord Victor Adebowale, the CEO of the social enterprise Turning Point; Baroness Stedman-Scott, of youth employment and training charity Tomorrow’s People; and Barbara Moorhouse, Chief Operating Officer of Westminster City Council and Chair of the OPM Group.

In addition to these eminent and expert thinkers, we’re mindful of making sure that the views of young people themselves are given appropriate prominence in this debate, and as a result there will be young people from a range of backgrounds both on the panel and in the audience. We are also involving young people in identifying the topics to be discussed. And we are in the process of finalising an exciting new initiative for OPM that will make a concrete contribution to addressing the challenges around supporting young people in the current difficult climate – more of this soon.

The evening is sure to throw up as many questions as it does answers. Should we be concerned or confident that today’s young people will be equipped to solve the problems they are sure to face? And, in a society which often veers towards the ephebiphobic – perceiving and representing young people negatively – is it sometimes too easy to forget the good work being done with and by young people, building the skills and experience necessary for the future?

Kai Rudat believed passionately in the capacity of all people – whatever their background – to understand complex social issues and to contribute to decision making. It is in no small part because of Kai that OPM has such a long track record of helping to give a voice to groups in society who are at risk of being missed out – including young people. We are sure that this event will prove a fitting memorial and help maintain his legacy in the important work OPM continues to carry out.

There are a very small number of places for the event remaining, and we would like to give priority to commissioners, practitioners and policymakers who work with or focus on issues directly relating to young people and youth participation. If you are interested in attending please email info@www.opm.co.uk and we will do our utmost to accommodate you.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The public sector needs to regain the trust of communities

How do we maintain, or in some cases rebuild, the trust which communities place in professions?

This was the question those attending the final roundtable in the series by Association of Chartered Certified Accountants and Professions for Good were faced with last Wednesday.  And it’s very welcome that these organisations are hosting such debates.

A difficult issue to tackle at the best of times, but with the shadow of banking and recent health scandals still looming large over our national consciousness, the situation has been made both more difficult and more pressing recently.

Back in 2004, in partnership with CIPFA and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, OPM produced the Good Governance Standard for Public Services. These guidelines comprised “six principles of good governance that are common to all public service organisations and are intended to help all those with an interest in public governance to assess good governance practice”.

There has been much more guidance published on good governance since that time but still the steady stream of failures has continued, suggesting that the problem is not ignorance of what good governance looks like, but behaviour which has at times knowingly flouted it.

Solving behavioural or cultural problems within an organisation or institution is no easy task. Clearly no silver bullet solution exists, as the persistence of trust-eroding episodes demonstrates. But we can confidently suggest that more tick box regulation is not the answer.

There is a parallel in the current state of the relationship between the public and a wide range of public and private sector leaders. If trust is at an all time low, as many indicators like the Edelman global trust barometer are telling us it is, then more of the same is unlikely to improve it.  The public are sceptical about much of what they hear from ‘official’ channels, despite the fact that much of this information is accurate, informative and often beneficial or advisory.

All public services must present complex information in ways that engage the public, lest it be interpreted as an attempt to confuse, or worse, deceive.  In our own Unlocking Local Capacity research we found that councils find it more difficult to encourage local people to play more active roles in their communities if they have poor experiences of the council and lack trust in the council’s ability to do a good job. We noted how a number of councils have taken new and sometimes quite radical approaches to building trust among citizens, which when done correctly, has led to stronger relationships between council staff and local people and formed the basis for greater coproduction in the way services are designed.

So we suggest that solutions lie in the skills and behaviours of public sector communicators.  Many councillors and officers are good at communicating complex issues and building trust, and many more across public services can be supported to further improve these skills and to behave in ways which help to build trust.

The public sector, and all the professions in it, have an important role to play in reversing the prevalence of distrust in society.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The importance of embracing dissent

Last Wednesday I took part in The Guardian local government network’s live discussion on the subject of what makes a good council chief executive. I joined a panel of past and present council chief execs, think-tank policy formers and representatives from the Local Government Association to debate this issue and field questions.

Reflecting on what was a really constructive and fruitful exercise I noticed that more often than not the panel seemed to be in agreement over the skills successful leaders require. This is hardly surprising I guess.  Over many long and varied careers in local government, perceptive observers will have noticed that the best chief execs – though they can be very different – invariably share a core set of skills; such as the ability to build strong relationships with colleagues, make good calls on things as they see them and learn from service users and front line feedback.

However, while a consensus of opinion existed among the panel, I couldn’t help thinking that for the aspiring chief execs of the future, something else will be needed.

For a chief executive, running a council of any size has always required the ability to mediate between disparate groups – both internally and externally – to establish a common purpose. Councils are now doing more to help people to do more for themselves – to unlock local capacity and to re-commission services to enhance their impact.  In this world, it is the people who ask the most difficult questions, who appear disruptive and whose perspective seems out of step with the majority that bring to light the uncomfortable truths that need to be addressed. Peripheral criticisms can often be the bellwether to changes needed.

So seeking out dissenters, even if you don’t always agree with them, is an important habit for any leader to get into.  Plain sailing may be pleasant, but it’s always better to know when the winds are starting to blow in another direction.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

If you’re a leader it’s important to ‘show your workings’

Nowadays, with value for money pressures prevailing, senior managers have an additional responsibility to develop their people. A powerful way of doing this is to take on the mantle of development ourselves – senior managers can help others learn their craft by showing their own workings out.

As a child I was good at mental arithmetic and I continued to love studying maths. However I remember being frustrated at being marked down for not showing how I’d arrived at what I thought was an obvious answer. By O-levels, I found that my intuition was limited – I began to make mistakes and I couldn’t trace back to see what I had done wrong and to identify where I needed a different approach. My previous confidence waned and I had to relearn the discipline of showing my workings out before mastering more complex equations.

As with arithmetic, so with leadership development, it seems! ‘Showing your workings’ can be a great way of helping others to learn how to lead. I have seen countless examples of this happening almost unconsciously and I believe that with support – which does necessitate some initial investment – many senior people can develop their staff effectively whilst avoiding having to justify high development expenditure. Here are some techniques I would recommend:

Somewhat counter-intuitively, many otherwise excellent managers and leaders are reluctant to take on this sort of a development role. Some find it hard to deconstruct and explain what they do so instinctively – a bit like my younger self doing arithmetic. Some are surprisingly modest and are reluctant to present themselves as exemplars. Most have not had the opportunity or support to think through how to do this well and what their own authentic leadership developer role might be like.

This is where the initial support comes in. I firmly believe that all senior people benefit and, indeed deserve, a coach. For groups of managers, a combination of ‘develop the developer days’ supported by action learning groups or coaching will be highly effective way of supporting and reviewing a more sustainable organisation wide approach to LMD.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

What’s so good about coaching … for the coach?

Coaching is good for you. There’s increasing evidence that coaching has benefits for coachees and their organisations. I’m also seeing a diminishing sense of coaching as an expensive luxury, given its power in getting to the heart of the issues and building individual leadership capability that connects strongly with organisational priorities. More and more public service organisations are creating their own in-house coaching cadres often with the aim of creating a dramatic shift in the day-to-day ways they ‘do leadership and management’.

But what’s in it for those doing the coaching?

I’ve been a coach for many years now and have coached lots of public service managers at senior and middle levels. Moving from development work with groups on leadership and management programmes into working one-to-one felt daunting at first. With 12 or more intelligent people in a room there’s a good chance you can get a purposeful conversation going.

But what happens if the other person doesn’t engage if there are only two of you? With a development workshop there’s also likely to be some agreement in advance about at least some of the agenda and a degree of preparation, providing a springboard for exploring useful tangents. But, when you have little, or often no, prior knowledge of the agenda how do you make a two-hour coaching conversation productive?

I needn’t have worried – most people, given the confidentiality, safety and opportunity of a coaching relationship have plenty to say about the successes and challenges of their leadership roles. And I’ve found that detailed ‘content’ preparation pales into insignificance next to the importance of being prepared to engage in a meaningful conversation that helps the coachee use their strengths to work out the best way of moving forward for them. In any case, I find that the more attention I pay to the conversation and what’s going on in the room, the more likely it is that relevant ‘content’ from my wider experience will spring to mind.

What do I get out of coaching?

I suppose at a fundamental level I get a kick out of helping others. And it’s the specifics of that somewhat ‘soft and fuzzy’ general statement that are really important to me. When I couple strong constructive challenge with a supportive, appreciative process, I see coachees gain insights before my very eyes. There’s a great deal of personal satisfaction from helping to shape a conversation that enables a coachee to have a ‘light-bulb moment’ and for them to conclude, for example, they need to change their leadership behaviour – and have worked out how to do it.

I also find it very stimulating to work with a vast range of individuals in a variety of different public service settings on a myriad of leadership challenges. I like the challenge of getting to know enough about a coachee’s particular circumstances quickly so we can work together on how they can fulfil their personal and organisational responsibilities even better.

Once again, ‘content’, i.e. a detailed understanding, on my part, of the coachee’s situation is less important than my capacity to listen attentively and notice how the coachee acts. Doing this well unearths the relevant and powerful questions I need to ask that will test assumptions, challenge current thinking and expand horizons.

Not just problem-solving

Popular thinking about coaching is that it is largely problem-solving albeit in a more intensive form … and it is an important feature of coaching. But coaching can also focus leaders’ successes and enable them to find the learning that can be transferred to other challenges. Behind the ‘presenting issue’ there are often deeper aspects that can be hidden at first within the interplay of how we think, feel and act on a particular topic, and the personal values we bring to our work.

While it’s true that coaching exposes me to a variety of interesting people and contexts, it’s also true that there are discernible themes across my coaching conversations. These include sustaining productive working relationships with others, meeting organisational requirements and taking a systemic view of the roles played by leaders.

Alongside working effectively with an individual I am also committed to making a difference for the coachee’s organisation (they are investing time and money into the activity after all) and what at OPM we call ‘social results’ or the ultimate outcomes for citizens. Not surprisingly, currently a recurring theme in my coaching conversations is resilience – building and sustaining personal leadership resilience as well as collectively within the organisation.

Public service leaders are under immense pressure at the moment given the prevailing economic climate. Helping them determine their best route through these pressures while keeping up their own and others’ motivation and positivity is particularly challenging and rewarding in my coaching.

I find working collaboratively on the intricacies of how a coachees’ actions can impact the wider system fascinating. My engagement with leaders as coachees adds to my own understanding of leadership and organisational development, enhancing the experience and resources I can bring to other coachees. And, of course, as I continue to add to my many hours of coaching, still meeting new challenges, I continue to learn about and expand my practice.

Crucially, this is supported and tested in our peer and external supervision processes at OPM – essential to my continuing professional development as a coach. I’ve learnt a lot about myself in the process and realised a long time ago that I need to draw on all of my personal resources to develop my own style as a coach. In my case this includes finding ways to use creative methods such as sketching and visual thinking productively and appropriately with coachees.

In the end it’s you and the coachee in the room – having the fearless compassion to use what happens in the room as ‘live’ information is what makes coaching such an exhilarating experience for me.

ILM programme

If you have considered becoming a coach or improving your skills in this area, OPM offers an ILM level 7 accredited executive coaching and leadership mentoring programme for senior leaders and managers. It will be seven-day programme running in 2012. The module dates are 22 February, 21 March, 25 April, 16 May, 21 June, 25 July and 5 September. See the flyer for more information.