Deeper reflections from coaching and mentoring

“The battle and balancing between the old and new power will be a defining feature of society and business in the coming years”
Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms

So around last christmas I started coaching/mentoring conversations with Phil Norrey (Devon County Council’s Chief Executive) and Mike Bracken (Cabinet Office Executive Director for Digital and Chief Data Officer)

I’ve previously written about some early reflections here and here but wanted to dig a little deeper in how the process is challenging my practice and helping me to develop as a practitioner and hopefully as a leader.

Some key insights and learning from the last 8 months…thanks go to Phil and Mike who have and are continuing to support me on this journey

  • Balancing thought leadership with doing leadership
    I’ve started to see this more as “how to do system leadership effectively” – One of the things I gained the most from this process is having a mirror displayed in front of me and being able to see and understand the value I offer from different perspectives and sometimes the value I create is not what I thought it was…I’ve always been keen to share my thinking and whether that makes me someone who offers thought leadership is perhaps for others to decide but It is also the doing leadership which is where I had most insight as I always thought I wasn’t doing this very well…I know more about how I can better balance this and have a clearer understanding as to my role in Devon and wider. This doesn’t remove the barriers of course but it does create clarity around direction and focus.
  • Creating a pathway from the edge to the centre
    When your work makes you work on the edges of your organisation you often feel isolated or frustrated that people don’t listen or you feel annoyed that projects never scale – a previous view of mine was to pull the organisation to the edges and hope for a disruptive impact…that didn’t exactly work – through this process I’ve learnt not explicitly but implicitly that I have to focus more and work harder to push the change towards the centre of the organisation and change the fundamental and underlying structures and systems we work in for sustained change. Again all of this is probably obvious but I hadn’t realised or given myself the time to be challenged or challenge my own thinking in this space.
  • Letting go so I can move on
    Before I started this process I didn’t think too much about the stuff I had to let go off in order to allow myself to move forward. One of the most simple things I did was forgetting my Job Title as the label by which i am defined…obvious to some perhaps, but the job titles we have are labels or boxes by which we constrain and limit ourselves. This was in response to the first session with Phil, when I asked him what value he sees from what I do and none of it was around digital – which was great to hear but equally hard to hear as I thought that was my niche!
    I also realised that letting go of ideas, thoughts, preconceptions was a healthy process and one which allowed me to rediscover ideas in new ways, gaining new insights and new vantage points.
  • Better understanding and harnessing the people around me and in the network
    This is linked to the system leadership question which has and does underpin most of my self discovery. Again and no surprise my insight here was and is such a simple one, but you can’t be a system leader unless you make a commitment to positive change, connect and collaborate with others, influence and mobilise peers and coalitions of people, accept and encourage feedback and having confidence in yourself.
    None of this happens without the people around you, the people whoa re directly and indirectly connected…creating lasting and positive change requires  bravery, courage and a willingness to build and sustain networks and relationships.
    I always thought I was pretty good at networking but that alone does nothing, the challenge is how we can all collectively create impact. It is also about knowing when you need to step back and let go and allow others to lead.
  • My role in supporting othersJust as I have asked for help, I realised very early on that I needed to be open to offering and being asked for help by others. A really good example of that process is Sarah Lay’s journey over the last 6 months
  • My personal ambition
    Before this process started my personal ambition was very much on the emergent side of things – a lets see what happens and take it from there point of view…all of this was reflected in my previous appraisals where you capture what your want to do moving forward…mine read like this – “Carl is happy and content exploring new avenues and will assess opportunities when they arrive, Carl does not currently aspire to be a head of Service or a Chief Executive”  I don’t know why I limited my own ambition or set limits…I guess it kept things safe and comfortable and this was one way I coped with the uncertainty of the future.

Now it’s different – I think differently about my ambition…I feel I want to become a “Head” of something, a “Director” of something or a “Chief Executive” of something – the what, well that will no doubt emerge or be created in response to things I help make happen. But I’ve now set that direction and that has changed how I see myself as a leader and a practitioner and most importantly how I see the opportunities and possibilities in front of me.

 

Reflections on my second coaching / mentoring session

A couple of weeks ago I posted about my first coaching/mentoring session with Phil Norrey (my Chief Executive) and it has had such a positive impact on my thinking, approach and behaviours already.

This week I had my first session with Mike Bracken (Executive Director of Digital in the Cabinet Office) who kindly agreed to support me and help me over the coming months.

First and foremost I want to thank Mike for agreeing to do this and for taking time out to speak to me and help me professionally and personally it means a great deal and I believe it will provide the necessary challenge and encouragement along with my sessions with Phil to help me develop as a practitioner and a leader.

Like before the detail of the conversation will stay private but I will use this space to reflect on themes and specific challenges to help me work through them.

One of the interesting things in speaking to Mike was reflecting and talking about the work we are doing here in Devon (not just me, but the wider transformation that is also being driven hard by Sara Cretney and many others) and it isn’t until you try to capture everything that you realise how much is happening and how much things have significantly changed.

It was refreshing to get Mikes perspective and observations on the challenges we have faced and what we want to do moving forward and also reassuring that the direction of travel is a good one.

One thing I will share is the ‘killer question’ moment, I find that evercoaching / mentoring session has that killer question which makes you stop and really think, I mean really think what is the answer here. In this instance it was such a simple question and I felt disappointed in myself for not being able to answer or provide what I thought would have been an adequate response. The question was ‘What can you point at that tells me what you think?’  For me, I’ve never really thought about my blog in those terms, although more recently I did want to start writing with purpose and clarify my thinking, I’ve historically just thrown random ideas into this blog and whilst I have found that helped me there isn’t the final picture of what my thinking is for others to easily pull apart and access…

I’ve got a range of themes to reflect and ponder from the initial conversation and it isn’t until you start to reflect on different aspects of the conversation you realise how much you get from this process. The key themes for me from this conversation are:

  • Focusing on Local
  • Sharing your thoughts does not mean people know what you think
  • What people perceive you do is different to what you think you do yourself
  • Using the ‘language of old’ to change the future
  • Grassroots movements VS formal structures
  • We all have to let go of something to allow the future we want to see come to fruition
  • My story and my councils story are two different things and should remain that way, but I’m part of my councils story

An additional theme and more urgent action which I need to resolve as well is what role if any am I going to play in any of the change locally and or further afield…This wasn’t explicitly touched on in the conversation but in starting to reflect on the other areas plus the conversation I had with Phil, it is becoming an important question for me to answer.

I have already created some actions for myself from speaking to Mike and feel very positive about the experience and process and I am already looking forward to the next session.

#LocalGovDigital – A day with @GDSTeam

Me, Mike Bracken, Tom Loosemore chatting at GDS – part of the LocalGov Digital Visit

On Thursday 10th April a small group of the LocalGov Digital Steering Group visited the GDS offices to share our journey, share our outputs, ideas and challenges and start a conversation around how we might be able to work effectively together moving forward.  We wanted it to be an open and honest conversation which I believe it was, we were very open about our strengths and vulnerabilities and also learnt and discovered new strengths and vulnerabilities through the day.

For some of the steering group it was their first visit so we had to take the tour and get the plotted history and detail about the journey not just of GOV.UK but of the Government Digital Service itself. It helped us all move away from just seeing GDS as a website and I think we all knew it was more but getting the low down on what they do helped us understand and see that they are changing and transforming government and that isn’t always easy and straightforward but it is possible. This resonated with the group as it is something we aspire to within a local government context.

I had put together a rough agenda to help focus the day but what was good was that it was far more conversational and discussion led then simply us “showing our stuff” and asking “so what do you think?”. I think it was a really good opportunity for us to share some of the ideas we have, some of the outputs we have created as well as some of the challenges we face. The conversations were always constructive, positive and focused on moving beyond the reason why we can’t to seeking opportunities around how we can.

We were also lucky to be able to grab some of Nicola Gill’s time and she shared some updates around digital inclusion which we feel is a really important area that we can work on and is something we feel we have missed out of our workstreams so we have agreed that we should have a workstream to look at how we can work effectively on this area.

We were also keen to understand and get some context around the Electoral Role as this is an area which links nicely with our focus on local democracy. Pete Herlihy kindly gave up some time to the group and also some additional time to some of the group who wanted to pick his brains about some specifics.

For me personally the whole day was a turning point for the group and I’d like to share my personal reflections

  1. We seemed to start the day slightly nervous and lacking in confidence and ended feeling energised and empowered even more to push forward transformation in local government. A challenge is how do we get others to feel as equally motivated whilst they are busy doing the day jobs…
  2. Thinking is no longer the barrier, doing different is the barrier and that requires strategic and political leadership to provide the focus and momentum locally in councils which has clearly been a success for GDS. We need to share stories of how people have worked around this to deliver success on the ground
  3. We should not underestimate the challenge ahead but we should allow ourselves to  get paralysed by it either. There are plenty of people who really want to help local government. We just need to start asking around and working better together to allow this happen and quickly.
  4. As a group we need to celebrate our informal strengths and understand and acknowledge the vulnerabilities more so we can be clear about who, how and why we need help from others.
  5. Influence is something that happens in conversations and we need to have more conversations
  6. Lets not get hung up on the website debate, transformation is so much more than a website. We need to as digital leaders take the conversation to the strategic leaders in our councils and get the conversation focused on transformation.
  7. We need to stop feeling like we are the poor cousins in this space. We should stand up and be proud of who we are and that we work in local government and we should expect to be treated equally and been seen as peers (even if some people think we are just practitioners) Tom tweeted this on Thursday evening and i think this sums up why I think we should be proud.

So what next…

The main action is that we agreed to continue the conversation in an open and honest way to develop trust between both groups. We also identified some areas initially where we thought we could both add value. We’re starting this by becoming one of the partner organisation’s to the Digital Inclusion Charter launched today (Monday 14th April). One of the areas we are looking at in the short term is some basic skills development for practitioners – basically a show and tell for localgov practitioners to learn some of the key issues and skills around topics like analytics, user stories and service manager training.

Overall I’m feeling really positive about continuing an active conversation with GDS and finding ways we can support each other to support local government through digital transformation, collaborate on tools to support practitioners day-to-day and for LocalGov Digital as a network to provide its knowledge to what they’re doing; a real two-way partnership of peer groups.

I’d like to finish by thanking Tom Loosemore and Benjamin Welby for looking after us during the day and being our hosts. Thanks also to Mike Bracken, Nicola Gill, Pete Herlihy and Joshua Marshall who gave their time to share what they were doing and to answer our questions and more importantly challenged us back.