The view from the tower; feel the wind in your face

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"You are standing on the very top of the Blackpool Tower... you can feel the wind from the Irish Sea blowing into you, buffering you as you stand right on top of the tower looking down." Talk about blowing away the Covid cobwebs? What a way to start our time together with the North West Employers at the end of February.

Now, of course, the reality was that we were still all in lockdown; of course, we weren't standing on top of Blackpool Tower; instead, we were all still in precisely the same home office and makeshift working spaces that we have been for most of the last year. This visualisation exercise opened our 'Accelerated Leadership in Local Government' webinar with over 40 participants exploring the brain's role in emotionally-charging change situations.   

The global megatrends influencing transformation                

To frame our thinking, we worked through Professor Lynda Gratton's five megatrends that shape the future of work. While these trends have been 'out there' for many years, the reality of the last 12 months has rapidly accelerated the lived experience of the future of work for so many of us. As we shared the five megatrends - technology, globalisation, health/longevity, society, energy - 77% of our audience credited technology as the most influential megatrend in accelerating change in their context.         

Priorities for change at a local level          

While there is value in exploring the context for change globally, we quickly moved into discussing what this meant for participants in their local context. We asked the audience to reflect on their number one priority for change within their organisation. Only a small percentage saw organisational restructure or the development of a new corporate strategy as the priority for how their organisations adapted to this changing context. Instead, the top three priorities were:      

  • Service model redesign: over 33% of the respondents saw this as their number one change priority         
  • Digitalisation: nearly 29% of respondents rated this as their number one priority       
  • Reshaping the workforce: again, almost 29% of respondents thought this was the most significant priority needed to support change within their organisation.                   

By combining these insights with the earlier global forces, we can easily see the role of technology as an enabler of how we deliver services and something requiring a shift in our employee skills and capabilities.           

A behavioural lens on change                         

A key theme from our discussion was that most organisations default to focusing on change management process during times of change. Evidence from the 2016/17 Harvard Business Review global study into why change efforts failed found that the most significant contributors to failure were more behavioural than procedural. As a result, when working through the best way to support our public sector leaders, we need to strengthen their transformation leadership behaviours rather than focus on change management process. Together, we explored our data insights from our Altitude leadership database. 

Altitude is a future-focused leadership framework and underpins all GatenbySanderson diagnostic tools. We have built a comprehensive database with tens of 1,000s of data points from leaders across the public sector and beyond through our extensive application of online psychometrics and diagnostics. These data provided a compelling backdrop to enable rich discussions and dialogue.                                

The voice of the Chief Executive               

We were delighted to be joined by Denise Park, the Chief Executive at Blackburn with Darwen Council, who shared her personal reflections on the year of Covid. As so many people have shared with us, her number one priority was her workforce, focusing on their needs and supporting them to be able to continue to provide the support needed within the community.                        

To help with this, she talked about the need for empathy and place-based leadership:            

 The degree to which we have transformed our ways of working and delivering services over the past 12 months has been so dramatic it was completely unthinkable 12 months ago… However, we have all got very used to operating in crisis management mode; leaders now need to step back up to lead to allow our teams to get on with the jobs they need to do.                  

This shift from 'command and control' emergency response style back to empowering and inspiring leadership is key. 

Emotionally-charged change                   

It is practically impossible to talk about the pace and impact of accelerated transformation without addressing the topic of emotions. Our brains continuously scan the environment for possible threats, leading to an increased risk of emotional outbursts. Leaders need to not only be aware of their own emotional trigger points but be emotionally resilient and literate to navigate sensitive issues with peers and teams.                       

We expect emotions during change, yet we have to put this into the context of the last 15 months and recognise how much more heightened emotional responses are likely to be. When people are feeling resourceful, they can hear, process, and adapt reasonably well. However, a vast proportion of people are currently feeling hugely jaded and drained from one of the most challenging years they have experienced. Many are therefore not feeling resourceful but resourceless. 

Technology, globalisation, changing society, demographics, and depleted resources affect and shape our lives every day and will continue to influence our future reality. To adapt and respond and engage with these changes, we don't need more process or efficiency; we need leaders who engage with their teams on a human level, with compassion.

We look forward to our next session with the North West Employers. Should you be interested in talking this through with the team at GS further, or if you have an event you would like Barry to speak at, please contact Barry McNeill, Partner & Practice Lead - Leadership & Organisational Development, at barry.mcneill@gatenbysanderson.com.