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Blair McPherson: How to maintain good leadership after a long absence

Blair McPherson
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I once worked for a director who was unable to be away from the office for more than a week.

Once, he booked a two-week holiday and appeared back at work after the first week, having left his family in Wales. He may have been an extremely case but it is not uncommon for senior managers not to take their full annual leave entitlement. Many are afraid a colleague on the senior management team will take advantage of their absence to undermine their position, cut their budget or push through a controversial proposal.

I was determined not to make the same mistake. I saved up half of my annual leave for three years with the intention of taking three months’ off to travel to Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand and Bali.

Appropriate cover arrangements were made from within the team. I assumed when I returned I would just pick up where I left off. Maybe it would take a little time to readjust to the routine of work but it never occurred to me that one of the team would seek to replacement me or that the team would be happy for her to do so. Rather than being welcomed back, my return was met with apprehension from the team and hostility from my would-be replacement. The team thought they had managed very well without a manager and had demonstrated I wasn’t needed. I thought differently.

What I hadn’t taken account of was how effective my wannabe replacement had been in winning over members of the team and my contacts in partner agencies by making the case for being much easier to work with, far less demanding and more willing to compromise.

The team’s view was that “not much” had happened whilst I was away and yet I kept coming across changes in the way things were done. There were forums that I had set up and chaired for two years that had simply been dropped and regular reporting arrangements discontinued. These were all tasks that I had delegated for my absence.

How do you re-establish your authority and leadership when your managers have enjoyed the freedom of doing their own thing? What do you do about a senior team member who convinced the team your return would be problematic and then proceeded to make it so?

There was a very tense atmosphere in team meetings. I was keen to avoid open conflict; it was not my style to close down discussion in team meetings but I did not want to create opportunities a debate in which I would be defending my position. I tried to reassert my control of the team through the well-established one-to-one supervision sessions.

This worked reasonable well with most team members but the member of staff covering me during my absence avoided these sessions. To the team and to outside observers, the situation was seen as a personality clash, which was only going to be resolved when one of us left.

So how could this situation have been dealt with better, if not prevented?

If there had been a formal acting-up arrangement, rather than dividing my responsibilities between the team members, there would not have been the opportunity for an informal leader to fill the vacuum.

A formal temporary leader would not have allowed people to do their own thing and thus resent my return. I did not make enough use of the expertise in HR; in subsequent posts I sought the advice of senior HR staff, whose judgment I valued. I also should have been much more open with my own boss about the difficulties at much earlier stage but I didn’t want to bother her with this little domestic matter and I thought to admit difficulties would make me look a weak manager.

The final lesson was that I let it become personal. If I had been a little more open and a little more relaxed, I would have realised most people knew what was going on and weren’t interested.

At the time, I questioned whether my extended leave was worth it, but there were lessons I learned. I soon forgot the difficulties of returning to work, but I have never forgotten the adventure of travel.

Blair McPherson is a former director of community services at Lancashire CC and management author

 

 

 

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