Westminster City Council innovate to develop senior leaders during lockdown

Developing effective and resilient senior leaders lies at the heart of Westminster City Council’s culture programme, The Westminster Way. Never has this been tested more than throughout Covid-19 when essential services needed to be adapted to new and rapidly changing needs. A six-month leadership development programme was originally launched in 2018, with a further cohort participating each year since. Seven days before a second workshop was due to be held, lockdown measures were announced. The Council faced a difficult decision: to postpone or find another way to deliver it. 

Confident leaders are critical to dealing with the current and future crises

Each year, some 50 employees that aspire to be a future Director or Head of Service, participate in Westminster City Council’s (WCC), Senior Leaders Programme (SLP).  The focus of the programme is to create a more diverse pipeline of leaders from underrepresented groups, including women and Black and minority ethnic (BAME) staff. This year’s cohort had attended the first workshop of the programme and were due to attend the first development day.  Seven days before the development centre was due to take place lockdown measures were announced.      

At this moment, COVID-19 was highlighting the critical importance of confident and competent leadership during a crisis. The virus and lockdown measures were having a significant impact on women and a disproportionately high rate of infection among BAME communities, reinforcing the need for more women leaders from diverse backgrounds. Any delay to the development programme risked losing momentum created at the first workshop, at a time when leaders urgently needed the space to reflect on how to adapt their leadership to the current crisis.       

At the development centre, participants learn through a range of interventions such as a reflective practice, group work, and one-to-one coaching. With lockdown measures in place the programme sponsor faced a dilemma, to postpone, or find an alternative way to deliver. Until now, Westminster had no experience of delivering remote learning to this scale and complexity. Agreement to proceed depended on satisfactory answers to three tests. Do we have the technology to deliver remotely? What would it take to adapt the development day to virtual delivery? Would participants learn as effectively? Critically, would the intended outcomes from the day be achieved? The SLP is delivered in partnership with GatenbySanderson. Amanda Clarke, Principal Consultant, responsible for programme delivery, was able to draw on her extensive experience in the design and delivery of remote learning to answer these questions. This gave Westminster the confidence to proceed.

Preparing the foundations for effective remote learning​

Effective remote learning requires three elements: 

  1. The technology to deliver it 
  2. A design and delivery team that understands how to adapt the curriculum and learning methods to a virtual environment 
  3. Participants that understand how to use the learning platform and feel comfortable exploring this way of learning.      

In the case of the SLP, this meant running three, day-long virtual development centres as virtual workshops, with 16 participants engaging in a day of scheduled activities, delivered by a team of five GatenbySanderson facilitators, associates, coaches and actors. 

In the space of just one week, the SLP had been adapted for remote learning. Here are the steps they took to prepare:

Technology set up: the GatenbySanderson team used technology to create a virtual classroom where all participants could gather at the same time to listen to presentations. Multiple breakout rooms were setup in advance for participants to work in smaller groups to complete exercises, discuss ways to assimilate new learning, practice with actors in role-play scenarios and reflection time. Additional virtual private rooms were created for individuals to receive personalised coaching and feedback from assessors. We ensured a technical Producer was on hand throughout the virtual workshop to ensure participants were ‘moved’ into their correct breakout rooms at the right time; support was also immediately available for technical queries.

Adapted the curriculum and delivery: the development centre was redesigned to be virtual.  Face-to-face activities were replicated by rotating participants, actors and facilitators around 36 virtual meeting rooms, to complete 1:1 and group sessions. GatenbySanderson tailored programme content to support leaders to lead within the context of Covid-19 and to build internal resilience. This enabled leaders to remain engaged with the programme while they dealt with and implemented, continually evolving guidance from government.  

A traditional ‘classroom’ environment enables the facilitator to vary pace, style and technique to participant needs. This is different to a virtual environment, which can be a more intense experience for participants. The GatenbySanderson design team reworked the entire agenda and workflow to ensure the best possible delegate experience.  Brain gym exercises were added to aid concentration and break from screen time.  Additional comfort breaks were also added throughout the day for participants to tend to care needs, supervise home schooling and respond to urgent COVID-19 related tasks.

To further accommodate those with front line responsibilities and avoid changing the date at short notice, the follow up workshops were adapted to be delivered in one day, and were run three times in one week, 16 participants per day.  This gave participants additional flexibility to attend the programme at a convenient time while also supporting their teams.

Primed participants: for the programme to flow smoothly, participants had to be comfortable with using the technology including navigating to different rooms and using the chat function, interactive responses and whiteboard. Joining instructions were emailed to participants ahead of the programme that explained how to download and use the technology. All participants were offered a test session to familiarise themselves in advance, along with a lively exercise to practise room changes. Advice was given on how to get the most from remote learning including practicalities such as hydration and screen breaks. A secure file sharing facility was also set up to share personal reports and case studies that contained sensitive data with participants.  

Three perspectives on the virtual Senior Leaders Programme

In numbers… with the exception of a few frontline workers dealing with COVID-19 related issues, the majority of participants attended the programme. Savings were made on expenses incurred in face to face delivery such as travel, room hire, and catering.

Participants… feedback on the virtual experience was overwhelmingly positive. The tech – “Well done, technology on the march!” Leading and learning during a crisis – “I have found the training really helpful for getting things done during lockdown.” Digital first design – “The shorter bitesize sessions have been much more enjoyable and more beneficial than the long whole day sessions.”

Programme sponsor… Swati Bisht-Rawat, HR Consultant, Westminster City Council said:.

“GatenbySanderson have been partnering with us at Westminster City Council since 2018. They have been engaged to deliver our Senior Leaders Programme (SLP) which has involved a multi-module development programme, with an integrated development centre, 360 feedback and ongoing coaching and peer coaching. 

The quality of service was excellent, particularly in light of the Covid-19 crisis which could have impacted the programme delivery that was scheduled for the following week. The GS Project Team responded with the redesign of the programme into a virtual solution that kept the programme on track and feedback from participants confirmed the facilitation of the events helped keep their energy levels high throughout, supported continuation of their development and offered a sense of normality.  

In addition, feedback from participants undergoing the programme has been extremely positive with many commenting on the value that integrating brain-based techniques with psychological models that give the leaders a common language has made a real difference to those they are supporting. The programme evaluations for our most recently completed phase provide us with further insight and 92% overall satisfaction ratings“.

Carry the learning forward

COVID-19 has highlighted the need for effective leadership in a time of crisis; in particular from public services, leading the frontline response. This will not be the only pandemic or crisis that the emerging generation of leaders will face. Recovery will take some time, and organisations that pause development programmes until lockdown is lifted lose the opportunity to upskill leaders and share emerging best practice.

Lockdown has shown that organisations need to increase their capability to ensure effective learning and development can be delivered remotely. The WCC case study shows that it is possible to rapidly adapt existing classroom-based learning to a virtual environment without compromising on expected outcomes. The next stage of the SL programme will be delivered virtually in September.  

If you would like to know more about our leadership development programmes, and how we can continue to support your organisation by delivering these effectively in a virtual environment, please get in touch with Amanda Clarke at amanda.clarke@www.gatenbysanderson.com

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