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Civil Service

Learning to be better leaders

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Effective leaders
Head and shoulders of Adam Woodroffe
Adam Woodroffe of Practive

In times of change and ambiguity, people want a sense of purpose, motivation and clarity. That’s when leaders really earn their money. They need to know how to keep people engaged when the future may not be clear.

To do this, I think leaders need to:

  • remain curious
  • suspend judgement and avoid making assumptions; instead asking, “what else might be happening here?”
  • be able to know how and when they can be vulnerable
  • resist the need to be perfect
  • recognise when they should clearly state their own views and opinions
  • be able to step out of the moment and to observe from another perspective and to comment on what they see

This doesn’t come naturally to most people but we can all learn how to be better leaders and to gain greater control over our ‘personal impact’.

We like the definition of personal impact that describes it as “how we are perceived by others”.  The High impact communications workshops Practive deliver on behalf of Civil Service Learning (CSL) are about giving senior leaders a safe environment in which to consider their leadership style and the impact it has on others.  

I encourage my clients to reflect on what it might be like to be led by them. So one question I get them to consider is: “What’s it like to be on the receiving end of me?”

Many of us at Practive are writers, directors or performers by background. We might work with an individual to ‘rehearse’ given situations, such as an interview, a difficult conversation or an influencing conversation with a very senior decision-maker. We then ask them what impact they intended to have and compare this to how what they said was actually received. Clients often say: “Now I understand why they reacted that way!”

I believe that the quality of the conversations you have with people will tell you much about the quality of the relationship. If you improve the conversations then the relationship will follow. I’d recommend the work of Susan Scott who wrote a great book called Fierce Conversations: Achieving success in work and in life, one conversation at a time.

Seeing the light go on when a client realises that they need to and – more importantly – can change their leadership style is very rewarding. An example that comes to mind is a series of coaching sessions I did with someone who was interviewing to become a partner in a big accountancy firm. He had been unsuccessful in the process a year earlier, so we needed to talk about what had happened the first time around and build on what they had done really well. In this instance we worked on helping him structure his responses, use storytelling to bring the panel with him and pay as much attention to how he answered as to what he said.

All of this was done through practice. I’m happy to say he got his partnership and was also able to use some of his newly acquired skills to have a long-overdue tricky conversation with a team member. He has subsequently asked me to coach six senior managers in his team.

'Effective Leaders' logoOf course everyone is responsible for their own learning and what they personally take away from our sessions. That’s why I am so enthusiastic about working with the Civil Service. The Senior Civil Service (SCS) clients I have encountered so far have shown a great appetite for learning and an openness to exploring new ways of doing things. In turn, it’s exciting to know that we’re contributing to how leadership is done in the Civil Service, and that makes what I do much more than just a job.

Other learning that SCS can book through Civil Service Learning includes Personal impact and Storytelling.

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  1. Comment by Mark posted on

    It's a good article and it's a shame that the psychometric testing, which is relied upon for the future leaders scheme, doesn't consider this.

  2. Comment by Christine posted on

    Much common sense included here and good stuff. Picking up on 'recognise when they should clearly state their own views and opinions' to me this is a 2-part point. Firstly it is right to consider timing and appropriateness of sharing personal views and opinions, i.e. the 'when', but it is equally important to make it clear that this is exactly what they are - personal, subjective opinions, i.e. the 'how'. Some people have a knack of sharing their 'views'; but express them in such a way as to leave people thinking they are irrefutable 'facts'!!

  3. Comment by Jim posted on

    Missing from all these leadership statements is something that's perhaps too obvious to state but nevertheless vital: ** DO YOUR JOB!! **
    It doesn't matter how much you nod and ask questions and say encouraging things; unless you do your job those below you aren't going to have any respect for you, and are probably paralysed by your indecision.
    I appreciate that it's hard for those at G6/7/SCS do do a job they don't understand, and they naturally won't as they've never been in the same job for more than a year. But if you can't do it yourself, please delegate it to someone who can.

  4. Comment by Mike Page posted on

    Tip - be less 'civil service' - think the unthinkable - think outside the box!

  5. Comment by A Sagoo posted on

    Creativity is also a significant one, to bring about changes staff considerations must be taken into account and leaders require creativity to aid in an organisation developing and constantly innovating.

    Leaders are also human and do make mistakes but it is important to strive to improve performance and learn from any mistakes.

  6. Comment by Barbara Johnston posted on

    I believe strong leaders are those who can see circumstances of individual staff in the present.Not to form preconcepted opinions based on, hear say.To act in the present time and to maybe see the potential in staff.All leaders may not be suited to the higher role of Heo or even senior.That maybe their own preconceived ideas.A fantastic leader is one who listens and can see perspectives from all angles.
    I have worked under quite a few Heo's in my time.I do believe there are some great leaders.
    People skillls is the key.Being able to interact with people from all back grounds without prejudice or bias opinions.

  7. Comment by Dakota posted on

    'remain curious' - agreed. It is essential that people know what they don't know. There is no excuse for complacency. An area that is lacking in the civil service is management skills and knowledge. Practical realistic management on a day to day basis is ten times more important than conceptual concepts like 'leadership'.

    'suspend judgement and avoid making assumptions; instead asking, “what else might be happening here?”; - I completely agree

    'be able to know how and when they can be vulnerable' - one does not need to be vulnerable to be a good leader. What is more important is to stand up for others who are vulnerable. What about British values of helping the underdog?

    'resist the need to be perfect' - it is important to not have a go at people for making mistakes. But leaders must strive for perfection.

    'recognise when they should clearly state their own views and opinions' - yes, it is important to be straightforward.

    'be able to step out of the moment and to observe from another perspective and to comment on what they see' - yes, but in practical terms, does this lead anywhere?

    • Replies to Dakota>

      Comment by Mike Smith posted on

      I think we need to distinguish between management and leadership. Yoy can be a manager but not a leader and vice versa. Leadership is a set of personal qualities that are not unique to managers. The best leader I have ever worked with was an Agency Chief Executive it's true but the second best was an AA. In my current workplace the two who stand out are a EO and an AO. We should be recognising and rewarding leaders whatever their grade.