Christmas 2002 was not especially festive for the management and 8,500 employees of Swindon Borough Council. The local authority had just been rated ‘poor’ by the Audit Commission, the lowest level possible.
A year later the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister reported it was still concerned about the council’s performance and, critically, the pace of improvement.
Gavin Jones, a former vice-president of customer services and marketing at IT company SITA, was appointed in December 2003 as director of cultural change, with the brief to speed up the pace of change.
The challenge, explains Jane Colbourne, HR manager (learning and development), who led the project, was to pull the business up from the bottom, and quickly.
“We needed leaders who could lead us and their teams through change. Instead of just managing teams, we wanted them to be leading people in the direction the council wanted to go,” she explains.
The solution was a 60,000 Leadership Academy, or tailored training programme, for the council’s top 200 managers.
“The biggest challenge was the number of people we were putting through it. The scale of the project was huge,” says Colbourne.
There was also a very narrow timetable, with the project kicking off in May 2004 and finishing that December.
The first consideration was whether to keep development in-house or bring in an external consultancy. The council chose the latter option, and learning and development consultancy MaST International was drafted in.
“We did not want someone who would just deliver [a solution] and go away. We wanted someone we could work with as a partner,” says Colbourne.
A cross-section of senior management was brought together to feed into the process and help to ensure buy-in further down the line.
Three key modules were developed: leadership and inspirational leaders; customer service and becoming a customer-centric organisation; and stakeholder analysis and influencing skills.
“We wanted to make sure managers had practical tools and techniques they could take back to their offices,” says Colbourne.
Each module lasted a day, with groups of about 12 people attending.
Getting buy-in from the board was vital, admits Colbourne. “The board could see there was a need for a programme, and that it was not something we were doing on a whim. We knew doing nothing was not an option.”
A number of directors and the chief executive went through the academy to show their commitment. The council’s HR director Rebecca McKenzie was also closely involved.
“It was clear that at the end of the process some people might decide that Swindon Borough Council was not where they wished to work. But the majority stayed with us,” says Colbourne. “There was a very low drop-out rate.”
“People still live and breathe it,” says Colbourne. “They are using the tools and asking us what is going to happen next.” The next phase is a more flexible programme linked to personal development plans.
One concrete success is that the council is now rated ‘weak’ – up a level. The goal is to be ‘fair’ by the end of the year.
“Measuring the success of the programme has been quite difficult,” concedes Colbourne. “But there is a buzz within the council that is different – there is less working in silos and a lot more networking.”
Despite 29 years in a range of positions, it is only now, thanks to the academy, that Bill Fisher, director of commercial services at the council, really feels he has a network of like-minded managers he can turn to.
“The project was deliberately blended so that you were forced to meet people,” he recalls. “Out of the eight people in my group, I still keep in touch with six and am quite happy to sit down with them and chew the fat,” he says. “Unusually, I found I was looking forward to the next day. If there was preparation work it was not ‘Oh my God, I have to do it’. It was a lot of fun, and we got to share things with different colleagues.
“My style of management was very open anyway, but I am more prepared to accept that others perceive things I say in different ways. Out of eight people, four will understand what I mean, two will see it another way and two will not get it at all.
“It has definitely made me more of a leader than before,” he adds.
If I could do it again…
“I would have liked a bit more planning and preparation time at the beginning. It was a big animal and it took a lot of time and effort,” recalls Colbourne.
“We only had six weeks to get the training programme up and running, including setting up focus groups, agreeing potential partners and setting dates. A lot of it was gut stuff, but fortunately it worked.”
If you’re going outside with a project, says Colbourne, it is vital to choose a partner you can work with and who you can give feedback to. You need to be clear from the beginning about what you want and how you want it delivered, and make sure your partner can match that.
Implementing a leadership programme in 10 steps
1Establish what sort of leaders you want, what styles are appropriate, where you have come from and where you want to go.
2 Recognise that leadership develop-ment has to link into a system rather than solely being about individuals.
3 Involve your management team in drawing up the programme, engage them and get buy-in from the very top of the organisation down.
4 Recognise that lots of little steps can often be just as effective as a few large ones.
5 Build self-awareness through profiling tools, 360-degree feedback and other methods.
6 Take time to speak to people to work out how they tick and what they will respond to.
7 Integrate the programme into real business challenges to help aid engagement.
8 Don’t assume managers have basic leadership skills. For instance, many can lack communication or engagement skills.
9 Audit and monitor outcomes and evaluate every step. Reflect on what you have achieved and what still needs to be done.
10 Reinforce and revisit the learning through coaching, assessment and development plans.
By Zo Peach, senior consultant at organisational change consultancy ER Consultants
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