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What does digital leadership look like for a public service? Kelly Doonan looks at the subject in advance of her workshop at our event on Improving digital leadership and ownership.
I’ve been thinking about leadership.
As so often happens several things have almost serendipitously come together giving me the opportunity to reflect on what leadership means and what good leadership could look like.
- I’ve read several articles on leadership; specifically digital leadership and data leadership — links to all articles at the bottom of this post
- I’ve received invites to webinars and conferences on leadership for digital transformation and innovation.
- My organisation is examining and discussing leadership models through the lens of a new leadership charter introduced by our leadership team.
I’m also thinking about myself as a leader and what that should look and feel like; so it feels like a good time to bring my thoughts together.
What is leadership?
Firstly, I think leadership and management are two different things and, although I often see them used interchangeably, I want to keep them distinct.
My definition of a manager is a position in a hierarchy whose role is to manage down and report up, and keep the current system operating as effectively and efficiently as possible. A manager is a command position that is usually removed from doing the work and so is unable to see the whole system.
There’s lots of information available about the roots of modern management arrangements — but essentially most public and private sector organisations are using an approach created around 1900 by Frederick W Taylor to deal with a specific set of problems in factory production during the Industrial Revolution, and it has barely changed since.
For me management is a time-limited idea designed to solve the immediate problems of:
- a predominantly low-skilled and uneducated workforce
- rapid expansion
- large-scale industrialisation.
And it did that. It solved those problems so well that it’s become the dominant model across most areas of work across most industries — including people systems like social care, health and education. The problem is what was perfect for managing hydraulic pump production 120 years ago is not suitable for most organisations today.
Now we’re sailing the choppy, unknown waters of the Information Age and many people are calling for digital leaders and data leaders to captain the ships. We did need managers who knew about pumps and steam engines, and now we need managers who know about Blockchain and the cloud.
“Despite the fact that our current management beliefs date from the previous century, still the majority of organisations today operate with models that are inherited from a world that no longer exists. The models are already outdated, and surely not future proof. The era in which the command-and-control approach would bring you immense success have long gone.”
Corporate Rebels 2017
I believe it’s more useful to think in terms of good timeless leadership. So, in that case I need to explain what I think good looks like.
Eight steps to good
A good leader wants to know stuff and they want to understand. They look for opportunities to learn more and they create opportunities for others to learn.
And the crucial thing here is that being a curious leader means that sometimes I will learn stuff that I may not like, or that may challenge my view. I will learn things that will unsettle me and will make me uncomfortable; and when that happens I must keep learning and asking questions anyway. In fact as a good leader I need to understand that this is when I am learning the most. A colleague expressed this as; ‘getting comfortable sitting in the why’. Be comfortable asking questions and not knowing the answers straight away. Be comfortable in a position of constant learning.
A good leader needs to be curious about the work they lead and spend time there to discover what is really happening. Is what you think should be happening? Why is that? And be curious about other systems and other disciplines. Go and have a look in another world and see what’s happening there. What do you learn from doing that?
Interestingly, I’ve met several managers who are curious in their personal life, but don’t bring that mindset or learning to work. So…
Bring yourself to work
AKA be authentic. Being a good leader is not the suit you put on when you come to work.
This is really tough. Particularly for those of us who work in a culture which has a fairly narrow definition of a professional personality. If I had a pound for every time I’ve been told to ‘play the game’, or have been advised not to share my real thoughts on a subject or use my own words because that’s not the right professional approach, then I’d be writing this from my yacht.
Over time the cumulative effect of this is to let staff know the right way to act and the right things to say and eventually they stop bringing themselves to work and start bringing the character their leaders want to see. This is how organisational cultures are created and maintained. The consequences of this can be seen in staff engagement events or surveys where only positive things are said because staff don’t bring themselves to the process and the whole episode becomes a nonsense.
A good leader needs to bring themselves to work, and show everyone else that it’s ok to do the same. Which brings me onto…
Although it’s languishing at number three, for me this is everything. This is partly being authentic, but it’s so much more. A good leader needs to be open and honest with themselves and with everyone else. Have a think about your organisation — do you see this? Do you do this? Does your organisation have a culture that promotes and rewards honesty? Measuring how honest your organisation is can be a very good measure of how mature your organisation is.
Again this is really hard. The behaviours have been learnt over a long time and for most managers they have been successful. Managers aren’t rewarded for being honest and they don’t see any value in it. What happens instead is empire-building where knowledge is power and openness is dangerous. A traditional command and control structure encourages dishonest behaviour — co-workers compete and and success is often framed as stepping over others.
Being honest with yourself and with others is the hardest thing on this list because it means making yourself vulnerable. My role involves being incredibly honest with myself, my colleagues and my managers. It means thinking carefully about how I feel and why. It means using the right words to give a true reflection of my thoughts and feelings, sharing my successes and failures and reacting honestly and kindly to other people’s. It means asking questions, challenging fairly and accepting fair challenge. And honestly, I feel exposed a lot of the time.
But it’s worth it. Being honest is a strength and the rewards are huge. I believe in the work that I’m doing, I am completely present in my role and my team, other people are sharing themselves honestly with me, and my relationships are based on trust and respect.
I ask for help
If a leader is in a state of constant development and sets a culture of continuous learning, then in practice that means asking for help widely and often. And for me this is where the timeless element comes in. A good leader doesn’t necessarily need to know about digital or data or hydraulics or steam. They need to do the first step; to be curious about the work and spend time in it rather than removed from it, and they need to understand what they don’t know and where they need to go for help.
The skill is not necessarily having the knowledge, but knowing where the reliable places to get that knowledge are. And listening to them. Again, how many managers do you currently know who ask for help? Who believe that the more they ask, the stronger they are? That really bench the strength of their peers and their team? Which leads me to the next point…
I build the right team and I trust my team
A good leader builds the right team around them. And clearly this is not a group of people who always agree with them and whose job is to push reports and information back up to them — showing them exactly what they expect to see. A good leader should build a team that challenges and surprises them, that has strengths and skills they don’t have. A good leader supports their team to develop and grow.
When you’ve built/developed your team let them get on with the job you’ve employed them to do. Trust them. Last year I watched a 2016 The Conference talk by Zero Zero co-founder Indy Johar which resonated deeply. Johar said;
“Every human is a phenomenally powerfully intelligence machine, yet we all treat them as bad robots who won’t get it”
I also read an excellent post by Nials Pfleaging which discusses Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Y. In X thinking, managers think staff are unmotivated and undisciplined. Staff don’t really want to be at work and need to be closely managed through appraisals, one to ones, staff reward systems and IT blanket bans on Facebook. If you’re using these tools as a manager then you’re really telling your staff that you don’t trust them. And they know that’s what you think. In Y thinking leaders know that people are naturally curious and motivated and essentially want to do a good job. In that case the leader’s role is to create the right conditions for them to do that; to facilitate and to remove blockages.
I stop and think
I was talking to a colleague who expressed discomfort at having reflection time in his day as; “I feel like I’m slacking off!” How have we got to a place where taking time to think and reflect about what you’re learning and what you should do next is felt to be deviant behaviour?
Good management is measured by constantly delivering products, plans and outcomes. We’re churning out stuff at a rate of knots with no time to think and understand if these are the right things to do at the right time in the right way. Organisations reward and promote a culture of constantly delivering artefacts with no time to reflect on whether it’s right. And, by extension, no chance to switch it off or adapt it if it’s wrong.
Many Agile and Lean processes have stages where the team must stop and think about what they’ve done so far before they can move to the next stage. An opportunity to test, challenge, question and change direction if need be. This is progress, but I don’t think it goes far enough.
Reflection is important to everyone at every level in an organisation and absolutely crucial for leaders. Taking time and making space to reflect on what is happening gives a leader time to grow, and develop self-awareness and maturity. Give yourself space to breathe, to digest, to pose difficult questions and consider the answers. Reflection is a strength.
I do the right thing, not the easy thing
My colleague Carl Haggerty, talks about good leaders having ‘curiosity, compassion and courage’ and it struck me that we rarely seem to ask for bravery from our managers and we almost never seem to see any. I wouldn’t say that my organisation promotes and rewards people for being brave and for taking smart risks. Does yours?
As a great (and sadly fictional) leader said: ‘We must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy’
Being a good leader means being brave. And I think that being brave often means operating from a place of love and growth and development, rather than a place of fear. It means making difficult choices, based on evidence, knowledge, understanding and compassion. It means admitting when you are wrong and developing resilience by learning from failure. It means being visible. It means being prepared to stand on your own if that is the right place to be. It means having courage.
And, being honest, this is the biggest area for me to work on as a leader. I’ve started identifying what my behaviours are and am currently working on some 360⁰ feedback.
The most obvious and the hardest. A good leader must actually lead.
This is understanding that as a leader, change and development must be led by you. Leaders are the gatekeeper of change. I keep hearing and reading about empowering staff to be innovative; I’ve been part of sessions where professionals have talked about how they are going to change, and how they want to change their organisations. And the next year we’ve all sat in the same room and had the same conversations. Why is this? Why are brilliant, clever, talented, empowered and motivated people unable to make change happen in their organisations? I understand now that this is because change, real tangible change, must be leader-led.
The problem I think is that many leaders don’t see this. They believe they have a people problem — their staff just aren’t motivated enough, they don’t take the initiative enough, they don’t really want it. What if organisations don’t have a people problem; what if they actually have a leader problem?
So there you go, easy now innit?
Of course not. It’s really, really bloody hard. Current managers are living behaviours that have been taught and developed over years and years. They are operating in systems that encourage conformity and reward longevity.
Being a really good leader — being a really good anything — is putting yourself out there and that can make you feel vulnerable and exposed. It’s incredibly hard to be open, particularly when others around you are closed.
Part of the reason for writing this piece was to help me to answer the question: what sort of leader do I want to be and how do I get there?
I now understand much more about the sort of leader I want to be. And I’ve realised that I’ll never ‘get there’, that ‘there’ isn’t a real place and that assuming it is will halt my development. Being a good leader is about constantly learning and growing; it’s about being open and honest; it’s about being mindful and reflective; it’s about being purposeful and brave.
In fact, for me, the work of being a better leader is the work of being a better human.