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.

Turning the tables – part 1

In this blog, we talk a lot about how those in functional roles can become strategic advisers to their senior leaders. But today, I want to take a different perspective: what does it take to become a strategic adviser to me?

Specifically, I want to talk about how external agencies, consulting firms, or PR professionals can raise their game and fundamentally transform how they deal with clients like me. If you work in an agency or consulting firm, this blog is for you.

We’re going to turn the tables and discuss the role of external strategic advisers, and what you can do to become one.

When you start your career, in a junior role, most of what you will be doing is
at the behest of others. You are in effect, a waiter, delivering what others ask – be they clients or more senior colleagues. You develop and grow your expertise and reputation in a particular field and, as you get promoted and move through the ranks, you become an expert in a particular area.

But then something happens. You get promoted to an Account Manager or Account Director role. Congratulations!  Your role has completely changed, and you don’t even know it.

Suddenly you find yourself directing others, leading a team, negotiating with your clients, writing proposals, attending pitches, advising clients and working with other account directors to balance client needs, the firm’s needs, and your team’s own professional development.

And you have to leave all those fun, technical expert tasks behind. Because the more you allow yourself to be drawn back down to them, the less value you will add to me, Carmen Spinoza, your most important client.

So, what does it take to make the transition? In my experience, there are two sets of changes required: one internal, one external. This week I’m going to talk about internal. Stay tuned next week for the external ones.

Internal motivations

I’ve been speaking to a couple of my preferred external advisers and they all tell the same story: they started off being motivated by one type of work but now have to find their motivation elsewhere. After their initial graduate waiter jobs, many of them moved to back-office doing technical work, business analysis, or research. They were the chefs of the advisory world: producing great work but behind the scenes. And they loved it.

But just as some of the most famous Michelin chefs don’t do much actual cooking any more (they appear on TV, open branded restaurant chains, write books, etc.), my favourite advisers don’t do the detail work themselves. They have found another motivator: whether it is sales, business development, presenting, influencing, or just working with their clients. To continue my restaurant analogy, you need to become a maître d’: dedicated to marshalling a group of experts to create a great experience for me, your customer.

And so my advice to you is this: if you want to be my strategic adviser, be sure to find the right motivation. Otherwise, you risk either drawing yourself back into chef or waiter work; or you will lead an unfulfilled consulting life.

What do you think? What changes have you had to make as you develop your career in professional services? How have you changed your motivations?

Stay tuned for next week when we’ll be discussing external changes.

For more information on this topic, or to find to more about the brand new “external consultant” version of Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders, please get in touch.

If you are intrigued by the restaurant metaphor, explore how a being an adviser is like working at a restaurant.