Archive for September, 2020

Reaction to last week’s blog, and the introduction of We Talk

Monday, September 28th, 2020

I’m very grateful for the responses to last week’s blog entry, where I talked about how we are going to get through the next 6 months successfully.  You might also have seen the video which I did for The Knot on the same subject, following the Prime Minister’s announcements earlier in the week.  It seems that the message that we need to pace ourselves, working hard when we need to and taking leave when we can, looking out for each other and offering support when it is needed, struck a chord with many of you.  I’m going to be attending a number of team meetings, physically and virtually, over the coming weeks to listen to colleagues as well as to get my own feel for how the organisation is doing.  If you would like me to attend your meeting, please let me know. 

This coming week also sees the introduction of We Talk, the replacement for the My Performance Conversation (MPC).  I’ve mentioned it before, and it links strongly to the point above.  We Talk is our new approach to performance development, but it’s more than that, and in many ways, it’s a lot simpler as well.  It’s all about having good and meaningful conversations – conversations that build strong relationships, boost wellbeing and promote a positive working environment to deliver The Staffordshire Vision.  It reflects our values of an ambitious, courageous and empowered organisation.  If you can find a minute or two, there’s some really good material on the intranet, iLearn and iManage to help colleagues get to grips with the approach.  But my biggest ask is that we don’t over-complicate this; honest two-way conversations are what we’re looking for.  It’s as important for leaders to learn what their colleagues want from them, as it is for the led to learn what the leaders want. 

Planning for a probably second wave

Monday, September 21st, 2020

It won’t have escaped anybody’s attention that COVID infection rates are rising across the country, and in Staffordshire. We’re not in the formal level of government intervention, like our colleagues in Birmingham, Solihull and Sandwell, and in an increasing number of other urban centres across the North and Midlands, but it is a concerning situation. We heard a pretty stark warning from the Government’s chief scientific adviser this morning about the rise in case numbers, and the need for swift action to curb it. We need to get ready for what is likely to be a difficult winter.

I raise this, as we haven’t really had a period of respite since the onset of the initial outbreak in March. No sooner had the initial wave passed, than we got stuck into recovery planning, reopening society and the economy and getting our schools reopen. We now have to plan for a probable second wave, and all that entails, before we have a functioning vaccine which will, hopefully, put Covid-19 in the same place as other illnesses and diseases such as winter flu.

It is often said that unpleasant experiences are marathons, not sprints, but, in this case, that is a simplification – we won’t be running at the same rate at all times in the coming months. If there is a better athletic simile, it might be that it is more like a relay race.  There will be difficult days when we are working flat out, when we will need the support of friends, loved ones and colleagues. We’re used to that, and we’ve got a string of achievements behind us, of which we can be rightly proud. But there will also be days, or periods of days, when the pressure is off, and we have to learn to switch off when we can. If you will forgive me for drawing from my experience leading on military operations, one of the tricks to getting through is not to feel guilty about relaxing when the opportunity arises. The other aspect of a relay is that it requires teamwork; you must look out for your colleagues and friends, make time for yourselves, and take leave when you can.

I’ll admit that I’m not especially good at this – I find it hard to disengage – but I work at it, and will have to work at it harder in the coming weeks and months, because, like many colleagues, I’m tired, but we have to keep going. Let’s work on this together.

Covid-19, and inspiring trust and confidence

Monday, September 14th, 2020

I couldn’t start off this week’s blog without a mention of the rising infection rate of Covid across the country, and particularly in Birmingham, Sandwell and Solihull, where they will enter into a form of local lockdown on Tuesday.  Our rate of infection is also rising in Staffordshire, and it is imperative that residents follow the national guidance of measures to avoid transmission of the virus; it’s the only viable method of saving us from falling into another lockdown.  With schools returning and the economy showing signs of recovery, we simply must get this right.

The failure of the national Test and Trace programme has been covered widely in the media; the result of the lack of laboratory capacity nationally has resulted in testing teams locally standing idle while residents are being offered tests in Aberdeen and other far flung places.  Rather than join the chorus of complaint shouting from the side-lines, we have done what we have done previously with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), delivering food parcels and mobilising volunteers – we’ve produced our own solution.  Working with Stoke City Council, we will be forming up a local testing operation in Stoke, Burton and Stafford this week.  It’s a pilot at the moment, quite small in nature, but we will learn lessons from it and expand. Doing something in these circumstances always beats just talking about it.      

I hope that you will forgive me being a little reflective on leadership in this blog entry.  There are over 600 colleagues across the council who have a line management responsibility and every one of us experiences leadership in some way in our day to day. In my limited forays into social media – I only use LinkedIn – I’ve been struck by the conversations among leaders about being trusted, and it has set me thinking about this subject as we get used to how we are going to work in the future, the “New Normal”.  Having now led at senior levels in 2 very different sectors, I’m firmly of the belief that trust and confidence are relationships, like so much in life, rather than one-way qualities.  If I want my colleagues to trust me as a leader, I first have to trust them in their professional roles, and if I want them to be more confident, I first have to demonstrate confidence in them.  It’s a pretty simple theory to describe, but much harder to implement, particularly when you’re under pressure, where the tendency is to micromanage.  It’s going to be even harder as we evolve into the New Normal, as the old certainties of seeing somebody at work every day to reassure yourself that they’re doing the right things will reduce, and we will have to find new ways of establishing and maintaining those trust and confidence relationships.  If you are a line manager and haven’t yet looked at the learning and development support available as part of the new iManage programme, can I ask that you take some time to look at it?  I’d love to hear your ideas on how you achieve that trust and confidence relationship with your teams.

Getting back to the office

Monday, September 7th, 2020

As we are opening up more and more of our buildings for colleagues to return as and when they need and want to, we have to acknowledge that our ways of working have changed out of all recognition in the past 6 months; we are adapting quickly to make the most of the opportunities.  Many of you will have heard me say that I’m very glad that we went down the Smart Working road some 4 years ago, but we’ve learned more in the past 6 months than we have in those previous 4 years.   I’m quite clear that we are not ordering people back to the office, but rather enabling safe environments for us to make the most of the new realities.  Fewer of us will come to the office for a desk and a computer, and more of us will come for specific activities, such as meetings which work better face to face than virtually. 

I was struck by conversations after a recent Business Brief that some colleagues in jobs that involve stressful interactions with clients and the public really miss the opportunity to sit with their teams and decompress.  As an intelligent, thinking organisation, we  are making that happen, and I seek your support in this endeavour.

We also recognise that our town centres rely on the footfall from office-based staff during the week. By providing a safe environment for more colleagues to return to workplaces, I hope an added benefit is that we can collectively support our local shops, eating places and other businesses, at a time when they really need our custom.

Elsewhere ,the county council is also adapting our HR policies to suit us as an organisation in the future.   We had an excellent briefing at SLT last week on re-thinking our HR policies.  I have personally always worked on the basis that I assume that everybody got up this morning wanting to do their best, and when that doesn’t happen, there are usually things that can be done to recover the situation with a bit of focussed leadership.  I was therefore delighted to listen to a briefing from Hannah Reade–Head of our Education HR Service which proposes “Freedom within a Framework”, reducing the number and complexity of our HR policies. The aim is to empower our people, accept that mistakes happen, that they are a sign of a learning and developing organisation, and the measure of success is that the same mistake isn’t made two or more times.     

Lastly this week, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to make a “plug” for the upcoming iManage workshops. In the coming weeks, managers will be asked to enrol on a series of workshops to give them the skills and confidence they need to have great conversations. It’s a conscious step-change in our approach to one-to-ones. I’m looking forward to the sessions and seeing you taking part.