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.

From May to June, of butterflies and caterpillars

In our Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders Workshops, we talk about this concept all the time: how do I transform myself from technical expert to strategic adviser? The underlying questions participants are trying to answer are: “How do I grow into my next self? How do I transform myself to the person I want to be?”

Today, let’s look at nature for the answer: the butterfly. That’s the goal. The majestic creature that inspires children and grown-ups alike, attracts all kinds of attention. She shows the way with panache, elegance and sometimes even a bit of whimsy. 

Yet, our imagination rarely focuses on what it takes to make a butterfly: the three stages before.

First, the egg. We are all this at the start of our careers: full of potential and often indistinguishable from our peers in terms of know-how and experience. The employee.

Next ….

Second, the caterpillar. She’s starting to develop a personality, so let’s call her June. She knows her task, she follows her plan, she executes. Think of her as the manager. The one that has spent time in perfecting his or her craft and is a true expert. She is hungry, ambitious and on a growth journey.

And then….

Third, the chrysalis. She stops. She reflects. She transforms herself. When ready to be a butterfly, she takes a step back and looks inward to build a new self. She forms herself into a pupa and, while it looks like nothing is happening internally, she is transforming. She is changing her motivations, her style and her approach to life.

Finally, she becomes…

Fourth, the butterfly. The leader. She’s made it and is the queen of all she surveys.

In this story, nature provides the chrysalis stage, the chance for metamorphosis. But in the real world, too often we see June the caterpillar-manager, jump straight into the butterfly-leader world and are disappointed to see that she hasn’t flourished. June goes about her business in the same way, with no pause and no transformation. And then, inevitably, the caterpillar who didn’t invest in becoming a butterfly fails at flying. Caterpillar behaviour is inappropriate in the butterfly world.

In nature this would make no sense, it does not exist. Transformation is required not only for success, but for survival. In business, we often forget the pause, the chrysalis stage, and then are surprised when the transformation does not occur.

In the UK today, we have watched another political leader fail because — although widely recognised as a pretty successful caterpillar — there was no transformational stage before she got picked to be a butterfly almost three years ago. Being a very hungry caterpillar brought her success. She built her craft, did the hard work. Succeeded where others had failed. But caterpillar behaviour doesn’t work in the butterfly world.

If you are ready to transform into a leader, recognise that a radical transformation is needed and that the unsung hero is the chrysalis stage. When the time comes, leave your craft, your hunger, your systems and approaches behind and embrace the journey of becoming a butterfly. 

This is how leaders flourish, and successful careers are built. One natural state at a time. If you try and ‘hack’ the chrysalis stage, others might not think you can hack leadership. Your colleagues will gang up on you and force you out of the corner office. 

With Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders, we provide a fun, meaningful space for you to pause, learn and get the tools you need to transform yourself into the next version of you. If you want to find out more, drop us a line.