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.

Health and well-being: Confident leaders

What it was

Half-day session on health and well-being for senior leaders, delivered by Bailey & French at the BEIS conference centre, London on 21 November 2018.

What I learned

Mental health accounts for 25% of MOD civilian sickness absence
Reflecting on three positive things from your work day at the end of the day for two weeks has been shown to have a positive effect on wellbeing months later
A simple model for wellbeing is PERMA (prof Martin Seligman, authentichappiness.org):

  • Positive emotions
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Accomplishment

Each of these is measurable and teachable.
Lots of work done has been done to address mental illness, but less effort on mental wellbeing, which can be thought of as getting people from the middle of the scale to the top, rather than from the bottom to the middle.

As a group we reflected on times when we had felt well-being along the lines of the PERMA headings, what had enabled this, and how we could help create this for our own teams.

I reflected on how a programme re-prioritisation exercise with one of my teams had left both them and me feeling empowered, better able to perform, more motivated, and less stressed about the amount work.

What I will aim to do differently as a result

I’ll aim to do something from each part of the PERMA model.

  • Positive emotions: Reflect on three positive things from your work day
  • Engagement: Set aside time for a flow activity and with the team
  • Relationships: Set up more coffee meetings with senior colleagues
  • Meaning: Set context, show the outcome even if intangible, phrase achievement as outcomes. Create meaning for the team.
  • Accomplishment: Have a good system for non financial reward and recognition with the team, find out ways to set this up.