Business writing,  Humanising business,  Leadership,  Personal Reflections

Taking my own medicine

My year of huge change and what it has taught me – a reflection in three parts

Back in the spring, just after the clocks had changed, when the days were warming and stretching and I was living on something other than mince pies and leftover cheese, back when Brexit first didn’t happen, I published my first book. 

It’s a book that extols the virtues of change. It allows that change is hard. It includes full disclosure that I don’t have a great personal track record in this area – always in love with my present reality, and imagining every conceivable monster in the future. But overall, the book’s central argument is that, done well, change can be a generative and creative process – a place where growth can happen, relationships be built, ideas and energy be generated. 

So it seems both sweet and neat that my book was published at the start of a year that has brought unprecedented levels of change for me, personally and professionally. Most significantly for present purposes, it’s a year next week since I started in a new role, in a new organisation, in a new sector. 

My book is primarily about organisational change, rather than personal transition as such, but the same principles should apply … and so I thought it would be fun to assess how well my book’s thesis stands up to scrutiny from the perspective of a leader in transition. What works and what doesn’t? What’s missing? What have I learned?

Here, then, are my own very personal reflections at the end of one year and the beginning of another – in part confession and catharsis, and focused, inevitably, around those parts of the book that most resonate for me right now. Perhaps I can turn this into something more objective and structured in due course – we’ll see. For now, this is offered lightly, and in three loosely themed parts, in the hope that some of it might help.

Part 1 – I be longing for belonging

My book’s ‘BECAUSE’ model outlines seven areas where value can potentially be generated throughout a period of change. First up, and perhaps the most important of all, is Belonging. 

In the book, I talk about belonging from three perspectives – our surrounding environment, the relationships between people, and finally our sense of identity, our tribe.

I made what I hope were some good early decisions about my physical surroundings. I elected not to occupy the office that had been prepared for me, and to sit with my team. It’s hard enough – as we shall see – to join a new organisation and belong – without adding a glass wall and a door to the equation. Perhaps for some people in some roles in some organisations, a physical office might be an important part of the dynamic, but not for me. 

I took a desk in the corner of open plan, from where I could see and interact with the whole team. We put a sofa and a round meeting table in the office instead, and I filled the shelves with interesting books, and a vase of fresh flowers. These choices, too, were deliberate – I wanted to share some sense who I am and what matters to me (learning, beauty, thoughtful details) but, at least for now, wanted to stop short of sharing family snaps and crayon drawings of dinosaurs.

In the event, I’ve barely been there. This first year has involved a huge amount of travelling, and rightly so – that’s how relationships are built and how learning happens. It’s been exhilarating – I love to travel and experience new places and meet new people – but it has also come at a cost. I have felt rootless and a bit absent, and am reflecting on how I can feel more physically at home in the coming months, as my travel schedule settles down a bit.

When it comes to relationship building, it’s partly a sheer numbers game. In that respect, I have done pretty well – meeting one on one with around 1500 people in this first year, and speaking in larger groups to many more. When I attended our annual meeting of senior directors back in September, I estimated that I knew the names of, and had spent good time with, around 300 of the 500 people in the room.

Much harder, though, is the process that then ensues of figuring out who I want to build deeper, trusting relationships with, and then doing that. Some of those choices are obvious – the people who by virtue of their role are people I work with most closely – my own team, peers, key stakeholders. But in a flat, complex and highly networked organisation like mine, the real art is in figuring out who the informal influencers are, and the natural supporters of me and my vision, the blockers and the unblockers, the loud challengers and the passive resisters, the marginalised and the mavericks, and hopefully also, in time, the true allies and friends.

I am naturally warm in my manner and low on formality. Although an introvert, I like a fair amount of self-disclosure. I hate small talk and going through the motions, and want to cut to the chase with people and have honest and meaningful engagement. Perhaps as a result of that, I have found it hard to be widely ‘known about’ by virtue of having been an unusual external appointment into a high profile role (‘She’s a woman! She’s got four kids! She’s not an engineer!She’s not even HR! She writes books!’), while not in fact being known at all. It’s been lonely. I’ve felt very visible, very exposed. I’ve found myself thinking consciously about how intimate I want to be with people. About building trust. I’ve missed having someone I can just roll my eyes at when I (frequently) misstep. I’ve missed a wry smile, a hand on the arm, a twinkly wink. 

I’ve also been acutely aware of the peculiar responsibility that comes with a People role around personally embodying the culture and values of an organisation. When you’re new, that’s particularly challenging – it’s presumptuous to imagine you can understand, let alone embody, anything too soon … but fatal to give any hint of incompatibility. 

This leads us to the identity aspects of belonging. I should perhaps have foreseen that some of the very things that most attracted me to this organisation – its strong sense of common purpose, its shared ownership model, its sense of community – are also the things that make it hardest to join as a newcomer. Long service is valued here perhaps above all else. If I stay for ten years, I will get a silver bar. And the right to have an opinion! The organisation almost prides itself on being opaque and quirky and ‘difficult to get to know’. The question, “So, do you understand us yet?” feels like a kind of trap. The acceptable answer is “no, not yet”… with a baffled shrug … which would perhaps be fine were it not my actual JOB to understand! And it’s interesting navigating the frequent “that’s not how we do that around here”, particularly when part of my brief is transformation. The implications of all this for inclusion and true diversity are fascinating and need much more thought.

In this season of my life, I’m not at heart a consultant. I don’t want to be dispassionate and objective. I want to belong – to put my shoulder to the wheel in pursuit of something that I am a part of. But I also know that some of the value I bring lies precisely in my not-belonging. The exciting but lonely threshold I’ve walked this past year – one foot in, one foot out – is, I think, an essential part of leadership transition. The leader as the meeting of two worlds, the place where insights happen.