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Change: Where to start?

After two discussion-filled days on Leading Change at Sheepdrove we reflect on where leaders choose to begin in the face of big, difficult or complex change and what these start points tell us about the longer journey

“Get the start right, the right point of entry, that’s how you get a conversation going, that’s how you walk toward people.” Rob Burnet, CEO & Founder, Well Told Story

Rob Burnet speaking at Leading Change. At Well Told Story, “walking toward people” means telling stories about “Sex & Money” not contraception, anti-smoking, political governance, etc, using their language (Sheng, the slang of the townships).

Reflection 1: Pause

Take time to question then accept the reality of a situation

Nick Walkley’s “due diligence” on Haringey Council in London started before and continued after he became CEO. While in the early months he often encountered “the smell of fresh paint” as the best side of services and departments was offered up for his inspection, he kept asking questions and comparing answers with his own observations, to find the truths required to work out what needed doing. In a large complex local authority this isn’t a process that ends when the ink on the strategy paper is dry – checking reality then recalibrating how the leadership will tackle change is on going.

Another Nick, Nick Stace of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons(RCVS), found distrust, dysfunctional governance and little clarity of direction, coupled with low public confidence in the regulator judged out of touch when he arrived as CEO. What he didn’t do was blame anyone for the situation, he accepted it aware that many people he needed to work with had been part of what went on before.

Sensible and what we’d all do before making any big decisions right? Of course but even the keenest interrogation of data, the sharpest observation, the smartest questioning is not enough if you then look with prejudice at what you’ve learned.

During Leading Change Rob Burnet from Well Told Story (WTS) introduced us to the Rejection Scale. WTS use this to map audience segments in relation to desirable behaviours, behaviours as disparate as using contraception, voting, exercising religious tolerance and running a small business. The beauty of this scale for the work WTS does with young Kenyans and Tanzanians is that it busts the awareness-equals-acceptance-equals-change worldview many WTS clients present with. It introduces a more useful paradigm, that it’s possible to be highly knowledgeable about a behaviour and its positive consequences yet reject it, and a more insightful start point.

Effective leaders don’t just do due diligence on the world around them they do it on themselves, asking difficult questions and attending to what they find. This is not always easy. During a break at Sheepdrove a Connect member spoke of how while he loved his job his focus was increasingly on retirement rather than the opportunities an imminent merger would bring. Fair enough? Many of us would think so but how many of us work in organisations where it’s possible to name a personal truth of this type with impunity?

Reflection 2: Protect

Prioritise putting support in place for yourself

At Connect’s first event of 2016, On Your Marks, Zella King introduced us to the Personal Boardroom, a tool that helps leaders analyse and strengthen their networks by identify missing roles. Echoing this, the need for leaders to consciously embed themselves in a support network before embarking on major change was mentioned many times at Leading Change.

For those new to post or incumbent but facing a new change challenge, this means restructuring your leadership team to get emotional as well as intellectual support. For Lucy Adams, after resigning her position at the BBC, and as she set about working out “what now” it meant looking beyond her old networks to find people with judgement she trusted, perspective on her situation and who could give her energy not drain it from her.

Reflection 3: Choose

Make the choice to change something or not to

Free choice is a fiction; decisions are always contextual and contingent, yet many of the leaders spoke of choices they had made and the role these played in change.

Geoff McDonald told us about his “crucible moment” and how in the face of a diagnosis of anxiety and depression he, “took the decision not to be burdened by the stigma”. This choice probably saved Geoff’s life. It is also the foundation upon which the work he does with organisations and leaders to create workplaces where people can speak out about mental health and receive support if they choose to is built. Lucy’s choice was to decide to “be better not bitter” to be propelled forward not held back by the experience she had been through.

Nick Stace explained how part of moving RCVS from appalling levels of employee engagement to satisfaction levels of 93% involved “choosing a leadership style”. The style chosen was “Inclusive and Direct” and has been relentlessly role modelled by Nick and his senior leadership team to set a new tone and allow new more productive conversations and relationship dynamics to emerge.

In many organisations it is hard to make change, particularly when you are not the CEO, as Wavelength’s Co-founder, Liam, acknowledged at the start of Leading Change. However, he also challenged us all to consider what we can do and to choose within that, not to default to the paralysis of the impossible.

Reflection 4: Believe

Foster belief that things are worth changing and can be different

It’s easy to feel cynical in the face of change, to think, “here we go again” but to lead change you must be able to spark, kindle, fan and rekindle belief at every level.

For some belief is vocational.

When Drew Povey was first shown around Harrop Fold School on every corridor and in every classroom he saw potential. One of the early steps Team Harrop took to drag and drive the school out of special measures was “reimagining how a school could be run” – with a flat structure and empowered students treated as customers not just as pupils. Peter Keen talked about the importance of daydreaming and of then making those daydreams tangible – at Harrop Fold this led to the creation of a core purpose departments could then translate into practice, ensuring belief was felt everywhere it mattered. Like Zina and Nick, Drew is a “public servant” a title that is vocational to its very core.

For others belief requires early proof.

We heard how iconic early actions – big and small, can create powerful symbols for and evidence of the possibility of change. Actions like dealing with the bully everyone knows to be a problem but who has been left unchallenged. Actions like buying new coffee machines to solve the seemingly mundane problem of “terrible” coffee. Actions like getting rid of things that don’t work – multiple sets of meaningless values stuck to walls or PDR systems that sap time and energy rather than boosting engagement or effectiveness. Actions like senior leaders going home on time, role modelling new norms, not just telling others to do it then working into the night.

Reflection 5: Anchor

When things are shifting find your still points

Leaders love frameworks and we saw quite a few at Sheepdrove:

Geoff’s Maslovian wellbeing triangle:

Author and consultant on the physical environment, Kursty Groves’ 5E model for identifying the purpose of your workplace:

MINDSPACE shared by Henry Ashworth, CEO, Portman Group from his time in the Nudge Unit at Number 10:

Peter Keen’s four behaviours to increase personal performance (both your own and the team) when leading people towards big change in any field:

And The 7 Principles of Building a High Performance Culture stolen from ASDA and used at RCVS – to name a few. While frameworks can be after-the-event works of fiction they can also be touchstones, providing a still centre to the messy spinning craziness of change, allowing a coherent story about change to be told before telling a coherent story about change is in fact possible.

There are many other types of anchors for leaders in the thick of it…

  • People – Nick from Haringey has had the same PA for 14 years and worked with her and with Zina during his controversial time as CEO of Barnet.

  • Places – Zina visits schools when she needs to ground herself.

  • Commitments – whether internal like a vision or mission statement or visible beyond the organisation like RCVS’ 2015 Royal Charter created to enshrine the organisation’s ambitions at a time when the Charter wasn’t even up for renewal.

  • Practices – Peter talked about the importance of leaders structuring in recovery time, as an elite athlete would, to ensure personal wellbeing is not sacrificed on the alter of organisational change.

While some of these will emerge over time perhaps what’s important when facing imminent change is to ask the question, “So, what’s not going to change?”

And finally…

It may seem back to front talking about where to start as Connect 2016 draws to an end. However, in considering what leaders decide to do first there are powerful insights to be had about what leading change demands of leaders every step of the way and a message about the continuous nature of personal, organisational and societal change.


Written by Helen Trevaskis. Alongside helping Wavelength design Connect, Helen is Co-Founder of 3C Collective, a social enterprise which designs and commercialises innovative hygiene solutions for those living in slums.


Connect is our leadership programme that inspires, develops and connects leaders whose professional paths would not normally cross. With clients from large corporates, social enterprises, charities and the public sector, we bring together a diverse community of 90 top leaders to learn alongside and from each other.

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Some of the people mentioned in this article are part of Wavelength Speakers Bureau. To view their full biographies, find links to videos and to book them to speak at your own event please click on the links below:

Rob Burnet, MD & Founder, Well Told Story

Geoff McDonald, Former Global VP HR, Unilever; Global Advocate, Campaigner & Consultant on Mental Health in the Working World

Lucy Adams, MD, Firehouse & Founder, Disruptive HR

Peter Keen CBE, Interim Performance Director, Lawn Tennis Association

Zella King, Executive Fellow at Henley Business School & Founding Director of Personal Boardroom

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