The Brief

Within the context of Oxford its customers (all citizens, including those who need help and services), there was a need for managers at all levels to step up and more than ‘meet and greet’ the future, in order to build a truly World Class City. Most had already been trained in the ‘hows’ of management tasks, and so what was needed was genuine engagement. This is so that the whole organisation would grow ideas and income in a systemic way that enhanced the whole of Oxford and its people. It was essential that ‘leadership was gold – with great outcomes and lean delivery’.

The Response

Q. Learning set about Listening to the Buzz

And discovered that key messages sent had been received: which was both excellent and concerning….

  • The staff survey – as part of Investors in People (IIP) and the ‘Good to Great’ journey – was good and yet not great, with some critical ‘lessons to be learned’ around 5 themes.
  • This was clearly a very good organisation (winning awards such as ‘Best Council of the year’) with good leaders prepared to take calculated risks early on, and yet there were fears and discords too, many of which were unshared and unresolved.

This development programme needed to be a shared experience for managers: setting up and rehearsing the right conversations that managers at all levels needed to have in order to create the right future – apparently a collection of ‘have you got 5 minutes to talk’ and yet backed up with rigour and structures to get it right throughout the organisation. These conversations would lead the organisation and change the culture.

There was also learning to be taken from different parts of the organisation, e.g. the respectful customer care and language used with the most vulnerable people and the skills used there to facilitate their getting what they most needed …were also needed to be used in all other services too.

And there were traps fallen into which seemed good at first, but proved divisive eg Direct Services (plumbers, electricians, builders etc) were phenomenally successful in seeing where they could grow income but wanted others to run too, even though they had fewer options or needed longer-term plans. This resulted in those running hard feelings that they were ‘bailing out’ the Council, and being frustrated by procurement processes.

And there was a need to define ‘customer’. Should an internal customer be treated equally to an external one – or go to the back of the queue? This led to a feeling of unease about people’s worth and identity.

Q. Learning Became Coaches to the Leaders and Managers

Development time therefore needed to:

  • create space to think. This required on-going support through mentoring: it was crucial that governance, sponsorship and processes were put in place for all managers (around cohorts that had their practices reinforced each time a new cohort came on board).
  • become time to practise the conversations needed. Some managers knew what they needed to practise, others required a ‘nudge’ from the Q. Learning coach. Change happened when the nature of conversations changed.
  • elicit examples of evidence that the managers and leaders should gather. This is to tell them to have a conversation, that the nature of the conversation was right, and that the right outcome was achieved. And to be party to reports to top management which held up mirrors as to what was really happening.
  • inspire people on their journey. To learn how to have integrity and congruence i.e. to resolve issues they had difficulty with, and to overcome conflicts and negative internal dialogue. Mentoring, and being mentored, was a critical part of the programme to overcome the ‘drama triangles’ where people felt victims rather than able to influence and move forward.
  • address unresolved issues. Find an ever higher purpose that everyone could move towards: ‘One Council’ was superseded by ‘The Place’ (Oxford) so that people knew to work with partners and be part of the wider public purse. This then led to Straight Through Processing (STP) conversations.

This approach has been used in Oxford:

1.Managing people is primarily done through conversations. If changes are needed, then we need to change the conversation. This could be a change in content, structure, style – or all three! Managers need the chance to gain an early, practical experience of what it means to lead and manage differently, and practise these different types of conversations. A great way to achieve this is through an assessment or development centre* that grounds the required behaviour and conversations. By immersing managers in real-world tasks and scenarios, they have an opportunity to rehearse those behaviours and [through observation and feedback] benchmark their current performance. It is also an invaluable opportunity to address current leadership challenges.

*[Assessment centres are ‘edgy’ – stricter focus on scrutiny and observation; limited immediate feedback; greater sense of pressure. Development centres are ‘safer’ – looser scrutiny but with reasonable observation; more feedback; less pressure to perform.]

2. Feedback and development planning through 1:1 conversations enables managers to make sense of their assessment or development centre experience, and place it in the context of what they know about themselves. There is also an option to integrate a diagnostic tool – our recommendation is for one on Emotional Intelligence – and a 3600 feedback (Q. Learning has a Leadership 360 which could be used as it is, or tailored) to create a comprehensive feedback picture for each manager.

3.Development sessions can take many forms, in smaller or larger groups on specific areas of capability – giving feedback; coaching for performance management; engagement; decision-making-from-behind – could help managers build and fine-tune skills. Melding inputs on techniques and models with case study practices makes these sessions practical and immediately relevant. Establishing a need and focus for these is best done after the 1:1’s when qualitative and quantitative judgements can be made based on data and reflections from conversations. [They may not be required; or required for some but not all etc.]

Governance and processes around the three-steps development programme

Being clear about what is required: A framework is needed from which tasks can be designed, observations made during the assessment/development centre and feedback given. An organisation may have a competency model that is about to be introduced. This development programme could serve as a useful way to enable leaders and managers to become really familiar with this new framework. Q. Learning review it carefully to be sure we design a development centre that works with the organisation’s model: including pin-pointing behaviours so that people can be really clear on what is expected of them and what they are being observed against.

Assessment or development centre: 1 day enables us to run tasks that have experiential value for delegates, observational value for calibrating performance and produce outputs useful to the organisation.  Groups of up to 12 with 3-4 observers work well. It is better not to dip below 8, otherwise it becomes a little ‘stuffy.’ It could be possible for someone from the organisation, with relevant experience, to be part of the observer team (and therefore reduce the number of Q. Learning consultants required).

1:1 feedback conversations: Q. Learning allows 2 hours: to include feedback on the assessment or development centre, feedback on a diagnostic, and conversations about development plans. The last half hour used to triangulate with the line manager as well, works best.

Development sessions: there is a great variety of types of development that can be offered to compliment what your organisation might also have the capacity to offer and match the needs and budget(!). Significant flexibility can be built into this:

  • Lunchtime learning sessions tend to be well attended (we often call them Power Learning). We find these energising sessions, with just 1-3 learning points and an emphasis on immediate application, work well. They can be designed on any topic and could be open to all staff and not just those going through the whole development programme. The following are examples: Influencing beyond; Negotiating Outcomes that sustain relationships; Having the tough conversation; Setting and agreeing objectives; Creating a thinking environment
  • Facilitated workshops could be either a series or one-offs around particular ‘wicked issues’ or ideas that would benefit from external facilitation and challenge.
  • Development Action Groups (Learning sets) work well when a particular idea, issue or project evolves as part of a task on the assessment/development centre. The group then stays together working through the project, and meetings are facilitated as a learning set. These would normally have a defined end point.
  • Instructor led interactive webinars run as a series where delegates gain input for 1hr a week and each session is followed up with a post webinar task that helps towards a development plan. Of course the number and frequency can be varied.

The Outcome

Completing in autumn 2016, all (around 200) managers and supervisors will have been through the programme in 20 cohorts, and there has been the most exciting journey going on in Oxford. More people have engaged in using their thinking to generate or implement ideas for improvement throughout the organisation than ever before. Leaders have learned the challenge of leading by listening, challenging, opening doors, and supporting rather than (just) directing, setting the pace and controlling the outcome.

The journey is not complete. However, there is now a willingness to look for evidence not anecdotes, be curious about themes, and engage with the issues and the right people through conversations. Where there has been failure, leaders have acknowledged the bits they were responsible for and come forward to try again another way.  And they feel a confidence that they have the ears and attention of the CEO and Director team. They also have a clearer view of what the future holds for the Council and how the context drives change ….and how they will contribute to it as leaders and managers.

As to what next, Q. Learning is working with the Council’s leadership team to agree an approach for how to capitalise on and embed some of the cross team working that has started during the cohorts’ development. Also more help is needed for the front line teams to continue with becoming self-improving problem solving teams. And there is an energy for encouraging opportunities for peer support beyond the boundaries of individual teams and departments….and an ongoing need for helping with the thinking processes for some of the key strategic challenges they are facing. With the honesty to face up to issues and talk them through, Oxford is well positioned to face the future.

“Oxford City Council have worked with Q. Learning for several years and have always been extremely satisfied with what they have delivered. They are a committed and motivated team with a real drive to work with us to make a difference. By far the largest piece of work is the Leadership & Management Development programme where the flexibility they have and continue to show adds immense value – it’s like they are part of us and share our ambition and willingly go the extra mile.  The programme itself was developed through a joint approach to ensure it ‘fitted’ the organisation and the content of the programme was really designed to match our ambition and challenges for the future. In addition the knowledge and experience they brought was fundamental to the success of the programme and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them to other organisations who want a provider to deliver change.”

Chris Harvey| Organisational Development & Learning Manager| Oxford City Council

The Q. Learning management development programme has quickly made a tangible difference to the behaviours of key staff. The positive response from long-established managers has been in stark contrast to some previous training programmes and to date, all attendees have been invigorated and encouraged by the experience. Insights from Emotional Intelligence assessments have been openly acknowledged as both accurate and insightful and have as a result led to changes in behaviour in the workplace.”

Building Operations Manager, Oxford City Council