First steps

H is in a benevolent mood today. It’s been a productive week at work, and while work isn’t everything it keeps the embers aglow. I’m of the type that needs to achieve things to feel satisfaction, muddling through or ticking boxes or cruising on auto-pilot is not my thing. It’s a bonus if the things you achieve are of a particularly clever nature. That feeds the ego and justifies ambitious expectations.

I had a break-through with one of my projects yesterday which should make a big difference. It means I can probably wrap it up a lot quicker than anticipated. It was a leap of imagination that did it, enabled by finally having some obstacles removed from my path. Some way to go but on the right track.

Satisfying as that is, more satisfying were the first few steps towards building a greater engagement in the office.

It may surprise some, but this is something I’m pretty passionate about. Everyone deserves opportunity. Everyone deserves a chance at being their best self. Everyone should have access to a work environment that is safe, welcoming and empowering. Everyone is an individual, and everyone deserves to be recognised as such.

I get really sour sometimes in places like this were staff are either treated as children, or as drones. It comes down to poor leadership and management mostly, as I touched upon yesterday, but there are structural faults that allow for it as well.

I’m lucky because I have a strong sense of self and am naturally independent, I don’t fit into any moulds. Not everyone is as fortunate and it’s common for people to be squeezed into round holes, never to emerge. I just don’t believe in that. This is a human life! We should be free to find our own shape and speak our own words – and you know what, most organisations would benefit from it.

I’ve achieved a lot over my professional career, including much I would describe as clever and creative, and sometimes things much against expectation. All of that, as I said, is good for the ego. None of that factors in to what my most satisfying experience has been – taking a dysfunctional, underperforming team and turning them into a happy, driven and successful team of achievers. It sounds corny, but the pleasure I got from the pleasure of my guys then was like nothing I’ve experienced before. It’s a cliché, but the term heartwarming is very apt for the sensation I experienced back then – and now still, as I reflect upon it.

Managing a team of people is different challenge to creating an organisational environment in which people can thrive, but there are common elements.

About 10 years ago I worked in a place where the IT manager, a buffoon, was fired on the spot by an exasperated CEO who could take it no longer. Both the manager and his team had underperformed for ages and were disdained throughout the organisation. I was called into the office straight after, had explained what had just happened, then asked if I was willing to take the job on (as well as my current job).

Was I ever! I had watched on with dismay as the IT function had been ground down into a virtual irrelevancy. I had my own ideas of how it should operate and what could be done and so I was in like Flynn.

First thing I did was to undo some of the constraints. These were all IT professionals, everyone of them competent in their own right and willing to do more, but inhibited by a demeaning structure. I sat down with each and every one of them and spoke to them man to man to get an understanding of what they were feeling, why they got into IT initially, and what they wanted to do. I asked for their ideas as to what was wrong and what we could do to fix it.

I wanted them to be part of the solution. Nothing would work without their buy-in, but the cost of their investment was trust and recognition – these were pennies well spent and easy to give over.

I gave every one of them a responsibility. I made them accountable for something. That something was aligned to their skillset, their experience, their desires. One guy became responsible for infrastructure. Another was given application management. A third was told he was going to be the SharePoint guru and these were the big plans I wanted him to get started on. The younger guys were given helpdesk, but told they were responsible for the efficient management of it, and given responsibilities shadowing the other guys. Each person walked out of that meeting knowing what was expected of them, and empowered by the knowledge that they would be exercising their expertise productively. They were delighted every one of them.

My role in this was to facilitate. I set agendas, I defined strategies, and I reached out to the business, but the guys were involved. I was by no means a technical IT expert and made no claims to be – I made it clear that I was relying on them, but they had my full trust.

Trust is a mighty powerful thing. I would support them every step of the way, but in return expected them to fulfil the trust placed in them. It’s rare that people don’t, but unusual for people – average managers – to understand. Trust is a gift given by me to you, and creates a hopeful obligation in the recipient. Few want to disappoint that.

I always the best sort of authority is no show of authority at all. It’s the mistake that many junior or managers make, feeling the need to demonstrate they are the boss. True authority comes with a sense of humility – in your hands are the lives of these people – but for many managers those people are playthings.

I never worried about being the boss. I knew they trusted and respected me. We got on well, could share a joke, and I took them all out for drinks soon after starting, but no-one was in any doubt that I was the man – and that’s how they wanted it. I was hard, but fair, but I took the pressure off them too and gave them space to do what they did best. In no time we turned the department around. By the time I left them morale was sky-high, performance had hit the roof, we had engaged with and earned the trust of the business, and had a bunch of exciting projects on the go.

For me I appreciated how much people want to be themselves. If that’s all you offer then people will be drones and the quality of their work will reflect that – but if you recognise them as individuals, each with unique qualities, and acknowledge them, then there’s no limit to what they can achieve. This encapsulates my philosophy on engagement, and indeed leadership, and explains why I’m so passionate about it.

This is what I want to introduce here. It’s a tall order but you have to start somewhere. This week I wrote and posted something to the constituents detailing what we’re about as an engagement committee and what we hoped to achieve. The possibilities thrill me.

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