Skip to main content

Leading

It's Saturday, I think. No, with Parliament restructured to have a relatively predictable schedule that repeats week by week, I am now back to knowing roughly what day it is.

But the feeling of luxury that came with waking up on a Saturday and contemplating a day in which the world of work would intrude only a little has gone. Because each starts with the same pattern. Indeed so fixed has life become that I hardly ever set the alarm on my phone. I simply rise at between 0530 and 0600, make my porridge, sit down at the computer and get on with it. Each day. Every day.

That's a bit dangerous. If I now yearn for anything during lockdown, it is for a bit of novelty—a break with this new routine.

And yet, my daily pattern was broken by lockdown so I should be able, freed as I am from many previous constraints, to simply choose another new pattern. To keep doing that every so often if I feel the need.

In my professional life, I could expect in our company to move on to a new job every three years or so. Not necessarily being promoted. Rather having the opportunity to come in, look at what you found, and plot a new path.

Because once one had been doing the job for a couple of years, you were now captured by the decisions you had made previously. It was always difficult to persuade others, and often oneself, that your own policy and practice needed to be replaced.

One of my moves illustrated the dangers of sticking with one's past. I moved to a position where my predecessor had been in post for quite a long time. I had been invited to go and see our General Manager. As I walked into his office, he rose and proffered me a handshake with one hand while moving an envelope towards me with the other.

Before we sat down, he said, "We'd like like to consider taking over [..function..] from [..]". Given that the envelope contained my letter of appointment, the word "consider" seemed rather redundant. It was late on a Thursday, and I was in my new office at 0730 on Monday. The previous incumbent was not there to provide any handover. [There must be something Freudian going on in my mind about this. I initially typed "hangover" rather than "handover"]

My desk was empty. But the drawer units beneath it brimmed with matters requiring early attention. No, matters very long overdue for attention. The new job brought with it, about 170 staff and a management team of twelve reporting to me. This function worked continuously in a three-shifts-a-day pattern. As was usual in Bank of Scotland, there was no secretary or clerical assistant attached to this senior management position. Even when paid what in today's terms would be a six-figure sum, one typed one's own letters, managed one's own diary, made one's own travel arrangements, did one's own filing.

There was nobody waiting to brief me on anything. I had the financial authority to spend £100,000 as often as I wanted but was forbidden to spend a very much smaller amount on hiring an assistant. I may return to this in a diary piece on another day.

I asked our personnel department to send me the files on my managers. I had already found in one of the over-brimming drawers under my desk, years of annual reviews related to my team. None of which had been completed for as much as five consecutive years. That told me something about my predecessor. And perhaps even more about his boss, my new boss.

My team's personnel files arrived the next day. They made sorry reading. A majority of them were on a disciplinary warning of one sort or another.

I needed two things, a few symbolic acts to signal a shift from the "ancien régime". And some more fundamental changes that would make a real difference and empower the many people in the teams who were going to make the future work differently from the past.

The "first-week" changes were:
  • A dedicated cleaner for the busiest toilet in the building. It was manky. The person I made responsible for that took real pride in her job, developed a proper cleaning schedule which was shared with the staff. They were also advised to talk directly to her if required. I continued to get a Christmas card from her until just before she died many years later. The staff knew by Wednesday that things were changing.
  • The shift changeover meeting at 0800 each day was cut from an hour to ten or fifteen minutes. We now met in a room with no furniture. Action notes were available immediately. People could see that we were now working "at pace". And the night-shift leaders got home much earlier.
  • I established an MBWA (managing by walking about) schedule. Staff knew that I would be in their area at a predictable time each week. Listening, noting actions, sometimes explaining "why not" as well as "why". They didn't have to book a time to come and see. They mattered. I went to see them.
Years later, when I was a Minister, I instituted a similar approach. A wee bit more formal, civil services notes had to be kept for the record, but post hoc and with no prior briefing. Anyone could book 15 minutes with me. A look back at my diary shows that one day in Transport Scotland, I had a dozen meetings in three hours. Almost all staff-led rather than management-driven.

Back in my old job, the overwhelming priority was to get the managers back into the mainstream and pulling their weight. They all had a formal review within a fortnight. That set a remedial path for those in difficulty and a career development path for those one could immediately see had more to give. Within three months, only one of the seven on a warning was still there. We felt like a team again.

The Bank of Scotland had an absolutely haphazard way of developing managers. Periodically they would launch an initiative to train managers; "Management 1" was an example. As far as I am aware, there was never a "2". But my not being aware is not conclusive. One never knew of a new course until the nominations became known. Note I don't say published.

There was no way one could self-nominate except for the annual review which included a section for future training. For fifteen consecutive years, my review said I would go on Management 1. Never got a sniff of a chance to go on any Bank course. So my management training was on the job and via my own personally paid-for library of books. I still refer to them from time to time.

Despite all that, I seem to have been doing some of the right things and made it into the Bank's Executive. That was the 200 or so people, of the twelve thousand employees, who ran things.

But personal disappointment at never getting on a course, sometimes anger, was just personal. Ultimately I would argue, it helped destroy the Bank. We had run out of leaders at the most senior level, and when we were taken over (I had retired by now) by a building society, almost all the top management came from them. None had qualifications or experience in banking. The seeds for disaster were sown.

On Government today, one key thing that matters has happened. And it tunes into some of the foregoing. We have licenced the team to change their minds, to inform us that previous decisions were imperfect or just plain wrong.

That's a huge step forward. And that is a key part of why confidence in our country's leadership has grown.

It's being big enough to admit to being wrong from time to time.

We need to hang onto that.

It's real leadership.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Clutter

When big things go wrong, and one feels powerless to do much about them, small things in one's life can become surrogates for one's anger. And there are quite a few big things around at the moment; COVID-19, No-Deal Brexit; A US Presidential Election where the incumbent leads with racist statements.As the end of the current session rushes towards us, many of my colleagues are concluding that they will not be putting themselves forward at the forthcoming election. A couple of our younger colleagues are placing their families first. But most are looking at being in their eighth decade, as I already am, at the end of the next session.
When the two leading candidates for the US President are both older than I am - seventy-four in five week's time - it may seem surprising that retirement may be beckoning for me and others a lustrum younger than I am. But it illustrates the profound differences between being a back-bencher in our Parliament and the political life of a US Senator …

Train time

After one hundred and seventy-four days, I resumed sitting in our Parliament's debating chamber. It was the first time I have seen how members dialling in by video-link look and sound at the "business end".

I found that I was a bit rusty. My only oral contribution this week was to ask a question. As I approached the end of it, a sound from a mobile phone totally distracted me. Worried that it was my own phone, I paused and for about a second, lost the thread of what I was saying. I wasn't that pleased with my neighbour when they returned to their seat. Their phone, not mine.

It just shows that one can travel backwards in one's abilities. Like an athlete who has had an extended layoff and loses muscle tone, my brain had retreated from its previous peak of perfection.

Next week will be our first proper three day week. I think I will ease myself in by participating in the two Member's debates scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday. That will be about eleven hundred…