“… I got some great insights into how to have conversations with other leaders…”

Hundreds have played Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders around the world – and we like to check in with people. Recently, Stephen Welch talked to Alison Brooks, Assistant Head of Professional Development at the UK Ministry of Defence.

Stephen:       Hi Alison. Thanks for chatting. First, please tell me about your job and what you do?

Alison:            I work with communication professionals across the Ministry of Defence to help them develop their skills. In our team we support their growth and development across the full communications landscape from digital skills to becoming strategic advisers to leaders across the Ministry. Previously, I worked for five years at the Cabinet Office as Talent and Professional Standards Manager for the Government Communication Service (GCS).

Stephen:       When did you attend a Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders event?

Alison:            In 2019, I was leading professional development for the GCS, running the “Impact” programme which was aimed at emerging talent professionals across government. The purpose of the year-long programme was to help them develop the skills and behaviours to advance their career. The highlight was our two-day event at Roffey Park conference centre in Sussex where we took over the majority of the venue and played Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders.

Stephen:       I remember, yes.  We developed a tailored version of the simulation based around a virtual government department: the ‘Department of Public Administration’. How was the experience for you?

Alison:            It was really interesting and created a really good opportunity for everyone to see through the eyes of others. A chance to take a different perspective on the challenges we face as strategic advisers. I got some great insights into how to have conversations with HR Directors, Finance Directors, and other leaders.

Stephen:       How did the workshop help you and the other participants?

Alison:            It provided a really good way to open up and discuss how to deal with business problems. The event helped me change the way I work. I’ve always tried to consider other people’s views … but in the simulation we really got to think about how to take those different perspectives to the next level.

Stephen:       We are in ‘permanent beta’ mode. What ideas do you have to improve the programme?

Alison:            It could be a really great thing for apprentices. You could create scenarios for different levels or tweak things to help people in different functions. When I participated in 2019, it  was really nice that scenarios were relevant and timely so you should make some new scenarios around Covid-19 or working at home.

Stephen:       Good idea. Thanks for the suggestion. We’ll do that. Meanwhile, tell us about yourself. What do you do outside of work?

Alison:            Well, we used to have horses but we sold our last one recently, so now we are experiencing life after horses. We just got a puppy (see photo above) so that is keeping us busy. My husband just built a summer house in the garden so we are enjoying that – making the most of the weather!

Stephen:       Sounds like fun. Enjoy the dog (or puppy?) days of summer!

Alison:            You too. Bye!

Notes from Amsterdam: Where was the strategic adviser?

André Manning

Guest post from André Manning.

Editor’s note: a version of this blog, in Dutch, originally appeared here, the blog of the Logeion, the Dutch association for communication professionals.

One of the most challenging roles during my career in communications has been the Trusted Adviser one. And I guess it might be the same for many of my colleagues. In my view this is because this role goes beyond the technical skills of the communications professional. Being a trusted adviser is about the ability to influence your internal stakeholders (eg. the executive board) with the right communications advice to support the long-term organizational objectives. It is about the key characteristics of an executive management role, which can be quite challenging. The right coaching by peers or training during management development programs might certainly be of help. Though I have to admit that the time spent on this topic during these training programs is still relatively limited. This is why projects like Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders are so interesting: they give people the chance to practice what it is like to be a Trusted Adviser.

During my international career at companies such as Royal Philips, Booking.com or Amcor I played this role most of the times successfully. But honestly, sometimes I was wrong or there was at least room for improvement. Most of the times it was fun to be consulted as a Trusted Adviser. But there have been occasions it was only fun afterwards! And while in the beginning of my career gut feeling or the use of descriptive data was enough to convince my peers nowadays the use of prescriptive data or evidence-based research is becoming more important.

The challenges of the Trusted Adviser role were demonstrated once more when my wife and I were watching the Dutch 8 O’ Clock news recently. During one of the items a commercial director of a holiday resort was interviewed about a recent two-day teacher strike in the Netherlands. The commercial director proudly stated that he and his organization had cleverly responded to the fact that many parents had to make a virtue of necessity. Because teachers went on strike on both Thursday and Friday, parents were obliged to take time off work. They had to find a solution to entertain their children in – for example – an indoor ice rink park, a commercial playground or a holiday park. And the “smart” commercial director that I am talking about, was convinced (or was it greed?) he could make some extra money easily by raising the prices of a long weekend at his resort.

After all, he argued, these parents (and their children) would come anyway. In the same news-item, other entrepreneurs, with a different view, were interviewed as well. They had not given in to the sudden opportunity and chose for the opposite; they reduced the prices of their amenities.

I can’t help it, but I can’t get this news-item out of my mind. Not only as a consumer but also as a communications professional. What drove this man’s decision? And why did he choose to appear on the 8 O’Clock news to talk about it with pride? And was there a communications professional who advised him to do so?

Believe me, I am not against market forces, but I still think that I would have done things differently as an entrepreneur. And more importantly, I also would have taken another business decision into account as a trusted communication adviser. I’m still puzzled and don’t understand why the manager of the holiday resort didn’t go for the opposite and meet those parents who were hit by the teachers’ strike. Why didn’t he choose to make a special offer to the parents impacted; to show empathy and understanding (which is so important in communications) instead of focusing on short-term profit maximization? And… where was his “trusted adviser” in this case?

As we all know, a communications adviser is expected to be able to play multiple roles. And one of the most difficult roles as I said in the beginning of this blog, is the one that in management literature and practice, is called “the Trusted Adviser”.

The Trusted Adviser role is also the one where you sometimes have to stick your neck out. Or, as Dutch emeritus professor Cees van Riel (who is still working within the Reputation Institute) once said, “dare to risk your position”. Now, back to the example I mentioned earlier. I am curious what you would have done in this case, what would you have advised the commercial manager of the holiday resort. And do you feel equipped well with the right advisory or management skills to do so? I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

Andre Manning has had communications leadership roles within Royal Philips, AkzoNobel, Booking.com and Amcor amongst others. Currently he is the director of Logeion, the Dutch association of communications professionals, with more than 4,200 individual members. Logeion members work both at profit as well as non-profit organizations, communications agencies and as individual consultants. You can find him on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Feature image credit: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Amsterdam-IMG_0051.JPG