I once worked for a large UK organisation where the ego of executive directors severely obstructed material value of other highly skilled and qualified, but less senior colleagues, from being realised. The management culture of this particular organisation was such that service and functional heads and managers who were qualified and competent in their specialisms and professions, including in the disciplines of Health & Safety, accountancy, risk management, EDI, strategy and performance, were not respected for their professional opinions, simply because they were Heads and not executive directors. In this organisation, executive directors didn’t just dismiss the professional opinions of these employees, they actively went against them. In one particular incident, not only were legitimate H&S concerns ignored, reports alerting the Board of Trustees to material risks were edited so that risk scores were downgraded and risks were presented as not being significant. In this case, the risks related to insufficient records of statutory compliances checks, including fire risk assessments being completed or residential buildings. These buildings were homes for some of the most vulnerable looked after children in the care of the charity.
The same ego of the most senior decision makers disregarded attempts by other heads raising genuine concerns about the management style of some directors. The top down management culture of this organisation meant that heads of functions recruited through an external and heavily competitive recruitment processes were then not permitted to participate in strategic discussions and meetings nor were they contribute to strategic projects and reports. The extensive professional experience directly relevant to addressing and resolving some of the most complex and significant challenges faced by the organisation at that time was simply not engaged even though such activities directly fell within the remit and purpose of these roles. In some cases, these same posts were then made redundant with colleagues in these positions having served less than two years of employment. This meant they did not qualify for certain statutory employment rights, including the right to raise a claim for wrongful (including constructive) or unfair dismissal and the right to redundancy pay. Arguably, the behaviour of these directors didn’t just create additional challenges in terms of exposing the charity to greater and material risk, these actions were regressive, leaving the charity in a worse state in terms of financial sustainability, talent and the ability to deliver even the most rudimentary of organisational activities.
Real value is achieved when leaders can be humble and invite others to contribute to resolving the most complex organisational and business problems.
Of course the example I have outlined is a fairly extreme example of a poor management culture. It wasn’t necessarily the case that any of this poor behaviour was intentional. Although it was probably misguided. The point here was that the ego of the most senior decision makers meant the talent of less senior members of staff was overlooked, to the detriment of the health of the organisation. And if you are asking, ‘so what?’, then let me add that the service attached to one of the buildings with insufficient H&S practices and controls is currently being reviewed by Ofsted, who have stated the building and service is not fit for purpose.
So how might you apply this insight to challenges you may be facing right now? Allow me to offer five ways to meaningfully engage employees
1. Get comfortable with what you don’t know
I’ve observed many senior decision makers fall foul of their own expectations about themselves, including me. A common folly is when senior staff believe that they must know the answer to a question or challenge when quite feasibly, no one else would expect them to. It is perfectly fine for a senior manager to not know, especially when the challenge faced is complex, unforeseen, new/different and sometimes when no clear solution exists or can be known. In fact, a great leader will be transparent about not knowing and will demonstrate greater integrity for this. A great leader will also surround themselves with the most talented colleagues in their respective fields and will nurture, encourage and constructively challenge to get the best from them. Moreover, a great leader isn’t expected to be the font of all knowledge because that would imply, perilously, that this person has all the answers. The most common business failures have often occurred when a senior member of an organisation has taken a decision without consulting experts and specialists, or taken advice but then not followed it. Of course, consulting alone cannot entirely absolve a wrong or poor decision, but it can significantly mitigate any associated risks. This leads me to the next point.
Consulting with others won’t always be appropriate for every organisational challenge, including those which may be sensitive or relate to peoples roles (such a restructures or redundancies). Posing a well structured and defined question to a group of colleagues or indeed the whole organisation can be a really effective way of generating fresh ideas. This approach also gives colleagues some agency over the issues that affect them and can be particularly effective at engaging and corralling employees during challenging times. If you are considering consulting with employees, keep in mind that you need to ensure you have clear, fair and safe process to enable people to contribute meaningfully as well as providing guidance as to how ideas will be considered (and by whom) and how decisions may be communicated. Manage these expectations from the start to gain maximum benefit.
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Tasking a more junior colleague with a specific project can deliver multiple benefits including an opportunity for professional development including an opportunity for coaching and mentoring by the line manager or project sponsor. Effective delegation can also free up valuable time of a more senior colleague to focus on more complex issues, bring a fresh approach to a problem and developing skills that can be used for other business issues. The mistake typically made when delegating is that managers simply allocate work. Rarely is this effective. Good delegation involves taking the time to define the desired outcome, providing clear timescales for delivery (which may include breaking the work down into a series of tasks), setting the ‘non-negotables’ the things that must be achieved and or undertaken in a certain way, and establishing any boundaries such as where decisions are required, who should take them and when.
Really good delegation involves clearly define the desired outcome, in terms of impact sought, and not by prescribing the solution.
4. Set up a task and finish group
Similar to consulting, a working group comprised of a selection of colleagues with a range of skills and experience relevant to the matter to be addressed can often deliver a more effective solution than leaving the head-scratching to the most senior decision makers. If the matter is a particularly complex challenge, one of the key tasks of the group could include establishing a clear problem statement or framing the challenge to define the associated scope of works. Ensure the group is as small as is practicably possible and that there is a clear brief. Ensure that the group has the resources it needs which can often simply mean enough time, free from distraction from other routine tasks and responsibilities for a period of time. Giving colleagues responsibility in this way provides them with the opportunity to develop their skills and capacity to take on more responsibility from senior colleagues. Additionally, the group is much more likely to arrive at a robust solution that has considered all the risks and benefits in a structured way.
5. Put out a call to action
Sometimes, just asking colleagues if they have experience in a particular area can yield great results and can often negate the need to bring in external consultants. I’ve worked in consultancy firms where this was a frequent occurrence by the owners of the business: Does anyone speak French? Has anyone got any experience dealing with X organisation? Has anyone ever worked on X project? I even know of a band formed from the idea by a director of an organisation to hold a ‘battle of the bands’ competition for a Christmas party. The band went on to play a number of gigs in established venue, record their own material and even won a genuine ‘battle of the band’s competition beating other more established bands. Granted this was was a social activity not directly related to the core work of that particular company, but it just goes to show what hidden talent you might have that you don’t yet know about.
So now you have some ideas, ask yourself; what can you do today to develop the talent of less senior staff and create real value?