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.