Archive for March, 2018

The importance of talking openly and honestly about death

Monday, March 26th, 2018


I’m attending a friend’s funeral tomorrow, and, as well as reflecting on his life and the people he leaves behind, I couldn’t help but make the connection with the Dying Matters Staffordshire discussion that we’ve started on talking openly and honestly about death.

Nigel served a full career in the RAF and died of a degenerative lung disease in his mid 60s. Although it is desperately sad that he and his wife didn’t get a long retirement together, it strikes me that his early death was probably more planned around his wishes than if he had survived into old age.

This is, in essence, the challenge for us. The UK has the world’s leading palliative care and hospice movement, and we have absolutely got it right for those who die early. We now must extend this learning – the honesty and the compassion – across the population.

Those of us who are not yet in old age are frankly kidding ourselves if we think that our elderly loved ones don’t want to talk about death.  My own mother, now in her late 80s, has made her wishes to remain in her home very clear, and, as a result, we have put in place the measures to keep her there for as long as practical.

This openness must also extend to the health and care sector. Too many nursing home residents die in hospital, surrounded by strangers; the best way of making sure that they die with family and friends in peace is to have the conversations that Nigel had with his wife and his doctors in the weeks before his death. They are not easy conversations, but it makes the grieving process easier.

The importance of diverse teams

Monday, March 19th, 2018

I’ve been reflecting on decision making and diversity this week, and would value any feedback from readers. I spent a day with the Army as part of the non-executive roles which I have retained after the end of my regular service. During the briefings and discussions, one of my old bugbears came up, the Military Judgement Panel. This is a group of, usually senior, officers who consider a complex issue and come up with a consensus view on the way forward. It’s normally to do with finances, structures and roles of military units, and happens in static administrative headquarters rather than on deployed operations.

I have to be honest and state that I never liked them, but had never given much time to considering why. Now, three years into my role in Staffordshire, it is much clearer. In essence, one is asking a group of people with the identical background and experience, to challenge their preconceptions and suggest changes for institutions that they hold dear. If ever there were a mechanism for ensuring that “groupthink” prevailed, this would be it.

Which brings me to diversity. Diverse teams are potentially harder to lead, as a leader has to spend more time listening and understanding than in a homogenous group. The advantage is that, when the group gets down to work, and with the correct facilitation, they will consider a problem from a number of angles and suggest solutions that will be more robust and practical. It might take a little longer, but the chances of having to do it all again when it goes wrong are much reduced.

So, in summary, diversity is not only the morally, ethically and legally right way to go – it also works better. Which brings me to our Wider Leadership Team study days on Monday, and again in April. We’re a pretty diverse group in terms of age, gender, background and outlook, so we should come up with some high quality thinking and solutions. No pressure, then…

Identifying our values and making them work

Monday, March 12th, 2018


You will remember my talking about formalising a new set of values in the organisation as part of our Workforce Strategy. I’m sorry if I’m repeating myself, but I thought that it would be useful if I were to bring you up to date with our progress.

We had an excellent discussion with our Cabinet a couple of weeks ago on the subject. They were fully supportive of the 5 values that we have identified so far – ambition, courage, honesty, empowerment and compassion.  Very helpfully, Councillor Philip White challenged me and members of SLT on how these values would follow through to our desired outcomes. In his professional life, he sees an enormous number of values in companies with whom he does business, and he noted that the really successful ones were those where they represented the organisation for what they really are, and what they aspire to be, rather than a list of well-meaning words. That really struck a chord with me.

As I have said on several occasions, it’s less about changing Staffordshire County Council, and more about our being consistently at our best. The values above are plainly evident during the overwhelming proportion of time for the vast majority of us. But when things go wrong, as they do in every organisation that operates in the real world, their absence in part is apparent; formalising them gives us a map to navigate our way to the consistency that we seek. Following the discussion at Cabinet there will be a programme of work with all staff to discuss and agree our final set of values

My last observation on values at this point is from my previous military service.  If we accept that the only sure way to avoid things going wrong is to do nothing, and that is not an option, then I would contend that it is how we deal with those unintended events that is the measure of a leader rather than their happening in the first place. Being open and honest, and focusing on the recovery is always the best policy. I will be returning to this theme in the coming weeks as we develop the Workforce Strategy. Your part in this is pivotal.

Thanks to our gritting crews, a ministerial visit, and recognition for Families First

Monday, March 5th, 2018

I couldn’t start this week’s entry with anything other than the winter weather – the combination of snow and wind has made it especially challenging for those keeping the roads clear. Our gritting crews have been flat out for the best part of a week now, and they’ve done a magnificent job. We shouldn’t also forget the Fleetcare crews who have been keeping them on the road in some of most inhospitable conditions for mechanical machinery.

We had a visit from Nadhim Zahawi MP, the newly appointed Minister for Children and Families, on Thursday to see what we are doing in the Government’s flagship 30 hours of childcare scheme. In the pilot, Matt Biggs and his team have taken a bold initiative and engaged with employers as well as families and childcare suppliers to persuade them to change shifts and work patterns so that the families get the most benefit. The challenge is now to do the same at scale with the main scheme but we are already making great progress with Staffordshire now having one of the highest take-up rates in the region, with almost 4,500 children taking advantage of the funded childcare.

It was also a very pleasant surprise to hear that one of our Families First Colleagues is to be recognised by Staffordshire Police for her part in Operation SHADE, a particularly complex and harrowing Child Sexual Exploitation case which came to a conclusion recently. She and a number of colleagues have worked conscientiously and carefully over many months in some pretty difficult circumstances to ensure that the twin aims of bringing the perpetrators to justice and looking after the victims is achieved. It’s quite humbling to be part of the same organisation.