Monday, 20 October 2014

What happened to vocation?

One meaning of vocation is an urge to a particular calling or career.

Another meaning of vocation is a specified profession or trade.

It’s rather unscientific, but lately I have been keeping a rough count some days of how many times tweets and blogs cover issues, terms and concepts such as employee engagement, talent, succession, potential, wellbeing, motivation, morale etc. oh and err, vocation.

They have appeared on my Twitter feed in something like the order presented above, with the tally for employee engagement towering above them all. This is despite following a lot of public service professionals and organisations in addition to the HR, OD and L&D community and media.

I have worked with public service professionals for my whole career. I have lost count of how many times I have been blown away by their dedication – a direct product of their strong sense of vocation. So often this has sustained them through very challenging times and major change. After all they, no we (as I count myself in here) are there to provide the services their professional training has equipped and prepared them for. And the sense of professional and job satisfaction gained is incalculable.

Remember books like this? 

Remember ‘careers’ at school, at college? Remember feeling passionate about your chosen career? Remember standard questions from aunts or uncles or other infrequently seen family grown up friends such as ‘What subjects do you like school’? Or ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’

Did any of us say:
I want to be responsible for a highly specified component part of the process involved in educating young people?’
 ‘I want to write reports recommending specified interventions and courses of action but I have no interest in carrying them out or seeing if they work?’
‘Oh and by the way, I want to do this for a generic employer who currently has the contract for that service and is using a sophisticated employee engagement strategy to motivate its staff.’
(Just thinking about and writing the paragraph above demoralises me and I can’t imagine any of these being related to the word ‘urge’.)

When did things start to get more generic? How much has standardisation and extreme process mapping reduced vocational roles down into components?

At the same time, there is a massive support for the benefits of employee engagement and the impact on the bottom line is increasingly evidenced. I have found it interesting and useful to read about and ponder on the locus of engagement. For example, is the sense of engagement felt about the company, the team, the job content, the role or the profession? I think that for the last two (and in Utopia all of these) having a vocation in line with an urge to a calling or career is essential. Yet I fear that the meaning usually attached to vocation these days is simply a specified profession or trade. We still at least routinely use the term to describe national work based qualifications (NVQs or VQs) yet I think this is based on the second meaning.

I would like to see more debate and discussion on vocation as an urge to a calling or a career. Also a renewal of the appreciation and benefits of the relationship between having a strong vocation and feeling engaged with your profession and your role. Ideally these in combination with your job content, your team, and your company. If that does not achieve most of what most employee engagement strategies set out to do, then it is hard to imagine what will.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Grammar – a barometer of quality?

This morning the grammar nerd in me was revitalised with a passion, thanks to @dougshaw1. I’m not planning to leave CIPD membership, but I shared his irritation about the ‘small point’ of how it feels to receive official information, surveys or requests for information containing several grammatical errors.

I am not talking about blogs, texts, quick e-mails or simple messages, where I believe it is up to the writer to decide how formal and ‘correct’ to be. After all, lots of communication is informal and maybe not everybody enjoyed Eats, Shoots and Leaves as much as me.

Nor am I criticising anyone who can’t spell, for whatever reason. I do think though that in formal communications, it is really important to make sure the grammar and spelling is correct. If you, as the author of an official communication, know that grammar is not one of your strengths, please get it checked before publishing.

Otherwise the risk is the perception by the recipient of a lazy, sloppy or rushed approach. Worse, is the risk that your audience will think you’re not bothered enough to make sure that your communication with them is correct. In my view, this is especially critical at times of change, when those receiving formal communications have a heightened awareness of the way this is undertaken.

Errors and this lack of attention lead me to suspect that if this can’t be done correctly, what else will be wrong? Can the author be trusted to get other, bigger things right? Will this lack of attention permeate into everything else they do? Does a poorly drafted HR policy, for example, indicate that the organisation will treat its staff with the same sloppiness?

In other words, is the quality of the formal communication a good barometer for the overall quality of approach?

Monday, 16 June 2014

My dad, the most determined person I know, and Wizard Oscar

When I was a little girl I thought all dads made up bedtime stories for their children. My dad didn't ever read to us - he didn't need to - his imagination and ability to describe wonderful worlds of adventure and fantasy to my brother and I was enough to have us rapt and excited ready for the next installment the following night. He made up some characters such as Wizard Oscar (a late 1960s Dumbledore, who lived in a magical cave), and borrowed some others, such as Sinbad the Sailor, but made up new adventures for him. So from my earliest years, I found imagination, new ideas, building on existing ideas, adapting them and creating something special to be absolutely normal. I have tried to keep true to that, but inevitably life, responsibilities and particularly certain times in my career have got in the way. Sometimes this has been connected to working in environments where the culture and values did not accord with some of mine. I admit I have allowed certain events and negative work relationships to impact on my confidence at times, but I continue to work on that confidence (legs paddling furiously beneath the surface) and seem to have inherited my dad’s natural resilience.

To return to my dad – the most resilient and determined person I know. He grew up in a rented terraced house, got into lots of scrapes (including allegedly falling out of a tree, breaking both arms then walking home) and left school with no qualifications - this was because he could not see the board, his eyesight being damaged by measles as a boy. He went on to do an apprenticeship and took up racing cycling, at which he was very successful. Retiring from cycling following a detached retina, which in those days meant weeks lying on his back in Moorfields Eye Hospital to recover, he took it up again briefly in his 40s, until a detached retina foiled him again. Did this deter him from going on to have a 3rd attempt? No… the 3rd attempt was in his early 50s and he continues to this day. He also does competitive indoor rowing to a high level and in 2011, he set a new world record for the 70-74 age group heavyweight men's marathon of 3.01.14½. Yes, that is rowing for 26.2 miles! For fun (and to raise money for charity) he has also, for example, challenged the local village pub’s football team - working in relay! - to race him on indoor rowers for the equivalent of a cross channel row. It hardly needs saying, but this sustained lifelong example of triumph over adversity is a major inspiration. I have bad days, I have times when it all seems overwhelming, particularly in a leadership role in a public service. My dad’s example is to try and try again, and if things go wrong, rest up for a while then try again. None of my hurdles and setbacks have been as significant as his, and he has not let these deter him.
I should probably say now that he is also almost completely deaf, and has a cochlea implant. He has also had various accidents, operations and has a new hip. In fact my dad is 2nd only to the Bionic Man. Despite his deafness, my dad also had a successful career, in technical sales, ending as a Company Director. How did he cope with phone calls and delicate negotiations? By learning to lip read, to pick up other communication signals, to make sure he always places himself where he can properly see who is speaking to him and by teaching himself how to use IT, so he can use e-mail. (He’s not really got into Twitter but is very active on lots of online communities connected to his many interests, and regularly buys various small fishing boats and lawn mowers on E-Bay.) The example of success despite a disability that could have impacted very negatively on his life had he allowed it, is yet more evidence of his resilience. It also spurs me to approach possible obstacles positively and to be solution focused. Working in organisations where constant change is the norm and there are repeated savings to be made has also provided plenty of opportunity to find different ways to do things. To use in house skills. To question processes and remove parts that add no value. To resolve issues as close to source as possible. To have a realistic and risk management approach to HR and OD. To plan around possible setbacks or negatives by finding other solutions. Never to be the policy police. Never to be the department who always says no.
My dad also always talked to us (so did my mum) properly. I remember many, many evenings sitting around the kitchen table talking about our days, the news, and allsorts really. If, as a teenager, I wanted to do something my parents did not really think was the best idea, they rarely said no outright. They would talk me through the options and probable outcomes until I made the decision for myself. Of course I had a few stroppy teenage outbursts about some of this. It would have been abnormal not to. I had no idea at the time that this was teaching me the skills of diplomacy and mediation. Again, it hardly needs saying, but these skills have also been and remain invaluable to me as an HR professional in a leadership role, working in a service where outcomes are wholly dependent on dedicated, competent, capable and skilful staff.
I have only touched the surface about my dad and I haven’t mentioned my mum much in all of this. She has also been a great inspiration to me, but in very different ways – encouraging me to do well intellectually, to think about politics and also how to behave with humility and consideration in the workplace. She was a scary, ‘old school’ medical secretary - perhaps something to ponder on in a future blog? Anyway, what a powerful combination they are and gosh, have I been lucky?

Post Script.
I e-mailed my dad, kind of mentioning I was writing something and asking what he could recall about Wizard Oscar. Here’s his reply:

“Hey! Wizard Oscar!! ....Well, I made them up as I went along. I can vaguely remember the characters associated with him. His friend Wizard Willow Wand, the Blue Dog and CawCaw his crow spy. The Lord of the Land was also sometimes mentioned and I recall a recurring thing that baffled him. CawCaw often brought a message from the Lord of the Land and WO would fly down to see what the problem was at his castle. When the meeting had concluded WO flew out of the castle still seated on one of the Lords finest armchairs, leaving the Lord staring at an empty space. Soon after the chair would fly back by itself. This left the Lord looking at the empty chair and wondering if it had really happened at all? The Blue Dog story was something to do with a dog falling into a vat of paint and being caught by the Bad Boss of the Circus and kept in captivity as an exhibit. CawCaw reported this to WO who cast a powerful spell and all the circus animals were released and guided back to their original homes. The blue dog was given magical powers to turn blue at any time and to do good magical deeds. Wizard Willow Wand was invisible most of the time and he lived by rivers and lakes. WO did indeed reside in a cave high up a mountain face that only he and birds could reach.”

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Drive and Determination (or 10 Top Tips x 3)

Years ago, when I was a regional manager for the NHS Graduate Management Training Scheme, one of the 4 competencies that we assessed candidates for was ‘Drive and Determination’. Despite reading many accounts of Duke of Edinburgh treks gone wrong, where our valiant applicant overcome all odds of the broken ankle/foraging for food/wrong map/no compass variety to lead the winning team, this was the competency that stood out for me.
A few years later, I wrote a Masters dissertation on what it took senior NHS leaders to get to the positions they had achieved. I loved it and what came out of a qualitative melange of career development (mostly self directed), management development and leadership development was, again, drive and determination. Many leaders I interviewed had successfully dealt with quite significant career set backs and become stronger as a result.
I think that today, we would call this ‘emotional resilience’ and Ian Pettigrew @KingfisherCoach recently tweeted an article from the Telegraph by Sarah Rainey, where it was suggested this is the ‘armour you need for modern life.’  

Top tips ending the article are:
Ten ways to build your emotional resilience
-       See crises as challenges to overcome; not insurmountable problems
-       Surround yourself with a supportive network of friends and family
-       Accept that change is part of life, not a disaster
-       Take control and be decisive in difficult situations
-       Nurture a positive view of yourself - don’t talk yourself down or focus on flaws
-       Look for opportunities to improve yourself: a new challenge, social situation or           interest outside work. Set goals and plan ways to reach them
-       Keep things in perspective: learn from your mistakes and think long-term
-       Practise optimism and actively seek the good side of a bad situation
-       Practise emotional awareness: can you identify what you are feeling and why?
-       Look after yourself, through healthy eating, exercise, sleep and relaxation.
I have to say that that these are fabulous tips in my view, but I am not sure they are new, and I think the current concept of ‘emotional resilience’ is a new badge for having the determination to succeed, self belief and the ability to keep learning from experience. Or simply the ability to bounce back…
I have also been very struck recently by the excellent advice given by Angela O’Connor at @TheHRLounge, written for International Women’s Day last week, but with advice that everybody who may feel that they face insurmountable challenges, should find useful.  Again there are 10 tips, that even though I am a woman who holds a leadership position, I have favourited this and will return to it again and again. The summary of these is:
Believe in yourself
Leadership always take vision, courage and determination. It means being resilient, it means doing the right thing and being brave and it sometimes means walking away. You need to know when to fight and when to concede.
Finally, for this blog, I was lucky to be invited recently to a guest lecture by Sara Thornton, the Chief Constable of Thames Valley Police. She also gave us 10 top tips. As I was busy actively listening, I didn’t write them down, but a number overlap with those above, and those I have retained are below (my words and order):
·      Toughen up, but don’t lose sensitivity
·      Don’t take it personally
·      Work hard and practise, practise (I think she mentioned the 10,000 hours…)
·      Don’t use self limiting language
·      When you need to, disagree well and positively, in a constructive way
·      Be brave and keep trying
·      Career ladders aren’t linear
·      If every day you have to eat a live, slimy frog, eat it for breakfast
The reason I have written this blog, recommended the article and blog above and noted some tips from the guest lecture is that, as people who know me at work will understand, colleagues and I are facing an exceptionally challenging time at the moment, have been for some months, and this will continue for several months to come. Events beyond our control take place every day and situations regularly change within a few days, if not hours. It would be easy to succumb to all sorts of self detrimental feelings and behaviour. Some days it is hard not to, and we are all human. I am however, going to keep working on my own drive and determination – after all it has got me this far - and keep referring back to the advice above whenever I am tempted to feel negative.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Passion, Pain and (Politics)

The sub title of my blog seems very appropriate at the moment – Passion, Pain and Politics. When I chose it a couple of years ago I liked the alliteration, but it was also a title very much from the heart. All of these ‘P’s run very deep for me – choosing to work in public services.

I am just back from the Probation Chiefs’ (PCA) Annual Conference, which has given me a lot of food for thought. It was always going to be a very delicate balancing act for the organisers and speakers. They attempted to pull this off with the first half dedicated to celebrating the significant, if not enviable successes of probation, the first public sector service to achieve the British Quality Foundation’s Gold medal for Excellence award. The overriding sentiment for me, expressed well by Heather Munro, was of a terrific legacy, not as nostalgia for what went before, but as a foundation on which to build. This brings me onto the second half, which looked towards the future and the possibilities following major reorganisation. Much more difficult…

Now, just to pause for a moment. I have only worked for a Probation Trust for 3 years, so you might say, what do I know? Well, I spent the first half of my career in the NHS, so I am no stranger to major structural change in complex organisations with lots of stakeholders and shifting emphasis depending on the government of the day. I have also found major similarities of culture and the type of people who choose to spend a career ‘making a difference’ for others, often against many odds, but with lots of personal satisfaction as well. Also, being in HR is, I think, different from other corporate functions, in that I work closely with operational managers and leaders and to be effective I have to have a good understanding of what is going on for staff and teams. I also work very closely with Trade Union reps, which I find invaluable. When everything is stripped back to the basics, we are all in the service for the same fundamental reasons and can always find more to work on together rather than on which to disagree. So, not surprisingly I have many personal and professional views about this change, and I am circumspect about how, when, where or if I express these, to whom, and what I put into the public domain.

The views and ideas of my current organisation are well known, thanks to the blogs of my Chair, Joe Kuipers. This blog is not about re-airing those, and anyway it would not be my place to do that. However, I fully recognise that Passion and Pain are felt by many people working in probation, particularly at the moment as staff across the country find out which of the two new organisations they are assigned to. I read the tweets and I know that lots of probation staff and Trade Union reps read mine too.

At the conference, Catherine Holland used a very simple and useful diagram to describe the need to be conscious of personal leadership challenges. She has given me permission to use this here. This diagram recognises that we will inevitably have various responses to the challenges of leadership, more poignant perhaps in our case, as the changes are unpopular with many (my emphasis.) The change has been required to a very tight timetable, and I state openly that the kind of transactional HR work I am required to lead at the moment is not the reason I chose HR as a profession.  

However, I have a responsibility to lead the elements for which I am responsible with as much professionalism, integrity and empathy as the situation allows. Of course this change has a potentially life changing personal impact for me personally, and for my team. The challenge is to be conscious of this, to acknowledge it and to seek support appropriately when it all feels too difficult and unfair, and not to let it impact on getting on with the job to the best of our ability. Secondly, it is important to respect the decisions and responses of others – we all have personal reasons that influence what we choose to do about the options open to us.

I am also very conscious of my response to this as a professional. As I said just now, I don’t particularly enjoy the transactional side of HR work, and I especially don’t like having to organise work in ‘batch’ processes. In this instance, we are having to communicate with very large groups of staff to tight deadlines and if any of our staff reading this feel that they have not been treated as an individual because of this, then I empathise, but hope that you understand why. My aspiration is to treat everyone with dignity and respect, and I have gone back to read my own Code of Professional Conduct a couple of times in order to reframe and rebalance.

Next comes my response as a leader. Well that is such a balancing act and that goes back to the start of this blog and the tone that that PCA Conference aimed to achieve. I find that I am more effective when I focus on the positive and think about possibilities. I know that this is a personal response as well, but I now feel that we have been uncertain for quite a while and need to look ahead and think about what can be taken forward from a very rich legacy and adopted, adapted or refined for the future. Staff going to one of the new organisations in particular may be feeling very despondent and I fully appreciate that we will need to work hard together to build back up to a shared sense of vision, purpose and enthusiasm. Jo Mead covered this well in her very heartfelt session, emphasising the need for qualified probation professionals in all parts of the new system.

Finally, the organisational outer circle. This is also difficult as many leaders are working for one organisation with all of the responsibility and accountability that goes with that, but also looking towards the new role they will have in one of the new organisations. There are also some fabulous leaders who are leaving. In our case, Sally Lewis our CEO, who is extremely well regarded and highly respected, has chosen not to stay on. It has taken me some time to come to terms with that – going round the circles of my personal reaction (deep sense of loss), what it means for me as a professional (Sally values and ‘gets’ the difference integrated corporate functions such as HR make to business success) and for Sally’s professional leadership of the skills and knowledge of probation. Then my response as a leader; I believe Sally will be a consummate professional leader up to and beyond the dissolution of our organisation and those that our staff move into will be all the stronger for the legacy carried forwards from her leadership.

I didn’t set out to write this to include an early tribute to Sally, but on reading through, I am glad that I have. I want to finish however, by saying again that I do understand and appreciate the feelings (the Passion and Pain) felt by so many, myself included, and hope that by sharing my responses using Catherine’s diagram, others may feel able to acknowledge their different types of response as the first step forward on what is sure to be a new set of challenges.