Helen Bailey: Beyond International Women’s Day: leadership ideas that stick

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Having previously written about the topic of female progression in organisations for HR Review, I decided that this time, rather than discuss the concept from a distance, I would illustrate its power in practice. In this article, I am going to look at Hannah, a newly appointed manager who is tackling the common challenge of a ‘coasting team.’

The Situation

Hannah is a newly appointed manager in a team in a large public organisation, providing services to the public. She has taken over from someone who had been in the post a long time and has just retired. Hannah has inherited a somewhat dysfunctional and coasting team. There is pressure from above to make improvements – her initial discussions with her boss make it clear that he’s not happy with where they are and he needs to see major changes within the next six months with clear signs of progress in three months. The current levels of business are not sufficient to justify offering the service. Specific goals and targets have been set which, if not met, will have significant consequences for the department.

The team consists of a mix of personalities. Jerry and Nick have both been in the team for some time and are very comfortable with the status quo. Claire is dissatisfied with what they are doing and how customers are dealt with but can’t see a way forward without a greater budget (which isn’t going to arrive any time soon).

Ian, on the other hand, is a “Young Turk” – ambitious, enthusiastic and full of ideas. He can see lots of ways to change things and gets frustrated that nothing gets done and his colleagues don’t want to change. Anna, the team admin support person, plays her role in a calm and organised manner.

Hannah seemed to make some progress with the team in her first couple of weeks but it has tailed off and she is growing increasingly frustrated with the lack of engagement and willingness to change amongst the team.

Challenge

We asked Hannah about her priorities. She said: “How can I engage the team around what is required and how things need to change to create a platform for a sustainable future for us all? We really need to build our customer user base, which will mean engaging all the team members.”

Roles

After this conversation, Hannah spent some time thinking about the different roles of engagement. She was immediately struck by needing to find ways to both step back – to get clearer about how things worked here, as a newcomer – without losing the idea of stepping forward to start to exert some influence.

The following are the roles she picked up as being particularly important at this point:

Initiator – Listen and notice what’s being called for: What is being said? What is not being said? How are the team members working together? What are customers saying? Hannah immediately saw a chance to spend time “with the guests;” i.e., with the team, collectively and individually, and with customers too. Even though she has a clear goal, engaging with the team will allow her to ensure that they each understand the situation clearly. Time “in the gallery” will also allow Hannah to observe what’s happening. It provides an opportunity to see how the team is interacting with each other, working together and how work flows within the team.

Inviter – Hannah was keen to move on to create a big picture of what the team needs to achieve: a clear six-month “horizon,” in the terms of the User’s Guide to the Future. Hannah wanted to invite the team, as a group, to the big challenge, the hopes, dreams and intentions for the future. This is an “in the spotlight” moment for Hannah as the Host Leader, and provides an opportunity for the team to contribute to the next steps. They can each bring what they think is relevant – things that have worked before as well as new ideas and possibilities. She noted to be careful in making the invitation attractive and acknowledging.

Space Creator – Hannah had been struck by the lack of a good group-meeting space. She decided to step forward and reorganise her space and create a meeting hub with a table and chairs away from the workspace, and invited Anna, the admin support person, to help her.

First steps: Next, Hannah spent time with the team members individually. This gave her a chance to act in the role of:

Connector – Hannah got to know each person individually, connecting with them, finding out what they were good at and what they enjoyed, and listened to their ideas and concerns. This worked particularly well with dissatisfied Claire who, whilst initially unable see a way forward, quickly got engaged. She had been in a similar situation before in a previous job, and saw what she could contribute. Hannah soon recognised that Jerry and Nick both had a lot of experience and knowledge. The key was finding what they enjoyed or especially interested them. Jerry, for example, was very aware of traditions in the team and wanted to carry things forward, things that made the team who they were. Ian was very excited that there was a juicy challenge coming up, and started producing long lists of options… Maybe too long, Hannah wondered.

After about a week, the team meeting came around. As she would be “in the spotlight” at the meeting, Hannah again thought about the roles and picked out the following priorities:

Gatekeeper – As new ideas are generated, Hannah will take care not to squash or stifle ideas, initially needing to be inclusive and welcoming of ideas and even inviting others in to contribute from outside the team. Keeping the team focused on the topic of building their customer base will also be important – Hannah was clear that she should be careful not to open the gate too widely to include anything and everything, and should be prepared to park other topics for another day. This was particularly useful with Ian, who had loads of energy and ideas, and just needed to be focused to be more effective.

Co-participator – As a Co-Participator, Hannah is very clear that she is part of the team and is facing the challenge along with everyone else. She will make sure that she puts her ideas and perspectives into the mix along with everyone else, not dominating and yet not pretending she has nothing to contribute. A great opportunity to co-participate is opened up with an early project deadline or milestone. By asking the team what she can do to support them, Hannah can roll up her sleeves and join in.

The meeting was a success, with everyone developing small actions to take things forward. Hannah took on the Initiator role again and helped develop their next “signs of progress” that they would be alert to in the coming week. She also had a role as a “guest” at the management team meeting to share progress and connect Claire with her counterpart in a different department. Essential to this progress is Hannah’s ability to create space for herself, the “in the kitchen” space, to review, reflect and plan what’s next.

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About Helen Bailey

Helen is Managing Director and Head of Coaching at North West coaching and change company PINNA Ltd. Helen comes from a highly successful career as a Senior Manager with The Royal Bank of Scotland Group. She pursued her interest in performance improvement through coaching, undertaking a coaching qualification and now works with a wide range of organisations in the public and private sector, facilitating coaching and leadership development programmes and coaching directors and managers. Helen works collaboratively with clients to understand their challenges and identify and implement solutions to bring about change. 2010 saw Helen complete the next stage of her own personal development, achieving a distinction in a Masters degree in Developing Professional Practice where her research interest was collaboration.

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