Confidence, connection, and creativity

I was recently in Manchester, working with John Anthony, Senior HR Business Partner at HMRC (The UK Government Tax Department). He organized this workshop for about 35 people in order to help his colleagues i) improve their connection to the business, and to teach other, and ii) to improve their confidence in dealing with senior leaders on important business partnering issues. But this was a workshop with a difference, and provided an innovative way to re-think how we (and you) can do team meetings.

“We wanted to create a session that would energize and inspire my HR colleagues to think in a different way about their potential to connect and influence at all levels. Our team works with Customer Services business areas in HMRC; it’s high profile as performance is heavily scrutinised by government and the media. Ultimately we didn’t want the event to just be tomorrow’s ‘chip paper‘. We wanted people to come away from the event having had a memorable experience whilst improving their professional skills ready for working with senior leaders, supporting decision-making, and communicating key messages”, says John. “As part of that we invited Stephen to run a Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders to help people not only learn new skills but practice them in the safe environment of a business simulation.”

In response to this request, we developed a special version of the simulation, designed for HR Business Partners who want to improve their impact. We connected the scenarios and case studies to the themes of the day. Overall, participants learned about the importance of key concepts in the morning and then in the afternoon got a chance to practice and ‘play’ with them in the safe world before taking their new ideas back to the ‘real’ world. This meant that the whole day catered to different learning styles: some people learn by reading and taking notes, some by watching others, some by playing. There was something for everyone. What was the feedback?

For me, though, the best part of the day was learning from our client about new approaches to facilitating team meetings. John and his team created a really interesting agenda which turned the usual ideas of corporate away-days on their head. I’ve been to a lot of corporate away-days in my time. Most of these start with some presentation about strategy and then, as the day goes on, work down from strategy to team to individual. Typically ending with some version of “what one thing are you going to do differently?”

Sigh.

Instead, why not borrow an idea from John and his team? Why not start with the individual and work up? The first substantive session of the day was people talking about their own experiences, their USPs and (done in a nice way) their blind spots. Because people were all part of the same team, this enabled them to find out more about each other (connection) and have greater knowledge (confidence) in working with each other. “We wanted to start small and finish big. We wanted everyone to get a sense that at each stage they were being elevated up a level, from the personal to the organizational. Firstly, we asked people to start with reflecting on themselves, connecting with their own strengths but also exposing where they felt uncertain about their role and their team. This proved to be a cathartic experience for many, laying bare many concerns but setting a tone of honesty and openness that ran through the whole day. By simply knowing each other better, we began to see ways we could harness others’ expertise to influence across the team and beyond. We are a geographically diverse team so many of us had never actually met each other in person before. As a result, not only did I learn so many new things about my colleagues, their skills, and the extra value they can bring, but also we gained a real sense of common direction. The cohesion in the team feels very real to me now”, commented John.

Then, naturally, a focus on the team itself. But again, why not turn the traditional approaches on their head? How many meetings have you been to where each team member gives an update of progress in their area? Normally PowerPoint, normally dull. What if instead you put some flipcharts on the wall – one per team member, with the title of their functional area or business? Then, invite others to put post-it notes with their understanding / description of what is happening, any opportunities they see, how to support each other, questions or concerns, etc. This way the functional area owners get feedback on how well their work is understood, knowledge of what is on others’ minds and ideas for collaboration opportunities. Much more interesting, much more fun, and much more useful information. Oh, and there is one more benefit: this subverts the traditional ‘hero’ dynamic where each subsequent presenter goes on for longer and longer, and in more and more detail, just to prove how busy they are. (As the joke goes, by the end of the session most of these PowerPoint presentations have no power and no point.)

We’ve all been there, I’m sure.

John says, “we did it this way around because it gives functional or business area leaders a chance to hear some feedback from the rest of the team in a ‘live’ and energetic setting, and to correct any misunderstandings or lack of knowledge of what they are doing. Communication is a two-way process: those functional leaders need to talk about what they are doing, but they also need to get feedback from others, including where we run the risk of silo working. It could have been an uncomfortable experience but in fact the environment was such that the session was positively embraced. We could immediately see some opportunities for creating better connections at an enterprise level, so it gives us a lot of momentum to make things happen.”

So next time you are faced with designing a team meeting, an off-site or an away-days, borrow some ideas from the innovative approaches government HR teams are doing to help make an impact.

And of course if you do want to hear more about our new Human Resources version of Corporate Snakes and Corporate LaddersTM, do get in touch.

“…I used to struggle to say ‘no’ to senior people.”

Hundreds have played Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders around the world – and we like to check in with people. In this instalment of our series of conversations, Stephen spoke to Ben O’Callaghan, Head of Digital Communications, UK Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

Stephen: Hi Ben. Can you tell me a little about your work?

Ben: Hi Stephen. I head up Digital Communications for the Department which means that I manage our social media accounts, website and other related items. I joined the Ministry in 2017, after about two years working at the Crown Prosecution Service.

Stephen: Last year, you participated in our Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders as part of the Early Talent Programme for Government Communication Professionals. What was the highlight for you?

Ben: I remember playing Snakes and Ladders as part of the second residential course at Roffey Park. It was the highlight for me because it didn’t feel as much like ‘work’ as the other elements of the programme. It was fun and, although grounded in theory, the scenarios and situations we played through very realistic – they are events that really do happen in Government.

Stephen: How did the lessons from the workshop help you in your day-to-day job?

Ben: I used to struggle to say ‘no’ to senior people. But the game made me think about how you can move a potentially negative conversation into a more constructive one by thinking about the pros and cons of a course of action.

Stephen: This is a very common challenge and Carmen has recently shared her suggestions on how to say no, without losing many reputational points. We have found that one of the big challenges communication professionals face is finding the best way to push back to senior leaders and to influence their decision-making.

Ben: The influencing skills we learned in the workshop are helpful to me. When faced with a situation, I use influencing and reasoning to determine the best response. I sometimes even use the concept of ‘reputation points’ that we covered in the game to help my decision-making.

Stephen: What, if anything, would you change about game?

Ben: It would be great to have a crisis simulation, or a scenario where there are no ‘good’ options. This would make it more challenging. Also: my team got bad luck. We had all the good answers but then hit a snake and fell back down. Other teams got good luck and won.

Stephen: Fair point. But you know, that’s what happens sometimes in life. It is the big secret no one tells you: luck has a big impact on your success. It is of course fun to ‘win’ the simulation but sometimes the real benefit is in the conversation and discussion. At least that is what other participants have told us. Next time you play, we’ll be sure to find you a ‘ladder’!

Ben: Great, thanks.

Stephen: Thank you!

Learn more about the work of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government – and also the Early Talent Programme. And you can connect with Ben O’Callaghan on LinkedIn.

And if you’d like to try the game: see if it is right for you.

If you’re an alumna/us and you’d like to be interviewed, let us know.

“I wanted to move from more of a tactical, transactional approach.” – A Q&A

Hundreds have played Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders around the world – and we like to check in with people. In this instalment of our series of conversations, Stephen spoke to Fayrouz Essack, Strategic Communications Manager at the UK Department for Transport.

Stephen: Hi Fayrouz, please tell me a little about your work.

Fayrouz: I’m part of the strategic communications team at the Department for Transport (DfT). My work includes overseeing management of the ‘grid’ – the tool we use to coordinate departmental communication and working on our external campaigns.

Stephen: But you’ve not been at DfT for long?

Fayrouz: No, I re-joined in June 2018, after a stint working in the Prime Minister’s Office as a Senior Campaigns Manager. That was exciting because working at the centre of government gives you a new perspective. I worked with lots of different people in different departments and was able to build my network and work in some challenging situations.

Stephen: You mentioned building your network. How did you do that?

Fayrouz: I wanted to move from more of a tactical, transactional approach. So I did two things. First, where possible, I arranged to meet people face-to-face and used the opportunity to find out a bit more their professional priorities and preoccupations. Second, I tried to find things we have in common: can I ‘click’ with them? What values do we both share? What do they do outside of work? This provides a common ground for working with them.

Stephen: Very good. In my research about how to build trusted adviser relationships, I identified four elements. You are already using two: building the relationship and identifying the common ground. (The other two are defining the business outcome and reducing risk.)

Fayrouz: Indeed. I learned about the importance of networking as part of the Early Talent Programme.

Stephen: Yes, I know. We met when we ran a Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders workshop as part of the 2-day residential element of the programme. As you will recall, we built a special, tailored version for use for government communicators. What can you tell me about the wider context of the whole programme?

Fayrouz: The Early Talent Programme is a two-year programme run by the UK Government Communication Service (GCS) to help professionals build and develop their career. I started in April 2017 and it has really helped me build my career. For example, I was a given a coach who I see every month. My coach really helps me think through challenges and encourages me to think about the next step in my career. I’d encourage anyone in the GCS to see if they’re eligible to apply.

Stephen: You said earlier that you like to find out more about people do outside of work. What about you? What do you do outside of work?

Fayrouz: I go to boxing class. My coach actually suggested I go weekly, ensuring I balance my career and development with self care. I liked it so much I now go twice a week. Last weekend I was in Kiev where my partner works. It was so cold!

Stephen: Yes I can imagine. Thanks again for your time.

Learn more about the work of the UK Department for Transport and also the Early Talent Programme. And you can connect with Fayrouz on LinkedIn.

And if you’d like to try the game: see if it is right for you.

If you’re an alumna/us and you’d like to be interviewed, let us know.

Shaking the tree: your unexpected end-of-year bonus

A guest post from Buck Greenback, CFO

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Carmen:

How time flies. The year is almost up. Last time we met you asked me to share some ideas about how to think more commercially.

So, you know me: I like numbers. Here’s a practical idea that can help you secure an unexpected end-of-year bonus. More bang for the buck so to speak.

Now there’s a caveat: it might not immediately make a difference to your own pocketbook, but doing this could very well position you to ask for a pay rise in next year’s budget – and that does put more change into the jukebox doesn’t it?

Shake the tree

So what’s the idea? Well, it is a simple one: shake the proverbial money tree. Earlier in the year you and I agreed a budget – you made the case for a set of investments that’ll make a real tangible return to Globocorp. So now’s the last chance to check if you’re on track – coming in on budget, and with the results promised. Doing what you said you would. “That’s not much of a bonus”, I can hear you mutter. Indeed. But it is the precursor for the real kicker:

  • Knowing where you’re at with your spend (and the results) positions you early to make the case for next year’s budget.
  • It also means you can speak confidently to your suppliers – they’re doing their final sprint, trying to close their books for the year. If their CFO is anything like me, then they’d like to get as much money through the door as possible. And that often makes them more willing to negotiate discounts, extras, extensions, and whatnot.
  • And those partners you have joint projects with – have they spent all their budget? If they haven’t, now’s the time to shake it loose. Meet your stretch objectives.

The bottom line

You got a budget at the beginning of the year based on a projected return on investment. As your CFO I’m now looking for that return. Now’s the time to use the last bit of it to get as much value as you can through the door before the year is out. And then we can talk to Isobel, our CEO, about a well-deserved pay rise.

Normally we CFOs like to say “show me the money!”. In this case, though, I’m asking you to “show me the results”.

Good luck – and keep me posted.

Best, Buck

P.S. Don’t forget your team’s professional development budget – you made a particularly strong case there. Having spoken to my team, they’d love it to see more business partnering behaviour from your colleagues.  Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders workshops, perhaps?

Picture credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:AlmondShakerbeforeafter.jpg. Father of Nehrams2020 [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]