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Future Leader Scheme: End of scheme conference

Future Leader Scheme: End of scheme conference

Reading Time: 4 minutes

 

My time on the Civil Service Future Leader Scheme formally came to an end recently, culminating in a conference at Birmingham’s International Conference Centre. My leadership journey continues beyond the course but here’s my hot take on the conference.

It was great to be alongside many colleagues from my cohort but also enjoyable to be in a room with another 300 or so people on the same journey. The opportunities to network beyond your cohort have been surprisingly limited (or maybe I just didn’t take the opportunities that were available). So it was nice, if a little strange, to meet people for the first time at the end of the scheme.

One of the most exciting aspects was to meet up with colleagues who’ve also been documenting their progression through the scheme online.

There is so little written about the FLS that you would be forgiven for thinking it had the same first rule as Fight Club. I’ve searched for blogs and social media, but only a handful of people have shared their views. Making those connections in real life was great, and I’m looking forward to continuing to follow their adventures.

At first look, the agenda for the conference was fairly light. I was interested to hear from a couple of speakers (Lynda Rawsthorne, a Director at DfT and Emran Mian, Director General at DLUHC) but there was a lot of time for networking. Weirdly there was very little to facilitate or stimulate that, and I wonder on reflection is a more ‘unconference’ approach might have been useful.

Who do you think you are?

Lynda’s session on her leadership journey was undeniably fabulous (and I’m a fan of the subtle Spice Girls reference in the title of her presentation)! Attendees were eating out of the palm of her hand by the end of her short masterclass in authentic, story-telling approach to presenting.

She touched on many of the concepts that the course had covered, but the key standout messages for me were:

  • Get a coach/peer group to continue to support you.
  • If your employer is willing to pay for training/development then take it – even if immediate benefits don’t seem obvious.
  • Embrace being an incomplete leader – nobody is great at everything, know your limitations and strengths.
  • Push yourself to do things that feel uncomfortable. 
  • Don’t procrastinate! Life changes and there will never be the perfect time for anything. 
  • Keep your integrity. Do things you can live with. 
  • A new role offers the opportunity for a reset. 
  • Maintain boundaries. Don’t lose yourself.

Making the transition vs Integrity

Sadly, Emran was unable to attend and a panel session on making the transition to senior civil service roles took it’s place.

An objective for many people on the LFLS seems to be achieving more senior roles. Consequently, this was essentially a ‘how to play the game’ session to ace the selection process. I’m not sure that was my motivation and therefore this fell a little flat for me.

I also thought it was a strange juxtaposition with the next session on social mobility, valuing people over competence rather than background and behaviour. The two things didn’t align – in one session being told to ‘consider your personal brand’ and then to be encouraged to ‘be your whole self’.

    As you progress within an organisation consider how you can put people at ease – relationship dynamics change and people who were once comfortable with you may not be as your position changes.

  • Consider implementing a ‘no meetings between 12:00 – 14:00 in winter’ rule with your team to encourage the opportunity to go out in daylight.
  • Challenge things that are accepted as normal. Ask stupid questions.
  • Get to know the gatekeepers and use your networks – they help you to hear things more quickly, to stay ahead of the curve.

Reflections from a Local Government Leader

The final session of the year-long programme was a session billed as reflections about working with the Civil Service from outside. This had the potential to be really interesting and enlightening – brining a different perspective to the issues that have arisen during the course.

However, what transpired was an awkward session which fell short of what had been promised.

This was one of the absolute zingers, but more generally, I think a passive-aggressive question at a conference often reveals that the speaker has hit a nerve. That deserves iexamination. Our first instinct is to leap to the defensive (or the aggressive), which perhaps it’s an ideal leadership quality.

It was also a lesson about how to prepare of these sorts of events.

  • The speaker didn’t seem to be well briefed on what they should be talking about and who was in the room
  • The facilitator didn’t have ‘extraction skills’ to navigate away from choppy waters
  • The audience didn’t have rules of engagement

Many colleagues I spoke to afterwards found it uncomfortable. However, perhaps the provocation served a purpose. More than any other session during the day it got people talking, passionately, and sharing their views. There was a level of ‘trauma-bonding’ perhaps, but one of the functions of a leader is to generate discussion; so, mission accomplished, I guess.

Some final thoughts…

The final speaker definitely left an impression. As did FLS overall.

Like most things, you get out of it what you put in, but it’s challenging and has made me question things more than I expected. One of the very clear strands which come through in all modules, and the optional assignments, has been about personal reflection. FLS fo me has been part leadership development, part career coaching and a large dose of therapy.

I changed job role part way through the course and at my ‘leaving’ drinks one colleague said “it’s nice to be somewhere so noisy; it means I can’t hear my own thoughts”. In some ways, I think that about reflection. There is a time and a place, and it needs to be handled carefully and with copious self-compassion because it can quickly turn into negativity.

This isn’t the right time to reflect on the scheme as a whole, which has had bumps in the road, but I think had broadly been interesting. I’ll come back with some more considered thoughts later!

Frank Bailey Leadership: Module 1 and 2

Frank Bailey Leadership: Module 1 and 2

Reading Time: 6 minutes

 

Well, this is a bit unexpected! Here I am again with some reflections on my leadership journey. These aren’t formally part of the FLS course, but recent training in my new role and as before I wanted to document my (semi) immediate reflections.

Who is Frank Bailey?

Frank Arthur Bailey (1925 – 2015) is known for being one of the first black firefighters in the United Kingdom.

There is a lot more to his story than I can do justice to in a short introduction and his obituary is well worth a read. Frank was born in British Guiana and had a varied career; working as an engineering apprentice on a German trade ship, moving to New York to work in healthcare and then becoming a firefighter in London. In 1965 he left the fire brigade and became a social worker and a legal advisor.

London Fire Brigade’s leadership development programme is named in his honour. Like my FLS posts, this blog captures my reflections from the first two of four modules as a way of documenting my learning and holding myself accountable.

Module One – Leading One’s Self

As with the FLS course this module spent a considerable time discussing the differences between management and leadership. As before, I align more with the qualities of a leader however have noticed a couple of occasions, particularly with looming deadlines and things just need to get done, where I take a more management approach.

This reminded me of a recent conversation with a researcher who was exploring how emergency managers use different leadership and communication styles at different phases of the integrated emergency management cycle.

For me, the most useful part of the session was an exercise which invited us to consider burnout. The below picture was presented and we were asked to discuss which of the jelly babies we identify most with, and why. I found this a powerful way of broaching what could feel like difficult emotions.

 

Jelly Baby Tree

The thing which surprised me most was how people put radically different interpretations into what each jelly baby might be experiencing – is that somebody hanging on for dear life, or are they just hanging out because they have built the muscles to do so? This is unlikely to capture the entire human experience, but is a useful starting point to check in with yourself, and with others.

Module Two – Leading Teams

This module was conducted virtually. You’ll remember that my experience with the virtual LFS module was far from positive (so much so that there was no specific blog about it), but this was a very different story, and a well-structured, interesting and open session.

FLS hasn’t gone into great detail on Tuckman’s model of team performance (perhaps because it’s a well-trodden path and want to introduce newer concepts), but the LFB course provided a deeper examination of this model.

Tuckman generally aligns with my experience, but like all models, it can only ever be an approximation. The aspect which I have some doubt over is the ability to determine precise stages – how do you know when you are forming, storming, morning or performing? The reality, I find, is that all of those things are happening all of the time, just to a greater or lesser degree.

I wondered whether, perhaps, it might make more sense to see the model something like this…where all of those things are happening at once but overlapping. The different ‘stages of development’ take precedence at different time periods, but are always all occurring and fluctuating. Apologies for the yellow line on white paper – I was short on Sharpie options!

My edit of the Tuckman model which shows each 'stage' as a separate line rather than as discrete sequential stages

Having posted it, I can already see some issues with my suggestion – the performing line should be more exponential perhaps, starting beneath the norming stage. Whilst these models all have limitations, I find that by thinking about how we might tweak them helps build understanding, even if you revert to the original after testing something new.

We had a lot of discussion about the primary factors which could prevent moving out of the ‘storming valley’ and some dramatically different views, suggesting that so much of this is contextual. A study (sadly not referenced because I’d like to learn more) was referenced which noted that interpersonal skills accounts for just 0.8% of the ability to break out of the storming phase. That’s a real contrast to my own view that by having good relationships you can solve most problems. There is a emergency management mantra of “make friends before you need them” which seems to hold true here, I can’t always define clear goals, roles or processes, but knowing who to call and who you can trust is a huge advantage.

FactorMattTeam ATeam BTeam CStudy
Interpersonal Skills504015600.8
Clear Goals2520351080
Clear Roles and Responsibilities1030201516
Clear Processes51020103.2

Lockard Exchange Principle / Forensic Leadership

One of the best modules from my geography degree was Forensic Geochemistry. My sense of bereavement for the Forensic Science Service is for another time, but during this module I was introduced to Locard’s Exchange Principle that “every contact leaves a trace”. It’s the backbone of forensic science, but to hear it related to leadership was interesting. We did an activity to consider what ‘red flags’ previous leaders have left us – I shared one about inappropriate conduct during a meeting in my first week of a job which influenced my view of that organisation for many years.

Somehow, this idea seemed linked to the idea of a ‘leadership shadow’ which we covered in FLA Module 1, but for me the Locard principle felt more intuitive – every contact you have with somebody as a leader also leaves a trace, and those traces can be good or bad.

If you have a spare hour and are interested in the more crime-scene angles use of this principle, take a look at Professor Dame Sue Black’s 2022 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures!

Team Dysfunction 

We wrapped up the session by considering Lencioni’s 5 dysfunctions of a team, which I was introduced to on FLS so it’s helpful to have another reminder of a useful tool. I see this almost as the opposite of Maslow’s hierarchy – if that’s what people do need, this is what people don’t need.

I’m fortunate to have built and worked in a very competent Team until very recently. My new team aren’t incompetent by any stretch, but I’m on a journey of determining their individual strengths, areas of expertise and working styles. That means getting to know a different set of people and helping them to overcome challenges to be more effective.

I don’t feel an absence of trust within my new team, however clearly trust takes time to be earned. However, one of Lencioni’s dysfunctions feels more prominent and that’s a sense that there are some reservations about coming forwards with ideas and suggestions. I need to create an environment where team members feel safe to raise questions, offer alternative views and encourage constructive conflict. I’m open to all suggestions and ideas, but perhaps need to go back to the whole brain thinking model to understand who my team are, and how best to understand their particular motivations and preferences.

How am I getting on with my earlier FLS commitments? 

Another run-through of whether I’ve kept my promises to myself…I committed to:

  • Be more intentional about reflection. Update: 9/10. I’d say that I’ve seen a small increase in this since the last check-in. I’ve re-established my weekly Team emails to provide some structure and force myself to reflect (and I’m also using it as one means of recognition of the team’s work too).
  • Ask my team and colleagues for more feedback on how I work. Update: 6/10. I have asked my direct reports to be honest with me as I settle in to my new role, inviting their feedback. However, there is more that I could do to seek wider views and reflections.
  • Review my personal objectives to make them more values-based. Update2/10. I’m beginning to regret making this commitment! I’m giving myself a free-pass on this for the time being whilst I adjust to the new role, but must come back to it at some point!
  • Push myself to be more forthcoming at an earlier stage. Update: 6/10. If anything this has fallen a small amount. I want to be forthcoming, however I don’t want to dominate the conversation. I did, however, push myself to take lead a discussion for my FLS cohort and have volunteered to take on additional areas of responsibility.
  • I want to take advantage of co-coaching. Update: 1/10. this has dropped considerably. I need to identify my ‘tribe’ of peers, which is difficult in a  new role where many more people seem to be working remotely. I feel far more lonely in this role that previously and have suggested building a peer group network but haven’t actually done anything about that myself.
  • Practice using other conflict approaches to build muscle memory. Update: 4/10. Recently there was a difficult conversation which needed to be had. I tried to conduct this in an inclusive, non judgemental way to ensure that even if there was no positive outcome that relationships weren’t soured. I also backed away from having one conflict conversation altogether it didn’t feel like the right time to have it.
  • Be a bit more vulnerable. Update: 6/10. Not my forte, but I am trying to do more of the ‘show your working’ to explain my approach rather than pressing ahead. This does mean things are slower, but hopefully that is part of the storming/forming and colleagues become aware of how I work the pace will pick up.

The next modules are in about 6 weeks, so I’ll probably have the next update around then!

Future Leader Scheme: Module Three OR… When training courses give you lemons

Future Leader Scheme: Module Three OR… When training courses give you lemons

Reading Time: 5 minutes

 

Earlier in the year I blogged about my experience and reflections at the first module of the Civil Service Future Leader Scheme. I made a commitment to share blogs after each module, and promptly failed to blog about module 2! Not a great start, but let me explain…

In June, Network Rail and 13 Train Operators took strike action. That caused difficulties to travel arrangements and the decision was taken to shift to virtual delivery. There was much opposition, given the additional benefits of meeting in person, but ultimately the decision had been made.

2 days of training from my dining room was about as far from stimulating and thought provoking as it’s possible to get. Frankly I just didn’t feel inspired to write about it.

The great news is that Module 3 was back to in person delivery in glorious York, and was enlightening (and a little provocative). As with the first module, I’m documenting my early reflections ( subject to the group agreement about confidentiality) after two days of examining and challenging concepts relating to partnership working.

In 1642 the Dean of St Pauls Cathedral, John Donne, gave a sermon and said

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; is a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

There’s some heavy irony given Brexit, but this really encapsulates my views about partnership working. Everything is a partnership, or a collection of partnerships, or a complex, interdependent system of partnerships. We champion qualities such as independence and self-reliance, but non of us can exist without others, nor would we want to. Partnerships are fundamental to how society functions.

Things that I learned:

Coaching

  • An early activity was to highlight a personal strength and match with somebody who’s strength was an area for your own development.
  • I’m good in a crisis (helpful, that!) and comfortable with ambiguity, shades of grey, messiness and shifting sands. I matched with somebody far more disciplined, boundaried and goal oriented to be my co-coach, providing feedback on our observations at the end of the course.
  • This built on the Module 1 advice that self reflection isn’t enough, it is helpful to hear feedback from people who are not like us.
  • This was incredibly powerful and I’m very grateful to my co-coach and it was fascinating what they observed about me within just a couple of days, it all rang true but was delivered in ways which would have taken me far longer if I was just navel gazing.

Partnerships

  • Picciotto’s definition that partnerships are “a means to an end – a collaborative relationship toward mutually agreed objectives, involving shared responsibility for outcomes, distinct accountabilities and reciprocal obligations” generated much debate, particularly about whether they are a means to an end, or could be an end in themselves.
  • We talked about whether partners were equal and how power relationships affect the relationship and ways of working.
  • Considering how we might improve on Picciotto’s definition we covered factors such as trust and transparency, but also recognised that there would be limits to that, and that different partnerships might need different things as a result of their context and personalities.
  • There were suggestions that the definition also needed to reference clarity, but I’m less sure about whether that is the goal, or if understanding would be more suitable – in some respects it’s easy to have clarity, but that doesn’t necessarily mean people understand.

Rules

  • Various activities and scenarios were presented where we were invited to consider rules and assumptions.
  • The first activity related to an escape room challenge. I love an escape room however, this activity rubbed me up the wrong way because it seemed to suggest that rules don’t matter, which I feel opens the gate to anarchy. If the objective was to ask us to consider what assumptions we might be making, rather than suggesting if we don’t like the rules then change them then the exercise failed for me.
  • Other activities related to ‘trading’ and ‘making a case’, both of these were interesting explorations and it was interesting to get feedback from the trainers that our our cohort collectively took a different and more collegiate approach, especially to the first scenario.
  • The most useful learning for me came from approaching the same negotiation but from different mindsets (avoidance, accommodation, collaboration, compromise and competition), where both individual preferences.
  • We considered the role of the Civil Service and it’s relationship to Government, democracy and morality. One particular conundrum is whether it’s better to work on something you’re passionate about or if that can present challenges to objectivity. I also have an emerging question about the use of consultants and contractors and whether this client-supplier relationship also impacts on objectivity.

Negotiations and Conflict

  • Distributive vs Integrative negotiations – each have their advantages and uses, but also limitations. Need to consider in advance what might style might work best for a particular negotiation.
  • For me there was a lot to learn from the session on preparing in advance for a negotiation. I frequently witness people doing this but rarely seem to find time to do it myself. A useful structure provided to structure negotiations was Process/Behaviour/Substance. In my world things like the Joint Decision Model provide a helpful process, the developed plans or emergency responders represent the substance, but perhaps the bit that is missing relates to behaviours. A useful technique to develop further.
  • There was also a connection, for me, back to the ‘VoicePrint’ work of Module 1, where different negotiations can literally require a different tone of voice.

New Commitments: 

  • I want to take advantage of co-coaching – exploring options for that and to learn how to get better at giving and receiving feedback
  •  I will practice using other conflict approaches which I’m less comfortable with – I currently feel anxious about using these which is a negative feedback loop, so if I try using them more, maybe I’ll change how I feel also.
  • I’ll attempt to be a bit more vulnerable myself – this also doesn’t come naturally (and maybe should explore that further separately), but it seemed to be a useful negotiation technique to build rapport and empathy.

How am I getting on with my earlier FLS commitments? 

A quick stocktake on whether I’ve kept my promises to myself…I committed to:

  • Be more intentional about reflection. Update: 9/10! I have allocated a weekly half hour slot, late-ish on a Friday afternoon, to consolidate my thoughts, what has gone well, what could have happened differently, what I’ve learned and what’s stood out in the things I’ve read. I’m capturing these reflections and sharing with my team and have received feedback that it’s often the favourite email of the week – perhaps because I make extensive use of emoji’s. 🤷‍♂️
  • Ask my team and colleagues for more feedback on how I work. Update: 6/10. I have tried to do this, prompting my team in their quarterly development conversations to consider this and seeking their input on an essay relating to leadership but still find it a little awkward. On the advice of my coach, I also asked some friends how they see me, and whilst there were differences, there are some consistent themes in their observation of my behaviour.
  • Review my personal objectives to make them more values-based. Update: 2/10. I haven’t fully completed this yet, it’s harder than I thought to marry my personal values to some objectives and activities in the workplace.
  • Push myself to be more forthcoming at an earlier stage. Update: 6/10. To be honest this has been hit and miss. I volunteer to get involved and to lead pieces of work, I make my views known and try to bring balance to discussions. However, I recognise that my comfort zone is to listen before speaking. Lots of things you read encourage listening before speaking and when I hear ‘be more forthcoming’ I internalise that as ‘speaking without thinking’. That’s not helpful, but I think the feedback is actually about being a bit more transparent, and that’s something that requires more work.

The next module is in November, so come back then to check on my progress and latest musings!

Future Leader Scheme: Module One

Future Leader Scheme: Module One

Reading Time: 4 minutes

 

Last year I was encouraged by my manager* to apply for the Civil Service Future Leader Scheme. I applied without expectation, was invited to a selection interview and heard I’d been selected towards in the autumn. And then…nothing!

For months there was a confusing barrage of messages, emails, virtual meetings and online platform messages, but little-to-no directed learning activity.

In part delays have been due to the COVID pandemic, and I suspect that wrangling 400 students and multiple levels of technology competence is no mean feat. But the course didn’t give me good vibes.

However, I’m writing this post on the train back from Coventry and can honestly say that it was one of the most stimulating courses I’ve attended in some time and a privilege to spend time with an array of people with massively interesting positions and unique challenges.

There were two consistent themes in the discussion for me, one about reflection and one about accountability. Which is why I’m planning to blog about my experience of the scheme; to force myself to reflect on the learning activities, organise my thoughts and set intentions, openly, about putting learning into practice. I can then come back and review these to see whether I have followed through on my intentions, and I welcome that challenge externally too.

As a group we agreed some rules, one of which was about confidentiality. Definitely don’t read this series of blogs looking for the latest scoop! They’ll be high level reflections rather than my verbatim notes and I won’t quote anyone directly. Where possible I’ll try to credit any intellectual property, but it’s not always obvious what is/isn’t IP! If I’ve inadvertently reproduced something without attribution or permission then I’d be happy to edit or remove.

Objectives and Overview of the FLS Module 1 course:

  • Outline the structure of the programme and define a working agreement.
  • Define critical reflection and explore links to self-awareness and leadership.
  • Reflect on values, biases and assumptions which underpin leadership.
  • Consider the impact of a leader’s behaviour on others.
  • Form an Action Learning Set and practice the skills needed.
  • Reflect on aspirations and outline steps needed to achieve them.

We were also asked, as part of the course to ‘share an image of leadership’. There were some great contributions and rationale given, and I’ve made a note to look into the pack behaviour of wolves as a result!

The image that I chose was of the part-submerged US Airways flight 1549, which made an emergency landing on water in January 2009. The pilot of the plane, Chelsey Sullenberger, said in a later interview that “it was comforting to me to know that [the cabin crew] were on the same page, that we were all acting in concert” and about creating the conditions for other people to perform their role effectively.

a plane, US Airways flight 1549, shown half submerged in water following an amergency landing in January 2009 on the Hudson River, New York

Things that I learned (sorry this is a lot of bullet points):

Reflection

  • Holding up a mirror to ourselves isn’t enough – mirrors can be distorted and we might need some constructive, objective feedback
  • A working agreement is a charter between a group which sets out the norms for how the group intends to operate. It helps to create a safe, supportive space.
  • Try to recognise where your feelings are (and label them – ‘name the demon’) before responding.
  • Reflection is a helpful diagnostic tool and way of embedding learning. We all do it differently and what works for one won’t work for another. Think about getting a better balance between mandated reflection (formal development conversations) and situational or spontaneous reflection.

Relationships

  • Are our relationships with people different, is knowing people different, as a result of the pandemic? What does leadership look like in that context?
  • The Johari Window wasn’t new as a concept, but it was the first time that I’ve seen it in this way, with the focus being not just on understanding where different traits sit, but what actions we can take through self-disclosure, external feedback and shared exploration.
  • ‘Knowing’ is not just what people tell you or is documented. There are things we know which it is hard to define or articulate.
  • Find ways to seek more information using open questions and strategically deployed silence.
  • We each have values, but those values exist in a hierarchy. Can also consider ‘anti-values’.
  • Where do values come from in a secular society?
  • Emotional intelligence varies, be aware of, accommodate and support neurodivergence.
  • Can also use empathy to find common ground and positives. Where does somebody get their energy from? Doesn’t always have to be a negative emotion/situation that is being empathised with.

Values and objectives

  • What do you want, and what are you prepared to do for it?
  • As you get more senior more people are looking towards you. It’s lonely at the top and you can trust feedback less. Find a tribe who can give the honest feedback you need.
  • Make one change at a time so you can determine cause and effect.
  • There are leaders and there are influencers. If they’re not the same people, find and connect them.
  • Consider the influence of culture on how you present yourself and how other people interpret you.
  • When the rate of learning > rate of change = thriving conditions.

Things I’ll (try) to do differently as a result:

  • Be more intentional about reflection – allocate a half day each week
  • Ask my team and colleagues for more feedback on how I work – including perhaps asking them to draw a picture of my leadership!
  • Review my personal objectives to consider where I can make them more values-based, which feels more natural and comfortable to me than what I see as destination-based goals.
  • Push myself to be more forthcoming at an earlier stage.

An activity that I enjoyed was to draw ‘our vision of a leader in the 21st century’. My contribution is below, without interpretation because I’d be interested in how this is perceived! Drop me a tweet or leave a comment (not about my artistic prowess please)!

drawing of a figure with brain and heart identified and linked with a green arrow, a series of connected dots, some of which are obscured by a dark shape and some are illuminate by light

The next module of the course isn’t until the summer, but there are virtual events and sessions interspersed so I intend to cover those in much the same way.

 

* I have a slight philosophical issue with ‘manager’ which I’d like to explore more some other time. To me, the idea of ‘managing’ carries a connotation of coping, rather than excelling and improving. For that reason, I’m more drawn to leadership than management.