Posted by:17 July, 2012
Dealing with a demotivated team is never easy and sometimes you need to take a new approach to get things back on track. Ealing LBC tried a strengths focused coaching programme with their five heads of HR, we hear from Paul Fairhurst from the Institute for Employment Studies and Sue Littleson who was one of the five heads of HR at Ealing LBC discuss the benefits of the programme.
Strengths focused coaching – five years on
In 2006 an Audit Commission report painted a gloomy picture of the HR function at Ealing Council. The troubled department was failing to provide a good HR service to the organisation and bringing little added value. The team was feeling demotivated, overworked and unproductive following an intense period of restructuring. The structure of the senior HR team meant that the five key senior leaders, each responsible for a vital HR function, worked in isolation. To improve the service, the senior HR team needed to be re-energised and prepared for further change.
My organisation, the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) was engaged to support the senior leaders through this difficult time, rebuild their confidence and help develop them as managers and inspirational leaders. At the time a strengths focused approach was a relatively new way of thinking for many organisations, but given the level of evidence that shows how effective it can be we recommended it as the best solution for Ealing.
The six-month programme started in May 2007 and took a two-pronged approach. The five HR heads each received six two-hour coaching sessions, while regular workshops took place to help them work better as a team. Using Strengthscope, a psychometric tool developed by the Strengths Partnership, we mapped out each person’s areas of strength; those capabilities where they both delivered high performance but were also personally energised and that they found they were naturally good at. The focus of the programme was then to help the team understand their own (and each others’) strengths better and enable them to tap into these strengths and the energy that goes with them to deliver better business performance; a complete contrast to the typical approach of focusing on the problems or weaknesses and trying to fix them.
Five years after the programme finished, I met up with Sue Littleson who, at the start of the programme, had recently joined Ealing Council and the HR Leadership Team as Head of People and Organisational Development. Sue has recently moved to a new role as Talent Performance and Leadership Manager at the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham and she told me how the strengths focused approach had changed her way of managing people (and herself) and has led to real business benefits. She kindly agreed to share her story of how a strengths focused approach has made a real difference. This is her story in her own words.
Paul Fairhurst, principal consultant, Institute for Employment Studies
Personal experience of applying a strengths focused approach
At the start of the programme, I had recently joined the organisation and was managing a team, all of whom were new to me. I had set targets with the team and had been running one-to-one supervision sessions to help them move towards their new objectives. I was also having weekly team meetings with timed agendas and trying to help people focus on their goals, but in terms of effort, it often felt easier to do a lot of the tasks myself. I found that I was doing a vast amount of work in the evenings and at weekends just to keep up. I was meant to be working out the direction, shaping the offer and building support but this took up a much smaller amount of my time than it should have done as it was crowded out by other day-to-day work. It felt like very hard work to get anything done.
As a new employee getting to grips with a new role, a new team and set of colleagues, the coaching programme felt very supportive. I felt from the start that Paul Fairhurst (my coach) was 100 percent on my side. On a personal level it was a relief to have someone independent to share my secret ‘failings’ with but who also put into perspective some of the things that weren’t working, to help me realise they were small parts of a bigger, much rosier, picture. Even though it was five years ago I still remember certain moments of realisation, after Paul’s questions, which allowed me to keep trying out new things.
My belief at the time was that, to date, I had been appreciated highly for prioritising and relentlessly persevering with the task to ensure even the unimaginable gets done. I had assumed my ‘success’ had been due to this focus. I realised through the strengths approach that to do all of this had required a lot of effort on my part. I also realised that some of the success had really been down to my natural relationship building strengths and that in really working hard on organisational/task skills I had probably been missing out on some of the benefits I could reap from my relationships with people. It was truly exciting to think that the things I was good at in my personal life and which were ‘just me’ could give more power to my elbow at work. I still love and use this revelation today. It makes me feel more authentic and more ‘me’ at work, as well as getting good results due to collaboration and good stakeholder relationships.
The sessions we had as a management team contributed to me developing productive and supportive relationships with colleagues. The focus on strengths helped me to understand why things were the way they were in the management team meetings and why I felt keen for resolution on topics, while others were willing to explore issues for longer, or go into more detail before deciding.
The strengths approach was also incredibly valuable in managing my new team. I recall Paul asked me what people in the team would do if they were left to their own devices. I enjoyed imagining what people would be good at as I was more used to thinking of what needed to be done differently and what I had decided people needed to be better at. He also asked me to think about when they really were in their ‘flow’ in their current role, and when they seemed to get a buzz. I remember picturing the team members and then starting to think about how to allocate work and responsibilities based on this. The very sociable and highly extrovert person was very effective leading on publicity and communications for the team. The very detailed and thorough person did a great job breaking very tricky technical problems and persevering when many others would have got bored and given up! We were able to allocate tasks and responsibilities to people so that they spent more time using their natural talents or strengths, rather than struggling with things that didn’t come naturally.
The team became trusted to deliver and so grew in size, with an admin post here, a secondee there, an apprentice over there and so on, and it sometimes felt like there was an additional virtual team of people who did things for us, because they liked to do them! The team began regularly to gain plaudits and were described by the HR Director as a small, but highly functioning team who punched above their weight. The Executive Director and programme board lead said that the evaluation of the first three years of the Corporate Workforce Development Programme showed that the team had delivered what they said they would within the timescales, and that this had happened in addition to a lot of extra projects. Staff surveys and customer feedback showed high degrees of satisfaction. Another sign of success was the increasing collaboration with the business. For example, where we supported the reduction in levels of complaints escalation, the Customer Services department were then keen to further co-create the next intervention on channel shift, as they had seen evidence of the business benefits of working with the team.
On a personal level, one of the most satisfying moments for me, and one that really did show me that the work of the team was highly valued, was when my three year savings proposals were one of the only savings from the ‘back office’ to be rejected (for the following year at least), as Members and the Chief Executive knew that the money was a worthwhile investment which should be maintained due to the benefits it brings.
In summary, I have continued to use the strengths focused ideas from the coaching programme for the last five years and believe that it has both led to greater business success but also made my work life more enjoyable and fulfilling.
Sue Littleson, former head of people and organisational development, Ealing LBC
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