Hit The North

The North road sign

It’s four years since my wife and I went to a best friend’s 70th Birthday party in Bebington, Wirral (not The Wirral; just Wirral I’m reminded). I spent what seemed like all of that May Bank Holiday on the ‘phone due to a “planning matter”.

This time it’s the 74th we’re up for (yes, I can do basic maths) and I find that the refrain “how’s Meriden then?” has – at last – been replaced with what I suspect (and, of course, hope) will be a longer running refrain of “how’s Birmingham then?”. Our friends, and their friends, have seen me on the news (“nice tie Mark; make sure you have a good supply of different ones – ha, ha!”) and tend to view my not-so-new job almost entirely through a media prism. You can’t blame them: other than our six monthly visits back to the North West, they only see me when something’s in the glare of publicity and I’ve been caught on TV/radio.

So, how to answer the question? What do I pick out to tell them that won’t kill the party dead? “Hey, Mark – great to see you. How’s Birmingham then?” How about: “well Mike – you know I had this really interesting meeting last Thursday about the transfer of 0-5 public health commissioning from NHS England to the City Council. Doesn’t actually happen until October 2015, but we’re seriously thinking about the planning implications now …”

Mike, turns to the red wine and mushroom vol au vents in desperation.

But I do need an answer. I’m two months in, so nearly two thirds of the way through the fabled 100 days, after which conventional wisdom has it that my senses will start to become dulled and I’ll stop seeing things for the first time.

So, “how’s Birmingham?”

You’ll know by now that I believe that it’s the people that make the place and I so I’ve been telling my inquisitive friends (as I’ve also been saying to colleagues) that I am getting out and about and meeting many tremendous people. Committed, collegiate, imaginative, resourceful and, crucially for me, bestowed with that all important humour gene. I tell them I am also meeting some who do not share any, many or all of these characteristics and that I’m thinking what I always think in this situation: “what’s made this person less than satisfied with their work and outlook on life – and what, if anything, can be done about it”. Because, if we’re truly to succeed in making a difference to people’s lives then playing lip service to the values of empathy, respect and trust won’t wash.

I believe passionately that it is entirely possible for a very large council such as ours to lead with its values, but previous experience tells me that, to succeed, we all need to deliver on a small number of key approaches. For starters, therefore, I expect colleagues to sign up to two key ways of working: active distributed leadership; and a positive commitment to self-awareness and courageous conversations.

Active distributed leadership is all about you (and me) taking responsibility for promoting and living the values of the council. This is not someone else’s business; it’s ours. I can’t do it all on my own. I need your support and I need you to help me ensure that the values are known and in evidence every day. And where they’re not, do something about it.

Which is where positive self-awareness and courageous conversations come in. Some people won’t yet be sighted on or, in a few cases, willing to sign up to the corporate values. However, it must no longer be acceptable for such people to opt out of the council’s corporate ambition here. Consequently, we have to have, or learn and be encouraged to have, the confidence and skills to support and challenge each other, and tackle issues when we see them or hear about them. I know this isn’t always easy and for many doesn’t come naturally, but I think all of us know that that there are two things that really get people wound up at work: one is when they see others not pulling their weight (and I include in that not living the values of the organisation); and the second is when they see that this “offline” behaviour isn’t tackled.

So, how I’m going to start helping is by re-establishing and/or putting in place some of the pre-requisite diagnostic, support and development systems that, if deployed systematically, will reduce the likelihood of you and me falling into the trap of talking a good talk, but not walking the good walk. I am going to ask colleagues in Organisational Development to lead this work, supported by Human Resources and anyone else that wants to contribute, so that by September a 360 degree appraisal scheme can be re-launched that ensures all leaders across the council take up the opportunity to know how they are perceived by those who work alongside them – their strengths and the areas that need development. And, additionally, we will refocus some of our existing training resource to provide learning that helps all staff develop the confidence and capability to have courageous conversations that enable professional challenge and support to be the norm.

To show that I’m serious, once the programmes are ready I will be starting with my team, along with the senior leadership from OD and HR and a number of other volunteers (or is that “volunteers”) from across the council.

In this way, when I go back up to the North West for our regular New Year’s reunion and my friends again ask me “how’s Birmingham?”, I’ll know what I’m going to say. “It’s an organisation determined to lead from its heart and support those doing a great job to keep up their high standards and ambitions. And it will challenge those who need to be challenged to get it right – for the people of the City and their work colleagues.

I really must go to Bebington more often!

Best wishes,



Posted on May 6, 2014, in Blog. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Claire Ward - HR Business Partner

    Mark, I think it would be a really positive message to use a strengths based model for the 360 feedback. This focuses on “right ” behaviours but also away from a deficit model to a fit approach ie your strengths are best aligned to say strategy or implementation. It takes conversations away from you are not good enough at X to you don’t appear to be suited to a role that requires X you are better matched to a role such as Z. It will take a bit of mapping but you would also need to do that for a competency approach. It does however take a courageous leadership style that accepts that you can’t always address perceived weaknesses but have to accept them and refit the role or support the manager to move on.

    We used strengths as part of be transformation programme for Aduls & Communities and Peter Hay was a big champion.

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