Lead change with care

I’ve written before about toxic cultures, but I was struck by the story that I read over the weekend about the legal case being brought against former executives of France Telecom. I’m no expert on the case in hand, but the story sets out a culture of harassment  through constant change and disruption as efficiency savings were sought.

There’s a huge spectrum ranging from the extreme cases detailed in this story through to the ordinary change of organisational life and we need to be careful not to conflate the two, but there are reminders in the extreme that can help us in our everyday practice. We can all argue that, “it’s not like that here”, but it never hurts us to check and be sure.

The first check point is when we stop seeing employees as human beings. You can pick this up through the language that is used in organisations, the way that senior leaders talk about people as a collective. Most organisational change will have a human impact, but when we fail to genuinely recognise that, problems are not far away.

When change becomes a thing in itself, you’re facing a second check point. Organisations that become focused on change, but without realising why. The impact on people throughout is disorientation and confusion, neither of which are good for mental wellbeing. Most people can go through significant change and transition when they understand the why, but struggle when they feel constantly done to.

Finally, when leadership teams lose touch with their teams you’ve reached the third checkpoint. As a leader you can only make good decisions if you are well-informed. One of the most important sets of data is the feedback from the people who work in the organisation itself. I’m not talking about the annual survey alone, but about the informal feedback that tells you how things really are.

Put simply, leaders have an overarching responsibility for every single employee in their organisation. That doesn’t mean we should avoid tough choices or decisions, it doesn’t me would should be change adverse, but it does mean that we need to care. Hopefully none of us will ever experience the extremity of the France Telecom situation, however, each day as we go about our work, we should always check in and make sure we are staying true to our responsibility to our people.

Lionel Shriver is wrong

It was with a level of incredulity that I read the comments by Lionel Shriver over the weekend about the inclusivity agenda being championed by Penguin Random House. For those who know me, I spent the best part of 9 years in the business and would like to think that I was in some way responsible for the creation and direction of many of the approaches – not least the removal of the requirement to have a degree.

Shriver, writing in The Spectator, presents a shambolic and intellectually inarticulate assessment of the work that is being done, summarised by the BBC article here.

Anyone who has ever tried to champion inclusion will tell you that these arguments are nothing new. But they are almost always entirely articulated by those in positions of power. I have yet to hear from an underrepresented group who says, “do nothing, the best people are already in place”. And in a sense, that is the first major challenge that you  face.

In changing any system to be more inclusive and diverse, you are ultimately dependent on those in power to cede their right to that position and to change the system that has perpetuated their dominance. That’s why social mobility has been so hard to tackle, because in many ways you’re asking the rich wealthy and powerful to make things a little harder for generations of their family to come.

The aim of our work, wherever we are and whatever we are doing, is to make the world of work fairer and more transparent. We have to do everything we can to ensure that the best succeed, regardless of their background. That’s what inclusion is about and to suggest in any way it is dumbing down is insulting, ill-informed and naive. The system in which we operate is unintentionally rigged towards certain groups and certain backgrounds and all we are doing is unpicking that bias.

As a note of caution, we do have to be careful to ensure the work that we do remains true to that goal – to allow the best to succeed. Diversity and inclusion programmes that become tokenistic displays of good intention are as unhelpful as the problem they are trying to solve. Where Shriver is right is to call out the risk of losing focus on the real change that needs to be made, increasing fairness and allowing potential to shine, on pretty much everything else she is wrong and woefully out of touch.

 

 

Technical skills need qualifications too…

My very first, post university, job was as a lecturer of Psychology. I worked evening at the local Further Education (FE) college teaching GCSE and A-level Psychology to adult returners who had either not got the qualifications in their youth, or decided they wanted more later on. The college was a well-known establishment in the seaside location, with a particularly strong focus on caring qualifications, engineering and professions like boat building.

Many of you will know that the FE sector was financially and directionally squeezed over many years, part of which (in my humble opinion) was an intellectual arrogance that aspirations should be greater for our young people. It is no surprise that the expansion of the Higher Education (HE) sector coincided with the diminishing of FE.

Fast forward 20 years and we are debating the lack of technical skills in the economy and the need to increase the focus on technical education. The Government announced, this weekend, the first colleges to be offering the new T-levels, to start in 2020. I’m hugely encouraged by this step and I genuinely believe these new qualifications could play a significant role in opening up career paths to young people. But only if business gets behind them.

In the coverage of the announcement, I was pretty disappointed to read the following quote from Professor Alan Smithers from the University of Buckingham, “Parents should be wary of encouraging their children to take them. It must be absolutely clear they will be of value to employers before kids risk their futures.”

One could easily fire the same warning to a whole host of A-levels and numerous degrees – the latter of which would cost you tens of thousands of pounds to obtain. It is also worryingly reminiscent of the early response to apprenticeships – who would want one of those?

Amidst the intellectual and class snobbery that will present in the objections to any type of “vocational training”, there lies a real and genuine challenge to employers. We need to embrace these new routes to qualifications and show not only do they lead to good quality jobs, but meaningful careers as well.

We can’t bemoan a skills gap and then ignore attempts to close it, we can’t worry about future technical needs and not embrace change. If you’re an employer of people then I suggest you have a good look at both the T-level qualifications and the routes to qualification through apprenticeship. At the end of the day, technical skills need qualifications too, and at the moment they are few and far between.

Incongruence and forward motion

I wouldn’t mind betting that if I were to grant any of us supreme power and the ability to redesign the world in which we live, to recreate the moral, economic and social fabric of society, we would all have pretty clear views on some of our base fundamentals. We would make assertions about equality, or opportunity, or fairness or competition. We would be able to identify principles that we believe to be core to our vision of a “good society”.

I’m also pretty sure that as we delved deeper into our thinking, we’d identify naturally arising tensions when two principles came into conflict. Do we mean fair or equal? Do we mean the opportunity for success, or the chance to compete for success?

If these moral dilemmas occur in a theoretical “blank sheet” society, what are the chances that they are also likely to occur in real life, “in the game” life? These trade offs and tensions are an inevitable by product of sentient beings, they’ve formed the foundations of philosophy for thousands of years.  And they’re also the tensions that present to leaders in any walk of life.

Like him or loathe him, Nick Clegg talks about the realisation, during his time in office as Deputy Prime Minister, that compromise was seen as weakness. It was perceived to be stronger to be stuck in inaction through a dogmatic and principled approach, than to progress through discussion, diplomacy and compromise. On a much grander scale we can see the opposite argument in the achievement of the Good Friday peace talks, where diametrically opposed groups agreed on a way forward.

Our world is full of incongruence and our job as leaders is to be ok with that. We have to be able to hold conflicting positions, and be aware of the tension that this brings, in order to move forward and progress. Sometimes the smallest steps towards improvement can be the most valuable, sometimes we have to embrace the things we dislike in order to shape and improve them. Sometimes we have to be ok with…ok.

Forward action is everything, we have little enough time as it is without spending large proportions of it stuck in an endless cycle of righteous indignation and ideological tailspin. We are all eminently capable of identifying what’s wrong and pointing out the faults in others, only some are truly capable of going to them and helping to move things forward in a positive direction.