Friday, 7 May 2010

Renewal postponed

We all have a personal take on what leadership means. Words count better than polls. On a depressing political morning in which few people will be jumping for unalloyed joy, two positive-sounding words come to mind, and two negative ones. The positives are renewal and hope. The negatives are winning and tribal. Last night this country had a chance of grasping the former, and it blew it. The people ended up settling for a continuance of a discredited partisan game well past its sell-by date, whichever party gains power. I fear that, whichever party forms the government, the public will continue to witness and experience cynicism, disconnection, distrust, obfuscation, narrow party interest, the buying of compliance, and regulation and control over people, institutions, professions and sectors such as education.

It’s little different in the world of business. Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Washington Post, has embarked on a crusade to destroy arch rival The New York Times. Why? Is that what the people need? Is that leadership? Is such a winning and tribal model of leadership any longer life-serving?

By a strange coincidence, yesterday I found myself talking to a doctoral student researching anarchy in local community organisations. He was referring to the ‘honourable’ political strand of leaderless community activism. I responded by saying that when people begin working together an early question for most of them is ‘we need to elect a leader’. Most reject political anarchy movements. Oh, what irony.

South Africa had a chance at renewal and hope and blew it. The USA had a chance and is doing its best to blow it. Winning and tribal took over. Expressing great sadness over the lack of leadership both there and here this morning, I am talking about leadership not in the person of an elected leader (though we need that), but in terms of how collective leadership and the body politic conducts itself that prompts renewal and hope. It may be some while before the chance of breaking the mould comes around again.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Baby Peter Connelly’s legacy (4): What might Ed Balls have done differently?

In the final post on this theme, what would I have done if I had been Ed Balls, when presented with Ofsted’s Joint Area Review report? Would I have instructed that Sharon Shoesmith should be dismissed? The answer is No, for the reasons I give below:

I would have been aware that the process by which the report had been produced was partial, and that there would be many views on what it had to say on Haringey and Shoesmith, many reputations at stake and several vested interests, and scope for a variety of conclusions concerning responsibility, blame and action.

Note that Shoesmith and her performance had been defended by some fellow officers. She had also been praised by numerous Haringey head teachers, perhaps not surprisingly given her schools background and not in social services. But since these functions were merged at the behest of government – a decision which is still controversial and required Shoesmith to provide oversight to the assistant director of children’s services (who had the necessary background expertise) – it seems unfair to criticise her on that structural point. Others found that she was autocratic in her leadership style; while not defending that, the same criticism might be levelled against both Ed balls and his boss Gordon Brown.

As Secretary of State, I would feel that it was not for me alone to decide the outcome or to punish, or to imply that my action solved the problem. I would have been aware that leadership is one element in a complex system, to which there are many partners as well as constraining factors, one of which was my own department’s performance and contribution to the national IT system for child care. It is simplistic for leadership to be laid at the door of one official.

Similarly, accountability, cannot be regarded in this unitary way. Shoesmith just might have chosen to accept personal accountability and seek an honourable exit on appropriate terms, rather in the romantic manner of the ship’s master who is expected to go down heroically with his sinking ship even when he could be saved (as have the remaining crew). Her employer might have reached the conclusion that the function head’s career death was inevitable and appropriate. Shoesmith had played with fire. Someone was going to get burned. But it was the system that had failed too.

So, what would I, as secretary of state, have done?

I would recognise that, as a leader, I first needed to make a conscious choice about my role in this affair. I could either determine to be a decision-taker and make a judgement. Or I could choose the role of facilitator, seeking to reconcile opposing camps and viewpoints and prompt a process of reflection and learning.

In choosing the latter role, I would have held Haringey Council to account by setting a deadline and asking them to come up with a plan, to be discussed with me and my department (not left to an inspector), that shows how they have taken the opportunity to learn from the investigations into the case, and what and how learning has been followed up and acted upon, including such matters as how well the organisation works as a system, how the process of leadership takes this systems viewpoint into account, what system weaknesses have been identified and are being worked on, how the much-criticised lack of ‘strategic leadership’ is understood and how it will be addressed, as well as the suitability of named individuals remaining in their employment or not.

It is too easy, too crude, too punishing and too uninformed simply to force the employer to summarily dismiss an official and say to the electorate ‘job done’.

Paradoxically, Balls is now being targeted for dismissal by his own electorate. What would he learn if that happened?

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Baby Peter Connelly’s legacy (3): How can a fairer system of justice operate for cases of this nature?

Returning to this case (see post dated 30 April), let’s shift our gaze from the subjects to the legal process. Whatever his conclusion, the judge is the judge. Our deferential society tolerates that. Justice Foskett’s ruling stands (until and unless overturned on further appeal), whatever Barry Sheerman MP might think. And that’s part of the problem. Though deeply considered and having had the balance of evidence weighed, such rulings ultimately remain arbitrary. The judge has to come down on one side or another. Compare that with outcomes in tribunals, where one judge will frequently reach a minority conclusion. The design of the judicial appeal process is shaky in cases like that of Shoesmith. It is time to question this highly individualist and outmoded process and replace it with something better.

The purpose of the judicial review was effectively to decide right from wrong. Shoesmith would win or lose. Ofsted would be damned or cleared. Ed Balls’ reputation would be saved or dammed. But where are the shades of grey – on the one hand this, but on the other hand that? Shoesmith herself contributed to that starkness. When she smugly claimed that her department had been completely exonerated and had done nothing wrong, she damaged her own cause and brought accusations of a cavalier approach to Baby P’s death. She also lessened the possibility of learning – both for herself and for her department and organisation.

Shoesmith no doubt made mistakes. But her case could have been handled in a more dignified and sensitive way. In a revised appeal process the aim could have been that the organisation and all parties would learn – not be found innocent or guilty, or retain or lose one’s job. Where is the scope for organisational learning in a judicial review? The main lesson is ‘Don’t trust such a legal process’.

The judge recommended discussions take place between central government, councils and directors of children’s services in order to “establish a protocol for dealing with this kind of situation if it arises in the future”. Some good, some change and some learning might come out of that. We must hope so.

Tomorrow, what might Ed Balls have done differently?

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Baby Peter Connelly’s legacy (2): How can a fair system of accountability operate when the organisation comprises a complex system?

This post follows yesterday’s theme. Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, commanded that Ofsted deliver a clear answer on the matter of accountability in its report. That may perhaps have led Ofsted to finger Haringey’s department head Sharon Shoesmith so prominently and publicly, to the exclusion of other players. Appearing to lend weight to this view, Mr Justice Foskett’s High Court decision against Shoesmith could equally reinforce the view that leadership is entirely a function and property of one individual and the position they hold, rather than (or as well as) a function and property of the organisation and how it works interdependently. In large and complex systems, responsibility is diffused throughout the structure. It is held jointly with others and depends on others’ contribution, so accountability might reasonably be deemed to have a plural quality.

Factors beyond any one jobholder’s remit and skills have a bearing on leadership performance. The system shapes leadership as much as leadership shapes the system. A case in point is the government’s requirement that local authorities adopt its much criticised national computer system for managing social workers’ caseload. Another is the child protection partnership that operates with schools, doctors and the police. In the Baby P case, the police incorrectly claimed that mother and child were living alone. The doctor incorrectly said that there were no suspicious injuries. The lawyer incorrectly said that there was insufficient evidence for a Care Order. Shoesmith wasn’t responsible for all of these, so she could hardly be held accountable for their performance failures. But if she can’t, who can? Judge Foskett could see a problem.

In his ruling, Foskett said “… a substantial factor in the Claimant being replaced by the Secretary of State was because, as head of the department that was assessed to be inadequate, she was held “accountable”. To that extent, the normal conceptions of “fairness” to the individual do not really apply. There needs to be a debate, which one case decided on its own facts cannot possibly resolve, about whether individual responsibility in this way for a collective failure is what is to be expected of someone who achieves the position of DCS [director of children’s services] or its equivalent and, of course, whether it justifies summary dismissal. … It is to be noted that the Dismissal Appeal Panel at Haringey gave as one of its reasons for upholding the decision to dismiss the Claimant “that the Director of Children’s Services was personally accountable for any failings identified in the Service” by the Ofsted report. I have not heard full argument about what “accountable” means in the legal context … and the view I express about it is necessarily tentative. However, whilst there can be no doubt that the word is generally understood simply to mean the same as “answerable” (in other words, a person who is “accountable” is the person who must answer questions about why something did or did not happen), it would be a very significant step to say that “accountability” means liability for summary dismissal without compensation. That seems to me, potentially at any rate, to open up some very large employment law issues aside the obvious comment that few people would want to take on the role of DCS in those circumstances.”

The accountability issues raised reach beyond Foskett’s “employment law issues”. They include the need to embrace a systems perspective. There is work still to be done here; this includes challenging the popular notion that is it always individuals who should be held accountable; what about teams and other agency partners? Should such accountability be seen as something that is invoked only after failure? What about a suitable and ongoing accountability process being openly communicated before major change is required (such as improving child protection in a council)? What should that accountability process look like, whether singular or plural? Which party should initiate discussion about it? Who would be capable of conducting it? (For a fuller discussion, see Chapter 14: ‘Leadership and Accountability’ in The Search for Leadership.)

Monday, 3 May 2010

Baby Peter Connelly’s legacy (1): What does strategic leadership look like?

In this case (see the previous post) one of Ofsted’s criticisms was that Sharon Shoesmith had not displayed strategic leadership. It is a charge that can be laid at many a senior manager’s door. Judging by the behaviour of Gordon Brown, notoriously embroiled in detail, it is frequently true of senior politicians seeking short-term ‘hits’. While there is no single and agreed definition of ‘strategic leadership’, three key ingredients come to mind.

First, leaders need a systemic appreciation of their organisation (and what systemic leadership failure looks like, since that is what happened in Haringey), and how their leadership is shaped by that system as well as how their leadership can help shape that system.

Secondly, they need to know how to spread the activity of leadership widely and down the managerial structure in a carefully considered way that takes account of performance management and accountability design issues.

Thirdly, leaders need a mental model of their three roles and have a means of managing the time and commitment given to each. The roles are: 1 delivering today, 2 safeguarding tomorrow (via improvement and change), and 3 providing supervisory oversight to other managers actively engaged with level 2. This third aspect of the role is probably the lest understood and comprises the elements below.

1. provides a context, reason and challenge.
2. gives permission for the process and events to happen.
3. provides funds, time and other resources.
4. defines a standard of what success or ‘good enough’ looks like.
5. ensures readiness for change: a point between excessive stability and anarchy. (In complexity theory this point is known as the edge of chaos. Managers who have grown up believing that their job is always to seek greater order by exercising control may find this expression intimidating.)
6. disturbs or shakes up the status quo for relevant aspects of how the organisation works and moves forward, making clear that the status quo is not an option. In parallel, it maintains stability of appropriate business interests (e.g. safeguarding customers’ confidence during the change).
7. loosens the system, to weaken strictly hierarchical management of change.
8. licenses more widely distributed power for managers to engage in system-wide improvement activity.
9. gives managers a collective and cross-departmental identity.
10. makes people’s fate rely on inter-dependence, which leads to cooperation, warmth in relationships, and people taking a fair share of responsibility.
11. makes clear how the relevant people will be held to account, individually and collectively.

(This is explained more fully on pp 217-219 of The Search for Leadership.)

This is a tough balancing act, one which keeps the leader in touch with key current operational detail and today’s risks without being swamped by it to the exclusion of their strategic leadership role.