Early experiences – On being Coached / Mentored

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I wrote just before Christmas that I was actively seeking coaches and mentors who can help me develop and improve my productivity and impact.

I’ve previously had informal coaching/mentoring relationships with a range of people and still value those links and I don’t think people should be limited to just one as I believe that we all constantly need support and advice and we are always developing mentoring and coaching relationships without realising and without ever formalising them.

For example the following people have probably had the most significant impact on my career over the last 5 years due to their informal mentoring and coaching relationships over the last few years and in some cases much longer;

Andrea Siodmok – the first time I met Andrea I was inspired, her outlook and her experience in Design disrupted my thinking and broke me out of a world which I felt comfortable in and it is her influence, advice and support which has helped me to find a balance in how I look at the way I work. The approaches I take and the constant opportunity of working with people on the ground. She never stops making me think and inspiring me to consider new perspectives on problems.
Dave Briggs – I’ve always valued my conversations and interactions with Dave and would very much consider Dave a friend. I find every conversation engaging and memorable and not always for their coaching value :). Dave has provided a huge amount of advice, challenge and support whether he knows it or not which has helped me at critical times and he deserves a huge amount of recognition for his work and influence on a wider number of people in the sector.
Martin Howitt – for someone who had to put up with my constant questioning for a two year period when we actually worked in the same team and opposite each other in the same office, Martin provided some of the most valuable support and guidance at a time I felt out of my depth, lost and full of self doubt. Martin should know he is a valued friend and I always look forward to our informal conversations over coffee.
Catherine Howe – one of the most intellectually stimulating people I’ve ever worked for and with and Catherine has always been supportive of me and I am personally grateful for her encouragement, challenge and honesty. She is one of the people I hope I could see more but fear that my brain would explode if I did :)
Sara Cretney – I’ve only really started to get to know Sara over the last 18-24 months and in that time she has provided some of the most timely and fundamentally honest coaching I’ve received. I have to thank her for providing a balanced viewpoint and reflections which stopped me at times resigning from the council. Looking back and looking ahead, I’m hugely grateful to her for that support and she is very much a kindred spirit and some of the best work and progress I’ve made in the last 18 months is also down to her support, advice and influence.

So last week I had one of my first coaching/mentoring sessions with my Chief Executive (Phil Norrey) and found the experience hugely valuable for a variety of reasons which I aim to explore in this post. I’d like to thank Phil here for agreeing to be my coach/mentor and I hope I can offer some value back to him during the process.

Before I continue with reflections from Phil, I have also now set the date with my second coach/mentor for 11th February so will be able to share reflections and details after then. This year is going to be a significant year in many ways.

So reflecting on my first coaching session with Phil. Firstly it was VERY productive and HUGELY helpful to me in thinking differently about my role, my professional development and the opportunities ahead. It was also initially strange having a very personal conversation with someone whom previously I’d only had professional based conversations, but those feelings disappeared pretty quickly once we get stuck into conversations.

One of the reasons I asked the Phil to coach/mentor me was because I believe it will be valuable to me to be challenged by a strategic leader who does not fully grasp the digital agenda and that is ok, I don’t expect him to understand it all, however he is clearly aware of its potential, opportunity and its transformational capabilities. The key aspect for me was to be challenged around relevance, strategic alignment and reframing the story the needs to be told around digital locally…whether we like it or not the county of Devon is not the same as a major city and presents very different challenges around digital and whilst it is fine for me to believe in a digitally enabled future, unless I fully understand the strategic picture in Devon I’ll never be able to exert the right kind of influence to see a digital Devon emerge.

One of the conversations we covered was around my career so far in the council (I started in 1996) and how I have got to where I am today and the very organic nature to the way I’ve moved around the council and how in nearly every single job I’ve had, how I always seek out opportunities and activities outside of any formal Job description I was assigned to do…I realised that I’ve never had a job description in my time at the council which completely satisfied my curiosity and my skills…which is why I’m very grateful to my current line manager who allows me to discover and explore new things whilst also focusing on my core activities.

The question Phil asked me in response to this was simply but yet, no one had ever actually asked me and it really made me think – he asked “are you happy with the organic nature of your career so far?”

That question really made me consider what it is that is important to me and what it is I really want to do…the answer to this was after some reflection simple. It is fundamentally important to me that any job I do or if I were to apply for something, that it allows for and encourages personal and professional discovery, or to put it more simply, that I actually have inbuilt 20% time but with a broad purpose and for me this has since I started working for the council in 1996 about improving public services. The consistent them in my time at the council has been around and how technology, people and democratic participation / accountability can help reshape what this can and could be…

One of the benefits of taking to Phil was that we could simply talk and have a conversation around such a wide variety of things, I shared my thinking and vision for digital in Devon and asked him questions about the internal and external political landscape, we spoke about the future of Devon and pondered some random opportunities looking forward to 2050. One of the most reassuring things about the process was how similar (to a degree) our thinking was….ok my thinking is at a very different level at the moment as I’m working in an operational context and not the high level strategic context Phil and the rest of the corporate leadership consider and deal with all the time.

I always had a lot of time for those people who become chief executives of local authorities and always thought that it would never be a role I would envisage myself doing…I have even more respect for those people who have to deal with huge amounts of complexity on a daily basis and who, at least those I have met, maintain an engaging personality…I appreciate My reference points are those who I meet at conferences, meet online and those are clearly making a different statement because of how they behave, but it demonstrates and reassures me that it is something that perhaps one day I would want to do…but not for a long time yet :)

Phil and I agreed to meet every 6 weeks which I am grateful for and am looking forward to the personal development journey.

Tomorrow, Later today or on Friday 23rd (depending when you read this) I start my first session coaching Sarah Lay from Nottinghamshire County Council. Sarah is a friend, someone who I have a huge amount of respect for, we have been on a journey together and she has provided support and guidance to me over the years and I just hope I can help her through coaching achieve what she sets out to achieve.

Unpicking the disconnect between internal and external influence

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Since hearing on Wednesday evening that I was selected and judged to be in the #LGC100 at number 48.

I’ve been pondering and reflecting on a few things which didn’t sit right with me, and started asking broadly 2 questions of myself and with some¬†colleagues – the questions were broadly along these lines:

  1. How can I be judged in the Top 50 nationally around influence and power but yet sometimes feel rather isolated and disconnected to the power and influence internally?  In my case this is really about the disconnect between the perceived impact and influence of the work, ideas and passion of those people around the LocalGov Digital Network (external) and my position as Digital Communications Manager and as a paid employee of Devon (internal).
  2. What can I do to better understand the influence I have and how can I improve the way I use it to benefit local and national outcomes around the redesign and transformation of local public services?

Let me try to answer them the best I can, most of the following will be a very honest account of my self-reflection and my areas for development, I share this here in good faith and hope that anyone reading that can offer advice and guidance does so in the spirit this was written.

The issue around internal and external influence or even perceived value to ones own organisation has been a subject of conversation for many years with many people and we would often say things like “Why is it my council will believe what an external person¬†says over me when I have been saying the same for ages” or something along those lines…Well instead of resorting back to a traditional mindset of blaming others I decided to take a long hard look at what it is I do internally that is different to what I¬†do externally.

After some soul-searching and a really great conversation with my head of service – I came to a conclusion which for the first time made some sort of sense and they split into two areas:

  1. I have a self-limiting belief which is still subjected to the powers and structures of the traditional hierarchy of the organisation I work for and like it or not, I’m obviously still accepting a “position” within that system and I’m not acting like a true leader in my field and supporting and helping the people at the top of the organisation to understand and connect to the digital agenda in ways which are meaningful to them – I’ve clearly focused too broadly and not enough on how it truly relates to each and every part of the business.
    This is a fault of mine and I have already taken steps to resolve this but the biggest shift was in accepting that whilst I’m seen as “disruptive” I’m still only on the edges and NOW is the time to mainstream and scale up the impact and influence internally – watch this space.
  2. I’ve been able to tell a very generic and¬†a broad story/picture of digital in the LocalGov Digital context and that has allowed me to consider the wider benefits and implications. I’ve been able to blog about this, talk openly about this in public forums, conferences locally, nationally and across Europe. I’ve been able to work with colleagues to champion a different way of thinking and working and through voluntary action make a small difference…
    My missed opportunity¬†internally and I’m calling it a¬†missed opportunity even though we (my team) have¬†made some great progress, continue to make good progress and consistently push for better outcomes but it has been my inability to grasp this issue and understand its impact around me that up to now, I have not formally pushed as hard as I now realise I need to, to get the team the explicit validation, mandate, recognition and support they need to be even more effective.
    I need to work smarter, not harder¬†to create the alignment from the top of the organisation to the team and outwards to other teams so the impact has a truly transformational impact. This is clearly something i thought i needed to work really really hard at and often on my own, but that is clearly foolish, I’ve developed some fantastic relationships internally which I need to use more effectively and smarter for wholesale change and I need to seek the support and trust of some different people over the coming months to make a positive difference.
    However this inability to tell an effective story internally is also partly down to the journey the council is also taking around reshaping itself, so it has not been an easy task to fully understand which angle, perspective or tactic to take Рthis however is resolving itself now, with the councils new strategic vision and operating model which create a perfect hook by which i can start to articulate the exact story that Devon wants to tell and share Рthis is a work in progress with colleagues to co-design and co-author the story we want to tell and that will start to appear soon on Re:Work Devon.

The second question around what I need to do to better understand my influence will I suspect be an ongoing process, but I’ve taken some steps to seek out new mentors and coaches who can help me navigate this and hopefully that will come to fruition in the near future.

I’ve also started to talk more openly to close colleagues about this and have asked them to challenge me and to think about what this influence might mean. Some may say that I am over thinking all of this and that I should simply get on with work – well I believe that in understanding this better I’ll be significantly more effective and able to deliver and contribute to a deeper and more profound change and transformation not just locally but further a field.

That is worth exploring¬†and understanding…I guess I didn’t have to be so open about all of this but I’ve been clear to myself that thinking in public is a commitment to a set of wider values which I¬†firmly believe are at the heart of the transformation and reinvention of local public services.

 

LocalGovCamp is back for 2014

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LocalGovCamp – Flickr by #ashroplad – https://www.flickr.com/photos/47624301@N06/

Just a quick post to highlight that LocalGovCamp will be back this year and will be organised by LocalGov Digital.

LocalGovCamp will take place in Birmingham on Saturday 21 June 2014.

The camp will be part of a two day event run by the LocalGov Digital network, with Friday (20 June 2014) activities focused on the network’s work streams including a LocalGov Digital Makers event.

More information will be released shortly ‚Äď follow the¬†LocalGovCamp Twitter account¬†for the latest updates.

If you are interested in sponsoring or helping out then get in touch on Twitter via @localgovcamp or @localgovdigital, or contact Sarah Lay, as work stream lead organising the event.

My Reflections – 3 days of learning

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This week I attended a 3 day residential as part of the strategic leadership programme I blogged about previously.

The 3 days were fun, intense, emotional, challenging, tiring and jam packed with valuable insights about myself, my peers (which also taugh me about myself) and my current perceived limitations.

As I sit here looking at the sketched notes during the 3 days there are some interesting themes which emerge and I’d like to share those here.

Innovation in a vacuum

This was probably one of the most interesting and surprise insights across the 3 days. The phrase was coined by a fellow participant. How i’ve taken this is that sometimes people/teams/services or anyone really who innovates in isolation and disconnected to real things can still create amazing things but they are less valuable unless they have a clear purpose and are trying to solve real tangible issues…it basically becomes misguided. Although the result is still valuable learning of course.

Don’t make assumptions

I’ve blogged about this before and it is actually really hard to surface the assumptions you are making at any given time unless you provide some kind of internal process for capturing them.

In saying all of that when you end up doing things and you are under pressure, we all found we kept making assumptions which were counter productive to us achieving the goals of any given task…we naturally all became more aware and got much better at stating them but how often do we support each other to help identify the assumptions we are making as we make decisions.

Responsibility

As existing leaders and as future leaders we need to be more responsible and take more responsibility around all the things we do.  We also need to take responsibility for coaching and nurturing other people to become effective leaders.

Now is the time

After a couple of days of reflection I think one of the biggest things I learnt is that now is the time, tomorrow won’t do and isn’t good enough. Why aren’t I creating a sense of greater urgency for action, why aren’t I challenging the counter productive behaviours I see now, why aren’t I simply stepping up and becoming a more effective leader. People aren’t necessarily going to come and ask me to do something so I need to be more proactive, take responsibility and really “lead”. That means to me, helping to create a vision, helping others to connect and understand that, allowing ownership of that to spread and to openly invite and encourage ideas and solutions around that vision. I need to stop thinking that I’m fighting a solo battle…I’m not. ¬†I also need to really step back and understand how my strengths can be used to involve others and how those strengths can be used effectively and constructively moving forward. This may sound overly critical, but it isn’t. It is simply an honest reflection of where I’ve been this week. My challenge is how I reconcile this and become a better person.

Personal and relevant feedback is very powerful

I’ve always believed this but there does come a point when you get such intense and relevant feedback and literally straight after completing a task that it becomes a very powerful tool for personal learning.

We received a mix of feedback, so we had things we did well and things we could improve upon…and also lots of observations about behaviours and styles which is really interesting.

We should really encourage people to provide feedback and it should form a healthy part of effective teams.

The other aspect of personal and relevant feedback is the stuff you do yourself. The reflections and moments when you consider your own performance. This was enhanced as we were introduced to some really effective coaching techniques. We explored this in pairs on the first day which was really powerful and given that we didn’t really know each other that well, the groups positive views of the experience indicated they all felt as energised from the process as I did. Another example of this was on the final day when we had some rapid 10 minute coaching slots and within minutes of being coached I was really nudged into considering and focusing on the key questions which will help me grow moving forward. I’ve taken some key actions away about my behaviour and some actions around my leadership style as well as how I engage others.

Final reflections

Truly understanding your strengths and the strengths of others isn’t an easy process but an essential one and we should spend more time reflecting and having opportunities to coach and be coached.

Echo Chambers

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Some of you may feel I’ve turned a strange corner on my blog recently, either publishing continually about a digital framework or (for some) moaning or sounding downhearted about the lack of real change and challenge across the sector.

Well this brings me to a post I read earlier this week and the introduction simply summed up what I think has been missing in the sector and is fundamentally critical if we are to bring about a level of societal change which supports health and well-being and local growth.

The introduction in question is from HBR¬†–¬†Every Leader Needs a Challenger in Chief:

We are drawn to those who echo what it is we already believe. We get a dopamine rush when we are presented with confirming data similar to what we get when we eat chocolate or fall in love. On Facebook we defriend those with different political views to our own. On Twitter we follow people just like us.

Yet a vast body of research now points to the import of contemplating diverse, dissenting views. Not just in terms of making us more rounded individuals but in terms of making us smarter decision-makers.

I want to take this moment to share a short piece of my personal journey over the last 5 years – namely the tipping point and the point at which I think and believe my professional life changed.

On the 10th June 2008 I created my twitter account – it has been an interesting time with twitter over the years but it has something which has radically and fundamentally changed my professional life – it has directly contributed to my career path and my thinking and my attitude to listening to other views

On the 11th June 2008 I wrote my first blog post on this blog ¬†and I can’t imagine not having the blog there to share a thought, a random idea or a personal story…it has simply become part of how I reflect and develop my thoughts. I looked back at my very first post which was somewhat random and innocent but this sentence sums up for me one of the key benefits of why I continue to do this.

I firmly believe that we can learn something from everyone we meet, this blog gives me an opportunity to reach further than my normal social network.

I didn’t realise at the time but by joining twitter and starting a blog I changed my perspective – opened my eyes, my ears and allowed myself to immerse in a huge diversity of opinion and contrasting views. I naturally agreed and disagreed with some of those and I blogged about how I thought about those things but it all helped shape me and it all fundamentally challenged who I was at the time.

Before 2008 I was in a bubble an echo chamber, where the views I had and were exposed to were from those people around me…I’m not suggesting I didn’t or couldn’t think for myself but I ‘m saying it is hard to develop different ideas when the ones you want to challenge are so strongly supported by everyone around you. It is more than simply a cultural issue…it is deep rooted in people’s personal beliefs and behaviours – so isn’t something you can easily change.

I guess what I see now is lots of bubbles and lots of echo chambers around the sector and they all need breaking down in my personal opinion and I have to ask myself “What can I do to help that process?” at the moment I don’t know…but wanted to share this challenge with you as you might have some thoughts ¬†– I also think and believe that having all these bubbles and echo chambers is a bad thing and a very unhealthy situation to be in.

I had a conversation recently with George Julian¬†about this very topic and have found the conversations with her are exactly what¬†I need to bring into my thinking right now…George isn’t just someone I respect a huge amount and often agree with – she is someone who challenges my thinking and challenges how I think about things…. Generally speaking I’m a person who works from instincts and feelings – although I’ve never been afraid to admit if an idea or view I held for a time was wrong or needed changing…it isn’t easy to do but it is an essential part of growing and contributes hugely to my personal well-being – we should all do this more often…we would all be healthier and happier.

There are many people who actually provide valuable challenge to my thinking and I will make every effort to thank them and acknowledge them when i see them as I think it has to be a face to face acknowledgement.

I’m shortly going to be starting a strategic leadership programme here at the council and I want to make every effort to ensure that I keep my mind open to what everyone has to say and use the process to help make better decisions and to provide better and more effective leadership to those around me and beyond.