It was on a visit to a large organisation that I discovered there are three versions of the same history. While this didn’t come as a surprise, it was a revelation. My ‘Road to Damascus’ moment came as I was waiting between meetings in a communal area which served two call-centres. The only opportunity employees had to make personal calls was during their breaks and they had to leave the office floor so they wouldn’t disturb their colleagues. I’d settled into a comfortable chair to catch up on some notes, my reflections of leadership throughout the organisation. As I digested the views of Directors, Senior Managers and Team Leaders, the workforce came and inadvertently gave their verdict.
Version 1 The history we want
‘We are a people business’ effused the Directors. Here was the ‘Party-line’ postulated by consummate politicians. They told me what they thought I wanted to hear. MBA’s and leadership books were regurgitated, often punctuated with quotes and namedropping. My word, they were a well read group.
Version 2 The history we need
Senior Managers on the other hand described what they thought was happening. They didn’t try the academic one-upmanship of their seniors. They did however have data… lots of data; staff surveys, customer surveys, attrition, absence, focus-groups and good news stories. Evidence was abundant. Interpretation however was skewed by the need to report how well things were going.
Version 3 His-story
I couldn’t help but catch the conversations people were having with friends and family on their phones. After all they were only standing one or two metres from where I was sitting. Their perspective on how they were managed, their aspirations and their engagement with the organisation flowed out, no holds barred. Language was colourful, animated and indeed, passionate. In contrast to versions of history given by the Leadership team, comments were mostly negative, many were bored, few felt they were participants. The majority believed their sole contribution was simply to make up the numbers.
As FBI Agent Fox Mulder said whilst investigating the X –Files ‘The truth is out there’. It lies somewhere between these three versions. You just have to listen hard enough in order to find it.
What a reassurance, ‘these toilets are checked every 60 minutes’. What a relief! After all, the form has been signed or this timer has been reset. I can enter at my convenience in the knowledge that everything has been checked.
Which begs the question, what exactly does a check entail?
As I stood outside one of these ‘checked’ facilities at a motorway service station with its highly visible countdown timer digitally reducing the minutes until the next check, a man approached with a step ladder. He was dressed in a suit rather than janitorial garb which struck me as odd. He positioned the steps under the timer, climbed up and deftly with the flick of a switch reset the countdown to 60 minutes till the next check. He descended, packed up the steps and carried them off into the bowels of the services.
I have to say I was shocked. This was not the sort of checking I’d envisaged. In my mind I had a vision of a house-proud attendant equipped with a bucket, rubber gloves and copious amounts of toilet paper to replenish and make resplendent each cubical in turn. He may even have given a florid squirt of air freshener above each door as he passed. Maybe acknowledging the crowd with a cheery ‘good day gents, all is now well’ as he left. But no.
The sign above the countdown timer was in my view misleading. Instead of stating ‘These toilets are checked every hour’, it should have read ‘This timer is reset every 60 minutes’. I am no longer reassured.
Travel in fear my friends.
In the days when Health and Safety allowed kids to race about unsupervised, climb and jump, we played a game called ’follow the leader’. One person was selected as the leader, the rest follow and copied their actions. Some were brilliant leaders; they challenged us to push our limits, encouraging us to try something new, different and daring.
I was always an enthusiastic follower until the occasion that one particular leader leapt from the canal bridge to the tow path below, slipped and fell into the cold, mucky water.
There were lessons learned from the leadership game which are just as useful today:
- You don’t need to know where you are going, just what you want to achieve. Just because we have always been this way doesn’t mean it is the only route. A new way can be great fun.
- Lead by example: It isn’t an intellectual activity. You have to show your commitment. When people trust and follow you, can they look you in the eye, and see that you are emotionally committed to the cause.
- Engage people. Look for ways to let them participate, join in, and influence the journey.
- Be aware of emotions. If you recognise somebody’s emotional state then you can choose the most effective ways of motivating them. How many times have we found leaders expecting their teams to change before historical baggage has been cleared.
- Praise success. Quick wins and small victories as a team or from individuals encourages everybody to work hard towards the goal.
- Challenge to motivate. You never know what can be achieved unless you try something different.
- Support innovators; these are the people who will find the new ways, those routes that others may require encouragement to try but which might take you to new heights.
- Encourage a sense of urgency to do something now rather than letting the moment pass. Momentum is difficult to initiate but once you are on the move it is easier to maintain.
- Be prepared to swim. The adventure sometimes takes unexpected turns.
What makes a Conference brilliant? I’ve lost count of the number of Conferences I’ve attended. Very few as a delegate I have to admit, most have been as a presenter or organiser which gives a different perspective on the event. For whatever reason I am there, I always stay for the whole event, even though some of these worlds have been completely alien to me. Amongst the jargon, in-jokes, and intellectual specialisms there is always a gem of learning. I have never left without something interesting to muse over. Quite often these are unexpected ideas gleaned from a prominent speaker or a reflection on the event itself.
One of my greatest revelations came at a Health and Safety conference organised for a large utility company. The company invested well over a hundred thousand pounds in the event which was attended by about 300 people. These were the key people involved with the health, safety and well being of thousands of employees from across the business. Here we had the opportunity to fundamentally influence the whole organisation and through their actions the communities they served. Although the conference went really well, achieving all of its objectives and with the organisation and their guests really happy with what went on, I was left with doubts.
- It was a one-off. There was nothing to take forward from the experience. The boxes had been ticked with vague promises of action plans to follow but nothing in place to check, measure or collect evidence of progress.
- Many of the attendees were not ‘participants’. They had been told to turn up. It was viewed as an imposition on their daily routine. Some disappeared before the final session. They had not been predisposed by their managers to attend with a view to putting into practice their new knowledge when back in the workplace. It was left to chance. In what other investment of this magnitude would the return be left to chance?
- The messages being communicated were often lost because it required the audience to make a big leap from talk of strategy, theory and ideas to real front-line practices, thus reducing the likelihood of any consistent change happening.
For a conference to give a measurable return on investment for the bill payer we need to pay attention to these points. Doing so ensures the conference is the starting point – the stimulus for improvement. So what makes a conference brilliant? Quite simply, when we know the effort has directly resulted in a great return on investment, which means consistent improvements in practice.