On Your Marks, Get Set… Go Raise the Bar
As I pulled in to Sheepdrove this week, I was instantly reminded of my time as a Connect member in 2014. The sense of excitement, anxiety and the re-emergence of that pesky imposter syndrome were instantly with me. It also recalled the friendships and connections that I had made at my On Your Marks and indeed the personal transition I have been through since; from Connect member to being part of the Wavelength team.
I was a CEO then, for London’s Air Ambulance, and my organisation was going through its own transformation at that time. As a CEO, you are expected to know all the answers, regardless of background and tenure and I came to On Your Marks for some answers of my own. I felt that I had clarity around my own sense of purpose, having grown disillusioned with financial services a few years previously and having been given the privilege of leading a business with absolute clarity about its societal impact (a business that happened to have charitable status. Lord Victor Adebowale – Chief Executive, Turning Point – would appreciate that language I’m sure). Talking of language, privilege is a word I use frequently; leadership for me has always felt that way and there is no greater calling than having the opportunity to influence, shape and grow. That privilege also comes with responsibility and indeed accountability, and OYM is truly effective at bringing those elements into sharp focus. It also succeeds at holding up a mirror to ourselves; a multi-dimensional mirror that not only sees us as others see us, but is also shines a light within and creates a rare opportunity to reflect on where we are at as leaders, complete with some space and time to do so. Used differently however and mirrors can also be used to deflect and to create excuses as to why it’s the fault of our organisations (or shareholders, or stakeholders, or culture, or legacy systems, or macro-economic headwinds…. well, you get the picture) that we can’t bring about transformational change. Perhaps caretaking isn’t such a bad profession after all?
And before you know it, On Your Marks is already over. Time to get set?
Were we not entertained? Nudged, prodded and inspired? To be in the room whilst the executive team from UK Sport re-told their unique story was yet another privilege and that high-5 and spontaneous group hug were truly sights to behold. How they moved that organisation from management of the mind to leadership of the spirit was truly humbling for me and set the tone for what was to follow. Steve Caunce’s (CEO, AO World) utterly brilliant piece of storytelling was the perfect bookend to everything that we learned in between. I bet you £1 you felt the same way?
Did we agree with everything we heard? I’m not sure I was alone in feeling uncomfortable listening to three bearded white men of a certain age struggling with the articulation of the importance of diversity and why there weren’t enough female entrepreneurs emerging in the Valley. John Elkington, Co-Founder, Volans was brilliant, in every sense, but I simply haven’t worked out what to do with all of the wisdom just yet. Other than buying a TESLA of course. It’s starting to feel inevitable although I’m still working on the numbers (my wife and virtual bank manager might think I’m still stuck in Ludicrous Mode on this one). Lord Victor made many insightful comments about leadership and higher purpose. I know he did, they’re all in my notes somewhere and once I’ve worked out what they are, I will be sure to use them. But such things drive and divide opinions. Amongst many other qualities, leaders should always have opinions.
So now that the OYM experience has filled up our heads, hearts and Moleskines, what will we do? What could we do and what’s going to stop us?
I would suggest Monday is not the day to start the cultural revolution in your organisation. Your first leadership or team meeting probably shouldn’t have “I’ve been on amazing leadership programme” as the first item on the agenda. Hopefully the initial conversations at home are questions to your loved ones about their week and how they’ve spent their time and you gently re-connecting with the rhythm of your real life.
I did share my experience of Connect with people that asked me and I was grateful for the opportunity to talk about it. It was helpful and re-affirming that people close to me heard and felt the energy and passion that OYM had generated in me. I spoke mostly of the experience that I had been through, the stories I had heard and the people that I had connected with. As opposed to all the things I was about to do differently. On reflection, this was born from not knowing what to do with it all rather than any great superior insight I had suddenly developed through the three days but I think it’s sound advice and something I would encourage you to contemplate before you dive in.
I participated in Connect as the only person from my organisation and I was excited to share it with my team, and indeed with my board of Trustees, keen as always to demonstrate return on investment and learning. To their credit my team were genuinely interested and allowed me a platform to talk about it. I stayed out of tell-mode to the extent possible however and engaged the team in unstructured conversations about what best-in-class might look like for us; were we really on the right trajectory to become a great place to work and were we all really sufficiently connected to the outside world to make better decisions about strategy and execution. This helped bring the Wavelength voice in to the room, but in a way where my senior team felt part of the solution and it also eased that pressure on me to come back with all the answers. Even if you have absolute clarity about the things you want to change, the ‘how’ and ‘why’ will always remain more fundamental than the ‘what’ so use this opportunity with empathy and care. Engaged, involved, happy people = happy stakeholders = whatever you need it to equal.
In a sea of quotable quotes this week, somebody said “to use this experience to inform how you receive information and not how you give it”. I don’t honestly remember who but it’s genius.
So, all that said the real place to start on Monday therefore is to get hold of that mirror (you may have noticed you each received a free one at OYM!) and use it to start identifying the change that you want to be. As David Pemsel, CEO, The Guardian Media Group, said, this is serious and now is not the time to freeze. Iterations are his life as a severely disrupted CEO and it’s a great way to think about the incremental changes we want to make as leaders. Whatever change you want to bring about has to remain authentic and true to your personal value-set. A wholesale, big-bang personality transplant won’t feel authentic and people will see right through it.
We quite like lists at Wavelength and we will take you through our top 10 traits of sustainable, high-performance organisations in a later module, but in the meantime, here are my Top Tips on some of the things you could do in this post-OYM world (it’s amazing how often Sue Campbell’s questions crop up once you are aware of them!)
1. Are you clear on your own sense of purpose, what that looks and feels like and is it aligned to that of your organisation? Knowing this for yourself, and being able to articulate it is a great building block for any leader. As David Pemsel also said “the ambiguity feels so much worse without purpose” and the correlation of purpose to resilience was frequently reinforced for me throughout OYM.
2. Reflecting on Lars Kolind’s session on the final morning, can you think of a way to express your business (and your role within it) that moves it away from simply functional and towards aspiration? Can you find a way to replace your “plastic building bricks” with “growing the builders of tomorrow”? Thinking in these terms might help set your vision and mission for what’s to follow.
3. We asked you to be present throughout OYM, and to give yourselves permission to do so throughout the week at Sheepdrove. That doesn’t have to stop in terms of how you engage with your people from this point forward, the quality of the conversations you could be having and making steps to prioritise the things that really deliver impact for you and your organisation. Being more present was probably the biggest single personal learning I took from my Connect experience and I’ve tried to stay committed to it. And by the way, this works just as well at home as it does in your place of work (and is undoubtedly more important!). I also gave my team permission to call me out on this: if I wasn’t really listening, or I brought my iPhone in to a meeting, they had explicit license to challenge me.
4. What’s in your diary? Are you really spending time on the activities and conversations that are going to create a positive shift in your organisation? And with the right people? And how are you managing your energy, over and above your schedule? Can you find those short breaks in your day to pause, reflect and recover, as per Matt White’s suggestion or to get out the running shoes, dust off an old bike, or find a dog to walk
5. Who is in your team? Again, I would caution against any snap decisions on this, for obvious reasons, but do you have the right people on your bus? Do you have the blend of skills, personalities and perspectives that UK Sport demonstrated so vividly? Even if the answer is ‘yes’, do you genuinely have the culture of trust, transparency and honesty that will underpin the transformation you are contemplating? I came away from my Connect experience understanding that organisational structures are only fit for purpose for a finite period of time. Is yours suitably aligned to your mission and vision, and do you have the processes in place to keep delivering the brilliant basics? These are big questions but what better time to start thinking about them at least?
6. Who is in Personal Boardroom? Do you have the right challengers and nerve-givers around your table? Your network has been transformed just by virtue of being a Connect member so start taking advantage of it and thinking about the influence and connectivity that you need to take on your challenges. Does your network have sufficient breadth, depth and external perspective? Or is too narrow, confined by your sector and full of like-minded people? A member asked Zella King this week about the risk of a diluted Personal Boardroom by dint of moving roles, either internally or externally. Having joined Wavelength in late 2016, I am personally right in the middle of that transition and Personal Boardroom has been a fabulously practical tool to help me navigate where my new role has left me exposed and what I need to do to remedy the gaps that have been formed. Equally, it’s helped re-affirm the constants in my Boardroom and who is truly important to me. Late on Wednesday night this week, I sent a somewhat emotive email to somebody that I met on Connect back in 2014. I apologised for not being in touch more recently and stated out-right that they had been hugely influential in my Wavelength experience and that I absolutely considered them as part of my boardroom. Needless to say, I had a wonderfully warm and positive response.
7. Finally, we have given you so much stimulus and insight this week, it will be impossible to assimilate it and process all at once. I would urge you not to even try. Let it settle, percolate and come to you when you’re ready. As much as I recognise how you are feeling right now, all of us on the Wavelength team are right there too. We experience OYM in much the same way that you do. Perhaps we have heard some of the speakers before and some of the messages won’t be new and yet, what we learn from it, what gets validated and the actions we commit to are as fresh for us as they are for you. For the first time, we have provided an online platform for all of us to be part of, to contribute to and to take from so please use Yammer to underpin your Personal Boardroom and to make the most of the richness and diversity of talent in this new-found network of yours; we call it Connect for a reason.
More and more is being asked of leaders today, in this disrupted, ambiguous and uncertain world. In the last three days, you have been asked to raise the bar; be an un-boss; be the change you want to see in the world; to find and follow your moral compass and to work out who you want to be and be it like hell…. so no pressure then. Helpfully, Steve Caunce gave us all a new job description to follow – be bold; be driven (not always in ludicrous mode); be smart, and most importantly of all, be caring. Oh, and have fun! Always have fun.
Lord Victor said “the future is decided by the things we don’t discuss”. He’s right to an extent of course, but equally, some of our futures will absolutely be determined by the very things that we did discuss at Sheepdrove this week, and I wish you well with your endeavours. We are all in this together, in every sense and if you think I can help personally, you can find me on email@example.com.
This is all a privilege after all, not least because we always have a personal choice about what we do next.
Written by Graham Hodgkin. Graham – a Connect Alumnus – joins is formerly CEO of London’s Air Ambulance.
Connect is our leadership programme that inspires, develops and connects leaders whose professional paths would not normally cross. With clients from large corporates, social enterprises, charities and the public sector, we bring together a diverse community of 90 top leaders to learn alongside and from each other.
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Some of the people mentioned in this article are part of Wavelength SpeakersHub. To view their full biographies, find links to videos and to book them to speak at your own event please click on the links below:
Baroness Sue Campbell, Chair, Youth Sports Trust & Head of Women’s Football at the FA
Peter Keen CBE, Director of Sport Advancement, Loughborough University
John Steele, Chair, English Institute of Sport
Zella King, Founding Director of Personal Boardroom
Lars Kolind, Chairman, Serial Entrepreneur, Author