Deputy Director Leadership Programme – additional reflections

What it was:

Some reflections on my overall learning, plus some miscellaneous learning from my notes, derived from the two days of the Deputy Director Leadership Programme held in London on 16 and 17 September 2019.

What I learned:

Focus on personal impact:

  • Focus on the key six or so relationships (boss, close peers, direct reports) where you can make a difference.
  • Where can I take a leadership position? How can I be useful to the wider programme?

Find the bandwidth to be a leader:

  • Carve out time in the diary!
  • Carve out time within the framework you are already operating in… so for example, Use 5 or 10 mins within existing meetings – do some reflection, ask how we are doing, how are people feeling, do we understand what we are doing and why?
  • Just do it!  Stop operating and start leading. Just stop doing the operator or manager work – give it to someone else. You are making the conscious choice to be in a different mode.

Miscellaneous points

  • People watch what you do and how you act, be aware of the shadow you cast.
  • Be a lateral thinker – think of it like a dating agency – how can you join together different unconnected parties to the common good?
  • Like a lobster, it’s good to feel uncomfortable as you grow
  • The importance of being able to manage between ambiguity and clarity

What I will aim to do differently as a result:

  • Re-engage on leadership and learning
  • Get back into coaching and mentoring (myself and others)
  • Carve out leadership time
  • Make the conscious decision to lead not just do work

Some specific actions:

  • Adapt and update my leadership statement
  • Update my learning and development plan
  • Make time for leadership thinking and review
  • Re-engage on networking and stakeholder engagement
  • Put in new learning time (Thursday and Tuesday nights)
  • Get this blog into better shape and be more disciplined in publishing my learning
  • Start gathering shareable data about my work and consider how to publish it
  • Set up some self-coaching – e.g. some automated tweets or a similar tool
  • Complete an exercise to capture my reflections from my time as Hd C&MI
  • Write up the EOY feedback and make this the basis of the next phase of learning

Leading with self: Strengths and Shadows

What it was:

A talk, self and group exercises on Strengths and Shadows. This was part of the Deputy Director Leadership Programme held in London on 16 and 17 September 2019.

What I learned:

A ‘strength’ is defined as a pre-existing capacity for a particular way of behaving, thinking or feeling that is authentic and energising to the user, and enables optimal functioning, development and performance (Alex Linley, 2008).

It often feels weird to talk about your own strengths.

A quick three-minute estimate of my strengths, in no particular order:

  • Communicating and engaging people, through different styles and channels, both written and  verbal
  • Selling concepts, ideas and messages
  • Operating in the vision, concepts and ideas space, seeing the bigger picture, developing conceptual models and using metaphors
  • Analytical problem solving
  • Crisis management and working at pace
  • Innovating, being comfortable doing things that have not been done before

There is a simple quadrant model for addressing strengths and weaknesses; high capability and use versus low capability and use, and high engagement versus low engagement.

  • Strengths (High capability and use, high engagement)
    Definition: Energises and is enjoyable. Performed frequently and so capability and refinements are developed.
    Coaching Strategy: Build
  • Potential Strengths (Low capability and use, high engagement)
    Definition: Energises and is enjoyable, but has not yet been developed, through lack of opportunity
    Coaching Strategy: Develop
  • Fragile Strengths / learned behaviour (High capability and use, low engagement)
    Definition: Not enjoyable, but have been trained to do these things through work
    Coaching Strategy: Develop 
  • Weaknesses (Low capability and use, low engagement)
    Definition: Not enjoyable, not developed through the role
    Coaching Strategy: Work around

Strengths, when overdone can be “shadows”.  Some examples of strengths becoming shadows: 

Strength <> Shadow
Confident <> Arrogant
Team Player <> Dependent
Networker <> Avoids Tasks
Relationship Builder <> Creating Dependency
Preventer <> Risk Avoider

For example in my own case: Analytical Problem solving is a strength but its shadow is diving into the detail or ignoring potential partners in the problem

Don’t be afraid to say “I need time to reflect on it”

Think about energy – where does your energy come from? Planning and setting out time for these activities generates anticipation, which can itself generate energy.

What I will aim to do differently as a result:

  • Make a plan to address strengths, weaknesses and shadows and incorporate into my learning plan
  • Plan in some ‘energy building’ reward times.

Introducing the Strategic Framework: Leading with System – Tracey Waltho, Cabinet Office

What it was:

A talk with discussion on the Strategic Framework. This was part of the Deputy Director Leadership Programme held in London on 16 and 17 September 2019.

What I learned:

The strategic framework is a way of organising thinking and effort across Government and for addressing the big national challenges. It is expressed as outcomes for citizens.

It is long term – up to 2030 – can be seen as applying to both the citizen and the state, and posits that most government activity can be divided into one or more of the following six pillars:

  • Security – a UK that is safe and secure for citizens
  • Prosperity – a UK that is prosperous and productive
  • Influence – A UK that is globally influential
  • Sustainability – A UK that is sustainable and enduring for all current and future citizens
  • Inclusion – all citizens feel included in a UK that’s fair and just, with a strong sense of community and cohesion
  • Wellbeing – All citizens are cared for and live long, healthy lives

In discussion – most, perhaps all of us were in roles that spanned several, perhaps all, of the six pillars.

Senior leaders across Depts are engaged in ‘demonstrator projects’ that work across Departmental boundaries.

The ambition for each strategic framework project:

  • Citizen-centred – put the citizen’s needs and views at the core of the outcome
  • Open and inclusive – act with deep empathy and respect for the user and in our teams
  • Adaptive – listen and evolve in response to user needs
  • Human approach – consider people’s lives as a whole and structure outcomes around this
  • Joined-up – work across the public sector system as a whole, from problem definition to delivery of solutions
  • Long-term – set clear bold goals that endure based on outcomes that matter to the citizen
  • Trusted – we earn a reputation of reliably delivering on the issues that matter to citizens, businesses and and beyond

What I will aim to do differently as a result:

Work across Departmental boundaries – perhaps use the Action Learning Sets as an opportunity to explore opportunities to do this.

Noting that these ambitions could easily apply to digital services – use the ‘ambitions’ above to think about digital projects.

Leading through complexity and change

What it was:

A crisis management case study (based on a real DFID example), talked through in respect of the actions and behaviours required of senior leaders, followed by some reflections on crisis experience from a leader, and a group exercise on our own responses to crises and change.

This was part of the Deputy Director Leadership Programme held in London on 16 and 17 September 2019.


What I learned:

As a group we identified some early things the senior leaders would have to consider:

What we are going to do:

  • The overall principles we would adopt
  • This is primarily about partnership and the stakeholders to be managed
  • What are the key risks – what action do we take against each?
  • What levers do we have on this problem?
  • The need for internal communications and keeping an eye on staff impact

Reflection during a crisis:

  • Are we the right people to be leading this?  Do we need to change leadership style or change leaders?
  • Capture the lessons – as a case study to inform the response to the next crisis
  • Is there an opportunity for a positive outcome from this crisis?
  • Setting the context for the multi-disciplinary team
  • Crisis management expertise – Is there a template we could follow?

Reflections on crisis management from a senior leader:

  • It’s really difficult to get into crisis mode, but easy to identify a crisis in retrospect! Someone in the team needs to be able to see when you are in crisis – maybe you!  
  • It’s better to over-react early than under-react, or you will always be playing catch-up.  
  • Try to get to the right policy answer as quickly as possible – otherwise you will be dragged  to the right answer eventually.
  • Keep the ability to see beyond the invested position – be able to be disinterested and impartial.
  • What are our levers?  Need to understand what realistically can be done
  • A simple tool – think what I need to do for my Organisation / Team / Self
  • It’s important for the senior leaders to understand their own strengths / weaknesses and what value they can bring.
  • Never waste a good crisis – look for opportunities for your organisation (and where applicable the wider UK) to take a leadership position – find a way for the energy of the crisis to be channelled into something valuable and enduring.

Outcomes of the group exercise on Complexity and Change

When a shock happens…

What do I think my teams will be thinking and feeling?

  • Uncertainty, afraid of the future, worry they will not be supported
  • Think about their hierarchy of needs.

What are your own personal thoughts and feelings?

  • Regret / paralysis – feeling responsible when I am not 
  • Worry about being under scrutiny
  • Worry about my decision-making and judgement under pressure

What you would want people to say about your leadership style

  • Decisive, sets clear context and priorities 
  • Leads under pressure
  • Keeps team welfare in mind

What action could you take now to better prepare yourself and your team?

  • Have someone you can trust that you can talk to 
  • Understand your stress behaviours
  • Take care of well-being and promote this behaviour in your team

What I will aim to do differently as a result:

  • Try to recognise when a crisis is happening – don’t be the boiled frog.
  • Be more open with my bosses when things are not going well (on any front) – be less afraid to ‘cry wolf’
  • Familiarise myself with the crisis management structures and learning in Government
  • Have a ‘buddy’ (or more than one) to baseline with in the event of a crisis
  • Adopt the PERMA framework to undertake some team well-being and hence resilience building.

Setting the Context – Leading with the Civil Service – Matthew Rycroft, Permanent Secretary, DFID

What it was:

A talk from a senior leader about setting the global context, followed by group discussion.

This was part of the Deputy Director Leadership Programme held in London on 16 and 17 September 2019.

What I learned:

When people are stressed, as senior leaders we can rise up a level and set the context. Think what is the global context for your team – e.g. PESTLE – and then relate this down the chain.

The UK will need a clear view on what it excels at: for example higher education, rule of law / rules-based systems and compliance (some countries want to disrupt the rules-based system). We are open to innovation and ideas. The prevalence of the English language is hugely beneficial.

An interesting question – what does UK need to do to become as important as Google? For example – the UK’s ‘net zero’ carbon commitment is a huge leadership position

Try to identify the things in your area where things are changing but being less talked about – this may be where you will be able to add value.

Our teams need us not to be stressed – they need us to think “up and out” – what is the context? What is coming? What are our partners and competitors doing?

“Future – Engage – Deliver” is a simple model of what a leader should do:

  • Future – It’s important to find reasons for your team to be optimistic – but it must be pragmatic and hard-headed
  • Engage – Bring that vision to each team member, what can they contribute?
  • Deliver – Decide what real impact you as a team will make.

Context, ambiguity and leadership – group exercise

  • Different people see ambiguity at different levels – the team may not care about the strategic ambiguity you are worried about!
  • Leading through ambiguity is a key common challenge
  • What are my key context challenges right now? Uncertainty over op model and resourcing, which is having real impact on the team.
  • Prioritisation: Everyone thinks the level above them is the level that should be doing prioritisation and isn’t. The problem is every level thinks this! So you need to do it yourself.

Four thoughts on leadership:

  1. You need to make the job your own. Be yourself in the role, don’t try to be someone else. My reflection – I have been guilty of trying to act too much as I imagine my predecessor would have done.
  2. Only do what only you could do. Deliberately push things down so that you – and your team – can do more “up and out”. Don’t fall back down the ladder from Leader > Manager > Operator. Stay a Leader, don’t retreat into being manager when under pressure.
  3. People always think they are incredibly busy, however busy things actually are. Could you and your team go up a gear? If not then this is a sign of lack of resilience. Things can always get worse! So build resilience.
  4. Personal development is not just about becoming adequate at the things you aren’t very good at. Develop your strengths – turn your powers into superpowers! Don’t think of ‘development needs’ as a euphemism for areas where people are not very good.

You can get energy for work from your work!  Identify which parts of your work give you energy. Minimise those elements which sap your energy – power through them quickly.  Think which parts of the day / week / month you will need to have maximum energy and when you can coast or build energy.

What I will aim to do differently as a result:

  • Research and remember the “Future / engage / deliver” framework
  • Think about my wider interests and where I can add value – presumably the use and exploitation of information?
  • Remember to set context for the team and help them explore and prepare for potential futures
  • Find ways to bring external context into the team, and external thinking.
  • Make the job your own – don’t always think “what would my predecessor have done?”
  • Do more “up and out” for the team and for yourself. 
  • Don’t fall back down the ladder from Leader > Manager > Operator. Stay a Leader!