The Legal Services Commission is the public body responsible for legal aid in England and Wales. Created out of the Legal Aid Board, it began operating in 2000, has an annual budget of £2bn and employs 1,700 people.
Three years ago, the commission faced two challenges: first, it had to undertake a major review and reduction of its supplier base, and second, it needed to reduce staff numbers by between 400 and 500. It also looked at its business objectives at a series of staff conferences, and identified leadership as a critical area for success in the future, but one where more work was needed.
On top of this, annual staff surveys showed employees lacked confidence and trust in their leaders and that the commission’s executive lacked vision and was out of touch with the grassroots.
The commission’s HR director George Lepine, together with HR consultant Alan Littlefield, turned to management institute Roffey Park to put in place a leadership development programme for the organisation’s 160 top managers and executive team.
A consultation was carried out to work out what the organisation really wanted from its leaders, and what people felt leadership meant within the commission.
“We started in November 2003 and spent three to four months going through a tendering process and designing how we were going to deliver it, kicking off in April 2004,” recalls Littlefield, who project-managed the leadership programme.
However, the commission had to deal with a degree of suspicion as some employees thought the organisation would be using the programme as a covert way to identify who it wanted to keep on, and who it wanted to leave.
Consequently, the commission had to work hard to generate buy-in for the programme, according to Lepine. This included holding a launch event to: tackle the rumours outline how the programme would work, its methods, the thinking and the goals behind it and address any concerns.
“It was very important to us that there was a high degree of trust,” says Lepine. “We wanted to have a very open programme that would give people the opportunity to reflect on how they behaved as leaders and whether that behaviour was getting them the result they wanted.”
The executive team went through the 18-month programme, both to show how it was done and to demonstrate its commitment to the process.
The first stage was a 360-degree appraisal, from which each manager created their own personal development plan.
This was followed by a two-day residential course at Roffey Park, where managers worked in pairs and were encouraged to give each other frank feedback. Everyone did exercises to help improve their strategic planning skills and spent time with coaches, and professional actors helped with role playing.
The final element involved attending a ‘Leaders for the Future’ workshop, centred on a psychometric instrument called ‘the communication compass’, which looked at people’s motivations and how best to communicate with workers and colleagues.
Many participants have reported that their relationships within the organisation, and how they lead others, have been transformed, according to Littlefield.
“There was one participant, for instance, who had a very difficult and challenging relationship with a colleague, and they came out with a much better understanding of each other,” he recalls.
The commission has also seen an improved leadership profile in its annual staff surveys.
The 2004 and 2005 surveys – the latest available – show the number of staff agreeing with six statements about leadership to have risen by 8%. In all areas of the survey, leadership has shown the greatest improvement.
A repeat of the 360-degree appraisal by 30 people 15 months after the programme, but looking at questions closely related to their personal development plans, also showed a slight improvement.
But it was the ‘wow’ factor of the programme itself that surprised the commission the most. “A lot of people said it was the most powerful programme they had ever been on,” concludes Littlefield.
Guide to implementing a leadership development programme in 10 steps
- Define what you mean by leadership and what sort of leadership your organisation requires.
- Look at the current behaviours of your management team and gauge where there are gaps or mismatches.
- Aim to provide a safe, yet challenging, learning environment.
- Recognise that leadership is about behaviours rather than tools and techniques.
- If your programme is about development, make it clear there is not an assessment element to it as well.
- Know what you want to achieve, have a clear vision of the sort of leaders you want, and accept that leadership is not about one size fitting all.
- Try to encourage people to invest fully – get them to turn off mobiles and log off from e-mails.
- Encourage an atmosphere of self-managed learning, with participants making decisions about what will be the most useful thing for them to learn.
- Use coaching, roleplays and scenarios to drive the message home, and don’t be afraid to experiment.
- Look at how you are going to evaluate the programme’s success, perhaps combining anecdotal with statistical evidence.
Source: Laura Knill, senior consultant, Roffey Park
Mike Jeacock, executive director of service delivery, is one of the six-strong executive team at the Legal Services Commission and was one of the first to go through the Roffey Park programme.
“It was an opportunity not to miss. You don’t often get to focus on you as an individual, look at your behaviours and have them played back to you,” he says.
“The 360-degree appraisal was really helpful. It was enlightening because it highlighted what you were doing well and what you needed to work on,” he adds.
One area in which Jeacock now feels he is a better leader is in the delivery of bad news.
“It was never something I liked doing, so we looked at it in terms of how to do it differently and how to adapt for individuals,” he explains.
“I also feel I am much more aware of people issues and the need to give people opportunities. People say they are getting better feedback. There is almost a sense of a coaching diploma running through the organisation,” he says.
If I could do it again…
On reflection, there could have been more support for participants coming back in to the workplace, concedes Alan Littlefield, HR consultant at the Legal Services Commission.
Only now is the organisation really focusing on helping people put into practice what they learned from the programme, rather than focusing on the learning itself, he adds.
“We have developed a framework and set of tools to help people with mentoring and applying their learning to their personal development plans,” he says.
“The main prerequisite for HR is to have a clear idea (and definition) from the start of what is meant by ‘leadership’ and where the organisation wants to get to. Everything else can be built on from there.”
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