Two lessons on a Snakes and Ladders workshop

Hundreds have played Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders around the world – and we like to check in with people. Early in July, Stephen Welch went to Bristol to run a session for the UK Government Communications Service. One of the participants was Sophie Mason, Head of Key Themes (Strategic Priorities Communications Team) at UK Research & Innovation. Here’s her story.

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

Sophie:            I’m a senior strategic communications manager at UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). We have a budget of £7billion to provide funding for universities, research organisations, businesses, charities and others. My job is to lead teams working on specific projects.

Stephen:          UKRI is a fairly new organization. How has your job changed since you took on this role?

Sophie:            Earlier in my career, I worked in small organizations and UKRI has 7,500 people. So influencing and advising is completely different. I’ve had to learn to stop ‘doing’ communications and do more ‘leading’ and ‘advising’. The real challenge is learning how to influence people who you don’t know. In small organizations you are more visible to people at the top – you can bump into the CEO in the kitchen – but in large organizations you need to be more systematic at building relationships and influencing people to get the job done.

Stephen:          Is that why you came along to our Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders event in Bristol?

Sophie:            Yes, I wanted to find out how to build and develop relationships in a different context and learn to be a strategic adviser. A lot of my previous jobs have been short-term contracts; in this one I want to build relationships and reputation for the long term. I wanted to learn how to be a business partner to senior people which is why attended Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders.

Stephen:          What was the key learning for you?

Sophie:            The Snakes and Ladders workshop taught me two key things. First: as a strategic adviser you need to work to see the long term. The benefits of your advice may not always be apparent in the short term and you need to be ready for this – sometimes you need a tough conversation (and lose some reputation points with a key stakeholder in the short term) but they will thank you in the end when your advice turns out to be right later on. Second: I found the ‘stakeholder mapping your career’ exercise really useful.

Stephen:          I’m glad to hear that. A lot of communication and marketing professionals know how to prepare and use a stakeholder map for their campaigns, but relatively few use the concept to help plan their career. To support this process, we are currently developing a ‘promotions pack’: a toolkit to help people going into a new job think about what they need to do to be successful in a new role.

Sophie:            That’s good. In my case, I had a mentor to help me with the transition. In my career until now, I’ve always had ‘outputs’ to measure my results. Now the challenge for me is to measure my results through others’ achievements.

Stephen:          Mentoring is great! I’ve been involved in the IABC Mentoring scheme for a few years… Do keep us posted on your progress. As we discussed, we would be pleased to come and run a Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders workshop for UKRI, at your convenience. In the meantime, tell us about Sophie outside of work? What do you do when you are not working?

Sophie:            While I love my job, I’m very much a “work to live” person and I put the money I earn to good use having as many adventures as I can. My main passions are travelling and scuba diving – my partner and I are child free, so we get to go on lots of holidays and explore over- and under-water. We recently spent three weeks in Panama, diving around wrecked pirate ships and exploring the jungle. Last year we were island-hopping in Thailand and next year we’ll be diving in Malaysia and driving across the States. I also love cats and I’m about to adopt two new ones, which I intend to spoil rotten!

Stephen:          Ah, we can compare notes on cats some time. I have two. Meanwhile, thanks for your time, and perhaps see you at the next GCS event.

Learn more about the work of UK R&I and the GCS. And you can connect with Sophie on Linkedin. And if you’d like to try Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders: see if it is right for you.

“…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.