Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Is the government’s ‘big tent’ too small to hold ‘all the talents’, or is it the wrong sort of tent?

Bringing more faces into the government’s ‘big tent’ from a range of backgrounds, as the coalition has done, is welcome in principle, in spite of some odd celebrity choices. Broadening governance membership can improve any board of management. In government, expanding the talent pool takes place within the constitutional paradigm 'government proposes; parliament disposes’ (i.e. gives ministers’ proposals legal force). This in turn affects the government’s style of leadership. But even with a bigger tent, this particular model of leadership is failing western-style democracy. WikiLeaks has put secrecy under attack. Twitter spreads information in minutes. The online world and social media make marshalling mass campaigns easier. Witness the public outcry that forced the BBC to backtrack on its Eastenders plot. Perhaps the government’s big tent itself needs to change, not just the membership invited inside.

This suggestion connects with the idea that leadership – like wisdom – belongs to the wider system, not just the leaders. Instead of leadership being primarily about content (say, policy pronouncements) it would become identified more with process (how views are formed). Consider a leader like the Education Secretary Michael Gove, a man who shoots content from the hip. Looking out from his small tent, he rapid fires policies, decisions, edicts, cuts. Whether ‘good’ or ‘bad’, his proposals are dramatic, catch people unawares, win approval from some and anger from others. His announcements are intended to get a reaction. Some people fire back, and Gove returns fire. Under pressure from all directions, including from his boss, he may be forced to backtrack. Just reflect on his announcing and then abandoning the School Sports Partnership network, changes to the Building Schools for the Future, capping salaries of headteachers paid more than the Prime Minister, and Book Trust funding of free books for children. Such matters are not generally distinguished by left v right political ideals, but instead concern things like efficiencies and budget cuts. For issues like Gove’s, surely there must be a better, less painful, way – for us, and for him.

Gove is not alone: he fills popular expectations of any ministerial leader. Andrew Lansley’s NHS commissioning reforms took the Commons NHS Select Committee by surprise, according to its Conservative chairman, Stephen Dorrell. On this occasion secrecy had initially been maintained, but that didn’t stop talent haemorrhaging from primary care trusts and putting up costs that offset the planned efficiency savings. In any case, the old management mantra favouring secrecy and surprise to contain anxiety and spare the people from premature suffering is increasingly vulnerable to leaks. Arguably, it is not so much individual ministers who need to change: it is the management model that needs to change.

Seeing the ministerial job principally in terms of content-proposal doesn’t work any more. It is narrowly informed, inefficient, gets people’s backs up, and hurts the proposer’s reputation. The standard defence ‘But wait until you see the consultation paper; it’s not as bad as you think’ doesn’t work well either. Making subsequent changes following consultation takes courage and pain to backtrack; reputations have to be protected, faces saved. Consultation carries too much baggage of hierarchical overtones and leaves people feeling sceptical and short-changed.

The problem is that consultation comes from that same tent, done by those inside to those outside. Yet when one then hears subject-experts speak, and read pundits’ blogs, special correspondents’ columns, business editorials, and encounter radio and web-based discussions, you can be forgiven for thinking that there is more expertise and wisdom outside the tent than in it. So why isn’t it (not them) allowed in? For that to happen, the paradigm would need to change, and changing a paradigm takes leadership. It would put the power and the role of leaders to the test. It would challenge Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, the role of MPs, the Whips Office, the Civil Service and the Fourth Estate. But it needs to be done, and it is happening anyway.

The key to this is process. If leadership were to be seen less in terms of content and more about process, then the role of the leader would become one of designing and running a process of all the talents who can contribute to a wise and acceptable outcome, one that would not need railroading through against objections. Ministers shun process as not being under their control, indeed not under control at all, so they drive harder on the content. But in an imaginative and expanded process, advocacy would be replaced by enquiry. Talent would include anyone, not just those being consulted. In freely defined public debate, all views could be expressed and voices heard. The role of participants would not be to react to a proposal, but to question the question – helping to clarify the need, frame the issues, identify possible ways forward and explore options. Better informed decision making would follow.

Technology now makes this possible. WikiLeaks has shown that exclusiveness, secrecy and private emails no longer work. Hierarchy, strong leaders and paternalism aren’t as strong a shield against worry as they used to be. Discussion can no longer be contained, nor should it be. Most of it is going to take place out there anyway, one way or another. So instead of resisting and resenting full prior debate, government should enthusiastically promote and embrace this chaotic expansion of voice. Make a virtue of it, and gain credit for it. The prize on offer is huge: wiser, more acceptable outcomes and a more harmonious society.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Speaking personally

Personalisation in the provision of public services is the order of the day. But if you are a provider, how can you relate to customers individually if you treat yourself as a functionary?

One of the first acts of John King (later Lord King of Wartnaby), when he joined British Airways as its chairman in 1980, was to tell all office managers to remove their job titles from their door plates and replace them with their names. And when writing memos to one another (before the days of email) we must in future write from our name to someone else’s name, and not from one job title to another. Of course, we knew that we would still be communicating as jobholders in our roles, but that didn’t need to be said. As I remember it, we were bemused but compliant – everybody was where the eponymous and fearsome King was concerned. King’s leadership was tough love (well, at least the former).

I was reminded of this incident recently. Having become embroiled in a car parking infringement with my council, I took up the cause of my local car dealer, who I had been visiting. The dealer’s premises backed directly onto a public car park, but its manager had been unable to obtain any concessions from the council, such as designated places for short-stay customers, or a drop-off point, in return for an annual fee. I arranged for the car dealer manager to speak to the car parking manager. The latter told me that my own attendance was unnecessary, and that the dealer’s manager should contact her by telephone, and she didn’t need to meet him personally. She then informed me that it would be a case of the car dealership speaking to the Council, rather than its manager to her as such, even though she would handle the matter. She was correct in law, of course, but why was it important for her to say it, or for me to be reminded of the obvious? Was she shielding behind her role – as we used to in British Airways? Or was this just the habit of officialdom – the way bureaucracy works?

If the car dealer eventually wins a concession, how nice it would be if he could thank her personally and think of the decision as a refection of her nature? When we receive help and kindness from a shop assistant with a name badge, we like to acknowledge the person; we would not expect a response such as ‘Marks & Spencer likes to take good care of its customers’. Personal exchanges don’t undermine business relationships: they bolster them. So the thought arises: when under government pressure to offer ‘personalisation’, how can providers of public services be expected to treat members of the public as individuals, with their own needs and wants, if the individual providers remain half-hidden behind a mask that puts their employer and their role to the fore?

In hindsight, Lord King’s edict was the act of a leader. He was disturbing the status quo, taking us out of our comfort zone, preparing us for much more change round the corner. His personalisation agenda was the first step in a much larger process of culture change, loosening up our bureaucracy, and humanising us, as we moved from our heritage as a nationalised industry towards privatisation and ‘putting the customer first’. Loosening our roles went along with using our common sense and discretion, and not simply following the rule book. Years later I had the personal opportunity to replace company ‘regulations’ with ‘guidance for managers’, coupled with permission for them to use their own judgement.

Letting the mask slip a little might make that social journey away from one-size-fits-all bureaucracy a little easier.

By a strange coincidence, today is King Day, in celebration of the life on another leader, one who was in a league of his own - Martin Luther King.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Incumbency rules OK! Or does it?

At age 53, Miriam O’Reilly wins her case against the BBC for age discrimination. With a strange quirk of timing, today also sees the Government announcing that, despite employers’ objections, it is pressing ahead with plans to scrap their compulsory retirement age of 65. Are the oldies receiving a step up while O’Reilly is required to step down? This conjunction raises several leadership issues, challenges and lessons.

There seems little doubt that O’Reilly’s loss of work on the programme Countryfile was handled casually and insensitively. She was then further punished for crying foul; branded a troublemaker, she found it hard to obtain alternative work. And, of course, the unwritten rules for media presenters operates to women’s disadvantage, reflecting wider society’s values where appearance is concerned. The BBC’s humiliation was compounded by its inability to produce records to the tribunal to show that its decision on Countryfile’s presenters was objectively considered. So far so good – or bad. But there are aspects of this case that have received no discussion that I am aware of.

Statistics may not have been the tribunal’s strong suit. Because people get older, and never younger, it follows that there is a greater chance that a presenter will be replaced by someone who is younger than they are. If this were not the case, the average age of presenters would keep on rising. If we might reasonably expect the average age of presenters to stay roughly the same, it is necessary – statistically – for older people to be replaced by younger ones. That is not age discrimination: it reflects the direction of life’s travel. In her 25 years of receiving work from the BBC (O’Reilly must have begun when she was in her late twenties) there may have been several occasions when she took over from someone who was older. Eventually, it was her turn to become one of the older ones (though that does not automatically mean too old). That is how the aging process works. In another case, having left her job aged 62, Anna Ford (who had a similar complaint to O’Reilly’s many years ago) displayed the same statistical oversight when she remarked, “… I think when you reflect on the people they’re bringing in, they’re all much younger”. Well, Yes! Did she really expect the BBC to replace old presenters with even older ones? Neither life, nor life’s statistics, work like that. Our dislike of growing older (and more wrinkled) may make our minds go fuzzy too.

The second point is that O’Reilly took her case to an employment tribunal, yet the BBC was not her employer: O’Reilly was self-employed. The BBC was her client, possibly her only or main one. The fact that the law allowed O’Reilly to claim discrimination by a third party will be of interest to many freelancers. I had previously assumed that employment tribunals were for aggrieved employees who had acquired employment rights with their employer. Seven years ago, when I was a freelance lecturer on a prominent business school’s Executive MBA programme, I too suddenly found that after many years of teaching my annual contract was not renewed. I was replaced by someone in her twenties. The timing was probably right, but – as with O’Reilly – the dumping process was shabby. Managing the relationship matters as much as taking the right decision.

O’Reilly’s boss was accountable for the success of the programme: that meant being content with the team of Countryfile presenters. The programme was said to have needed ‘refreshing’: that was taken to equate with bringing in new faces. Naturally, O’Reilly didn’t want to be replaced – possibly with good cause. But the issue may be more one of tenure than of age. Too long tenure is a problem that particularly afflicts leaders in business, especially many chief executives. Political leaders too. They believe they have a right not to be challenged until they decide to choose to step down. ‘There is no vacancy’, we hear it said. Potential leaders who think they could do a better job than the boss have fewer rights than incumbents to argue their case. So with budding young presenters. Tenure favours the incumbent; they tend to acquire the equivalent of squatters’ rights. But, irrespective of age, too-lengthy tenure leaves many stale. Having been brought in to solve a problem, they then hang around too long, enjoying the comforts. But the laws of entropy will have their way. Everything decays. It always does. So people run out of steam, ideas, and motivation. It is time to move on and refresh. And it is time to talk about it. Facial wrinkles is the least of it.