“… 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!

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.

Carmen climbs Montréal

Hello Montréal! We are delighted to be back at an IABC World conference after launching Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders in New Orleans two years ago. Yesterday, we had a chance to play with over 50 senior communicators looking to have fun, change their perspective and improve their advising and consulting skills.

Thank you to all who attended and gave us some nice feedback.

The game has evolved quite a lot in the last two years thanks to feedback from our amazing clients – the UK government, a few multinationals and UK universities. The dilemmas Carmen faces keep getting tougher and more real, we’ve added some practical tools like an influencing style self-diagnostic and an analysis of the different styles of strategic adviser. What has not changed is our passion for making learning something enjoyable and innovative. Yesterday we tried something new and launched an interactive voting system. And now we also have a brand new website blog for players to continue following us.

IABC is about making connections and #IABC18 is focusing on the communication crossroads. This outlook could not be a better fit with our philosophy and we have thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Yesterday we connected Melbourne to Johannesburg, Ottawa with Dakar, and London to Regina. We realised that all over the world communicators make a difference, and will continue to do so. We are committed to helping them along the way.

Where will Carmen go next? We are very excited about branching out into the worlds of HR, diversity and inclusion and global business. And if you would like her to come and visit you, get in touch!