Leaning to People

One Leader Does It All?

Veronica was the Head of Nursing across a large healthcare organisation that included several hospitals. She had a problem. A  significant technology change was coming that she knew would be unpopular with many in nursing. It was an inconvenient and disruptive change, but necessary. She needed to get her colleagues to see beyond the pain to the gain in the future. But they were sceptical. She could persuade and get those in her immediate sphere of influence to come on board with this; to prepare before it hit them, despite full workloads. But what about the rest?

One of the biggest challenges for a leader is to scale engagement across a large group of people; that is, to reach the many affected with the right messages at the right time, to engage them in meaningful conversations, and help them co-own the change.

Often the simple reason is that the challenge is so big. And because the leader tries to do this on their own.

A client was explaining was faced her recently: engaging 1,000 people in one group, and another critical group of 60-80 people, whom they needed to enlist as key change agents, and all within a few weeks. She understood that this challenge was not feasible with full engagement. So, she had tried to do this by sending out emails. Why? Because it seemed more achievable for her.

Now, most of those individuals will consider the scale of engagement in terms of what they can personally do. The scale of this can be so intimidating, it is far more comfortable to turn their attention back to what they are familiar with, the technically-urgent tasks in hand.

This can become a sort of collective state of denial by the team of this vital engagement challenge because, without true engagement, this change will fail. It always the case.

Without true engagement change will fail. This is always the case.

This situation is better approached it a different way, using a helpful metaphor.

The Engagement Orchestra

Consider the engagement orchestra. My client is the conductor, but the orchestra has particular instruments – other members of her delivery team and wider network – that need to be brought into play at certain points, who are skilled at playing across specific relational networks with a timbre and colour that resonates with different people across those networks of trust. As many in the string section will take their cue from the lead violinist, not just the conductor, so in my client’s case, certain key influencers hold greater trust with some groups than she does.

Overall the orchestra will play a piece that produces beautiful harmonies, across two or three movements towards a satisfying climax. That piece is the engagement roadmap or strategy. The consistency of timing, of stories, of messages, give the overall engagement coherence and credibility, so work needs to be done here.

What is the music score in this metaphor? A basic “score” that we use to orchestrate such a large-scale engagement is the stakeholder engagement strategy, an approach where every team member sees which part they have to play. This is explained in my book, Practical People Engagement.

The conductor knows she need not be fully competent in each instrument. She needs to know the range of each instrument, and the tone and quality that each is capable of, and other key limits on each instrument. In an orchestra, the composer of the piece and the conductor are one. But they do need an orchestra to execute it. So, I encouraged my client to think of herself more as a conductor rather than a player.

However, the conductor does need to pay attention to the overall effect, timing and pace of the music. She focuses on bringing in key instruments at precisely the right moment. She is aware of the whole narrative of the piece and the effect it should have on the audience. Here, a communications plan becomes vital. Everyone needs to keep in step with each other. Messages heard second-hand are never positive.

Veronica, with the help of a coach, went on to identify her key groups, who had different interests and influence. For each of these groups, she was able to recruit key influencers, sometimes within the groups themselves, who brought those people ‘online’ at the right moments. She stepped back. Veronica didn’t have to do it all herself; in fact, it would have been a mistake to try. She kept the messages and the vision clear and consistent throughout the change. What began to happen was that the people affected saw the initiative no longer as top management’s change, but their change. Veronica shifted from envisioning, too empowering, too coordinating, supporting and protecting people during the change.

The lie of doing it all

Somehow, we have taken on a lie that says that, as a leader, we must do it all. No, most of the time we lead in the context of a community with other leaders. We invite others to lead. It does not diminish us; on the contrary, we all grow.