West Midlands Employers Network keynote address

Barry McNeill looks back at his keynote address on transformational change to the West Midlands Employers Network with heightened poignancy, as public organisations face the most far reaching leadership challenges of generations.

Recently, I was privileged to present a keynote on ‘Driving Transformational Change’ at the West Midlands Employers Network to 50 senior HR, OD and Talent specialists across a wide range of public sector organisations. The objective for the session was to explore what support public sector leaders needed in transforming their organisations.

With it being budget day, we opened the session reflecting on a quote by journalist and political commentator, Andrew Marr from that weekend: “No chancellor in living memory has had to cope with uncertainty on this scale”; whilst many of us may not be making decisions on the scale and scope of the UK budget or global pandemics, public sector leaders make daily decisions that affect each and every one of us. Making the right decision has never been so important. 

Yet public sector leaders face a number of challenges that make leadership decisions increasingly more difficult.  The impact of austerity and the pressure to deliver more for less has been a consistent theme for many years now as is the pressure leaders are under to switch to whole systems thinking as partnerships and collaborations continue to form. The unfolding health pandemic and the speed of its impact has intensified pressure and burdened leaders with shifting to short term priorities while protecting the longer term strategy. It is within this setting that behavioural traits – resilience, engagement and adaptability – will define effective leadership in the months ahead.

A behavioural lens on change

A key theme from our discussion was that during times of change, most organisations default to focusing on change management process. Yet evidence from the 2016/17 Harvard Business Review global study into why change efforts fail, found that the greatest 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 help them strengthen their transformation leadership behaviours, rather than focus on change management process. 

Together, we explored GatenbySanderson’s data insights from our Altitude leadership database; our database contains 1,000s of data points from leaders across the public sector and beyond, who have completed our online psychometrics and diagnostics, enabling us to analyse public sector and non-public sector data, comparing sector level trends and gender differences in critical transformational leadership behaviours. We highlighted a number of strengths across the sector to help address the key challenges facing leaders in public service, but also some risk areas that needed consideration.

Don’t forget about the emotions

Beyond the data and lying beneath the behavioural strengths and risks across our leadership populations, we reminded delegates that emotions play a huge role in influencing leadership behaviour and what others see and perceive. Neuroscience enables us to better understand why these emotions come to the fore and reinforce the importance of building greater emotional resilience in our leaders to enable them to build more resilient organisations. 

By better understanding their own perceived risks and rewards, leaders can learn to self-regulate their emotional responses and leverage their behavioural strengths. Leadership development, coaching and team development work can better help to build resilient leaders and teams to deal with complex challenges in their environment. 

This resilience is now being tested far more than any of us could have imagined; our leaders need to try to provide reassurance and calm in the face of huge uncertainty and social anxiety, whilst managing their own emotional state and personal focus. In the last few days, due to the ever changing situation with Covid-19, we have been contacted by clients to discuss how we can support their leaders virtually with coaching sessions, as they are under significant pressure. If you are in the same situation, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Remembering our humanity

The closing thoughts on the session last week was that “in a world of increasing automation, efficiencies and cost-cutting, remember to bring humanity to how we lead and engage our people” – this has become even more poignant in the events of the last few weeks. As more and more people are encouraged to self-isolate, work remotely and cut themselves off from their usual interactions, we must remember the importance of connection and human interaction. 

Many of us will ride the current storm well with very little personal impact, but there are some who will be tested, who will be scared either for themselves or loved ones, or just feel very isolated.  Look out for the signs of strain in your colleagues, family and friends and find ways to connect and show that you care.

If you are interested to hear more about our Altitude behavioural insights, coaching services, or if there is any other way we can help and support you in the current times, please don’t hesitate to get in touch: barry.mcneill@www.gatenbysanderson.com.

Barry McNeill, Partner & Practice Lead – Leadership & Organisational Development

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