I had been invited to work with a group identified as ‘talented potential leaders’ in a large public sector organisation in a European country. Workers in the organisation were highly likely to be users of the organisation’s services, a bit like workers in the NHS in the UK because of the size and scope of the organisation. To an extent, then, there is no inside and no outside, no clear-cut distinction between the employees and the ‘customer experience’: employees had very direct access to what it meant to use the organisation’s services, which were widely available.
My role was to encourage the ‘talent’ group to think about how they are thinking, to identify some of the organisational patterns they found themselves caught up in, and to think about how the organisation did strategy. To what extent were accepted ways of undertaking strategy in the organisation helpful? How did they square with their own experience of making plans and trying to implement them?
One of the events programmed for the day was for the ‘talent’ group to listen to two members of the leadership team, who came at lunch time, and who described their own take on what the organisation’s strategy should be. Unsurprisingly they said they had a ‘transformational’ agenda, part of which was to ‘capture the hearts and minds’ of both employees and customers. As the lunchtime session proceeded, both senior manager showed their PowerPoint presentations showing graphs of falling sales, competitor performance, and their own remedies (showing upward trending graphs and outturns).
I was intrigued to see how both senior managers might talk about their ‘transformational agenda’, particularly to do with staff, some of whom were sitting with them in the same room. One senior manager held forth, legs outstretched, answering questions dyadically, but not fomenting a conversation. The other senior manager did try to develop a back and forth with the group she worked with in an understated, but quite effective way. I would guess that the group which worked with her would have had a more developed sense of who they were being led by, than those who worked with the other manager.
Taken together tho’, the presentations followed by quite muted discussion could be understood as a missed opportunity. If your employees are your customers, and some of your customers are your employees, then what better chance to find out what matters to them. From the strategy perspective, most of what this talented group of managers were shown they could have worked out for themselves. Try and do less of what is not profitable, unless we have a legal obligation to do it; try and do more, and more cheaply what makes us money; and try and at least keep up with, if not innovate in newly emerging areas of service. But how to engage with each other differently and perhaps take the first step in what might turn out to be transformational for all of us, was not explored, could not be explored because of existing ways of organising. Potential blockages to organisational change lay not so much in the bar charts and figures, but in the relationships in the room.
Similarly and in a different context I was present for a presentation in an educational institution which is also pursuing a ‘transformational’ agenda. We had an hour together, staff and managers, in which 59 minutes was taken up with the senior manager telling us things he thought we needed to know. One of these things was that if we could achieve a one percent increase in our student satisfaction scores, then we might go up 20 places in the league table.
So one way of understanding transformation in both of these contexts is to increase the numbers. The employees, the sense we make of things and ourselves, the way we understand the world, are not transformed, unless we take particular meaning from the numbers going up. No one in the room wanted the institution to do badly, indeed almost all of them would have been committed to improving performance. What, then, does it take to do so, and what does it mean to us to be here, together, jointly involved in this enterprise? What do we think we are doing, and why are we doing that?
In speaking to the employees in both settings I came away with their sense of disappointment. Is that it? Is that what is supposed to motivate us?
In another context I have been invited to speak at a conference considering transformational change, which focuses almost exclusively on the qualities of leaders. It encourages wisdom, grit, determination, resilience and courage. I am convinced that leading an organisation requires all of these things, but I am struck by the contrast in the two different narratives. One turns on the transformative potential of improving the institution’s scores and how good that might feel as an employee. The other, one might understand as a form of flattery for heroic leaders in their Sisyphean struggle to transform others – the wise leader, hand on the institutional helm, making the courageous decisions to make changes that employees may not realise are good for them.
Is either very satisfying?
I wonder if it is possible to break out of the tyranny of metrics and the warm, self-congratulatory language of the heroic leadership discourse. How do we begin to discuss the sometimes bloody process of change, which may involve loss and grieving as well as institutional gains, may sometimes prove unfair and confusing to some, and always involves power, politics and ideology? If leading change involves courage and determination, then it also involves humility and openness to be changed by others. Nothing is transformed if how we talk about who we are and what we think we are doing are not also transformed and brought into a different relationship – and that transformation may not always be to the good.