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Effective Leadership When You're Stuck In The Middle

Man with multiple tasks in multiple hands, six arms with a clock approaching 12:00 held high above his head Effective Leadership When You're Stuck in The Middle Bluegem Learning

“Why can’t I just tell the bastards what to do?” asked the Commander squinting at the diagram in front of him.

He adjusted his cap to block out the light, which caused the sun to glint off his cap-badge.

I could tell the veteran Borough Commander was half-joking, but it was the half that wasn’t joking that worried him.

Fergus, however, was unfazed.

“Because, you old sod,” retorted Fergus in the same tone. “the world has changed under your feet in case you hadn’t noticed.”

Fergus was taking a big risk.

This particular Borough Commander (let’s call him Brian) was well respected in the ranks. Which is exactly why Fergus had decided to start with him.

“If you don’t believe me, then keep wearing that uniform when you attend the next Community Leaders in Newham. The world’s a different place since the MacPherson Report came out.”

Brian tossed the paper onto the desk in front of him, took off his cap as he sat down and regarded Fergus critically.

“I know, I know. Okay you cheeky bugger, tell me what I’ve got to say.”

I heaved a sigh of relief and mopped my brow.

I could have swore Fergus did the same, but he gave no sign. Instead, Fergus tapped the diagram on the desk: “Influence works in four directions…”

A few years before I moved to Western Canada I was working in London England where I was contracted by “Scotland Yard”.

Technically, the Leadership Development Team of the Metropolitan Police was based out of a building a couple of blocks away from the building referred to as New Scotland Yard, but my colleague Ken Cameron insists on telling everyone that “Russell worked at Scotland Yard” because he feels it’s a far more recognizable term than “Metropolitan Police Service”.

I think he’s been watching too much “Murdoch Mysteries” personally, however the enthusiastic response of his fellow Canadians has won me over and I’ve begun to adopt the same terminology, albeit with the above caveat.

My time at “The Yard” taught me a number of salient lessons about organizational dynamics and I’ve since applied the Four Directions Model, originally developed by my colleague Fergus Lawson, to various organizations worldwide, including the UK Customs Service and my work with Volker Stevin, Bell Media, Rocky View County and Bow Valley College.

To clarify the structure of the Police Force in London and the definition of a “Borough Commander”, London has a population of

approximately 8.5 million people, split into 32 districts called Boroughs.

Each Borough houses 150,000 to 300,000 people. Each Borough Policing division has a Commander responsible for the officers policing that Borough and answering to the Commissioner of Police and Deputy Commissioners.

So Brian (the gentleman described in the scenario above) would have been in charge of approximately 350 – 1,000 uniformed police officers, plain-clothed Detectives and civilian support staff.

He would have worked his way up through the force and had typically between 10-20 years experience.

I joined the Leadership Development Team at New Scotland Yard approximately 18 months into a 3 year Leadership Development Program.

Fergus Lawson was its Director. He was always a sharp dresser with a big personality and a sharp mind, not always a welcome combination in the days when the Force tended to be suspicious of a civilian not in uniform.

Fergus was charged with building the capability of leaders within the police and specifically the Borough Commanders.

Particular attention needed to be paid to the manner in which they communicated and exercised influence with the world outside of the Police Force, but Fergus and I quickly realized that the issue extended beyond a single sphere.

We needed to address the manner in which they communicated internally with their peers, civilian support staff, with other divisions within the force;

...and also externally with other law enforcement agencies such as Customs, Home Office and Police services of other municipalities.

Policemen and women are trained, like military personnel, to give and receive orders.

Their hierarchical structure at the time resembled that of the military or a 1970’s factory. The Commissioner gives an order to the Deputy Commissioners, who relay it to the Borough Commanders, etc, etc.

Commands usually went one way (down).

Information may flow upwards, but rarely offers suggestions.

The modern military has challenged this structure to a certain degree.

My work with the British Army showed me how a modern military works increasingly as a team of specialists in which the platoon leader works more as a “Team Lead” and utilizes the specialist capabilities of his/her soldiers.

However, in the mid 1990’s the Metropolitan Police was still mired in the traditional, centuries-old command and control structure.

This was all well and good for internal communications. However, the problem arose when members of the Force began to interact laterally.

You can well imagine how a peer working at the police force of another city such as Manchester or Birmingham would react to a character from London ringing him up and ordering him to put a few officers onto a task in support of a London-based investigation.

Borough Officers in London in light of Institutional racism term stopping Met reform - report (BBC)

I later had the opportunity to work for the Customs Service and witnessed first hand how such high-handed tactics mysteriously resulted in slower-than-normal responses.

Institutional racism term stopping Met reform

When engaging with the public this kind of communication was increasingly ineffective and usually resulted in increasing, rather than decreasing, friction.

At the time that I was contracted by Fergus, the Metropolitan Police were reeling from the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry and impending Macpherson Report.

Stephen Lawrence was a Black British teen from Plumstead, south east London, who was murdered in a racially motivated attack while waiting for a bus on the evening of 22 April 1993. The police investigation was later found to have been marred by professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership. By the time I came along, even before the report was released, it was widely recognized that the force had not kept up with the pace of change.

To assist the Borough Commanders in understanding how their communication needed to change, Fergus created the Borough Commander Model, which I later renamed...

The Four Directions Of Influence.

Essentially he took their usual linear direction of communication and bisected it with an x-axis.

On one end were placed internal communications (peer Borough Commanders, other Law Enforcement Agencies, etc.) and on the other, external communications with the community (Community Leaders, City Hall, MP’s, etc).

In my work with Fergus and the Commanders we began to explain what now is obvious: you need to apply a different method of communication for each of the four directions.

Fergus tapped the diagram on the desk:

“This is you in the centre, right? You can push commands down this way, that’s easy.

Look it’s nearly lunchtime so let’s suppose the order is about a sandwich. You tell your officer ‘Get me a sandwich’. It’s a command. The only acceptable response is ‘Yes’.

But how do you influence up?”

“May I have a sandwich, Sir?” Brian laughed, “I’m not sure I do influence up at all” countered the Borough Commander.”

“That’s crap, Brian. You do it all the time. When you want to get the Deputy Commissioner to back off on a dopey idea, what do you do?”

“Well, I … I give him a better option. Or a few.”

“Right. Maybe it’s a salad. Or soup. But if he says it’s a sandwich, then it s sandwich, right? So there’s a number of possible choices he can make, but the choice is his alone, right?”

“And I have to live with it.”

“So let’s go this way, to the right side. Suppose you need a sandwich from the Home Office. Is it a command? No. So what is it?”

“It’s a request.”

“’Would you please make me a sandwich’ is a request. Its called Social Contracting. It’s what makes life happen.”

“That sounds like a big HR word for telling someone what to do.”

“That’s your problem right there Brian. You’re using a command with the Community Leaders in Newham, when you should be making a request.

REQUESTS invite responses of either ‘no’ or ‘yes’.

Both responses must be acceptable.”

Brian rocked back in his chair and interlaced his hands behind his head. You could almost watch the penny drop.

Fergus continued. “Social contracting is made up of three elements that are often undistinguished from each other.

The first element is the ‘Statement’.

‘There is a protest’ is a statement and requires no response. ‘

Get your riot shield’ is a command. The only acceptable response is ‘Yes’.”

Brian picked up the thread. “But ’Would you please organize a meeting so I can speak with the youth group’ is a request. And if it’s a request then I have to be prepared that ‘no’ is a valid response, even if I am police.”

“The problem is, too often these elements are not distinguished. People use STATEMENTS when they are really making REQUESTS or even COMMANDS.

Healthy organizations distinguish these three elements and require leaders to use each element appropriately, depending which way they’re working this diagram.”

2 The notion of Social Contracting is borrowed from The Primes by Chris McGoff, John Wiley & Sons, 2012.

Fergus and I were charged with the tricky task of managing the a change in the perception of leadership throughout the organization, amongst civilian support staff such as IT, as well as uniformed officers.

But Fergus had made the controversial bold decision to start with the Borough Commanders.

Upon reflection it seems audacious, even crazed. So I rung Fergie up and asked him just what he’d been thinking.

“I just picked of the parts of the development agenda where I had the best chance of a win,” he confessed. “I felt that the Borough Commanders had a resources team of their own in Finance, HR, and admin that they could use to build their civil capability and engagement.

The resources they had at their command – and the influence they exercised – allowed them to introduce general management best practices and a customer service ethos across the whole command resource of their Borough.

Those resources, that no other target group had at their disposal, would help them build the capability that way. So I started with those individual Borough Commanders who I intuited were the most amenable to progress. I felt that if it took enough root in enough individuals, then we had a chance of seeing the shift happen.”

“But it was tough for these seasoned veterans to stick their heads above the parapet,” I reminded him. “Their promotion to the next top rank was dependent on their success.”

“True. And ‘success’, in their terms, included compliance with the command and control “rank model” which was the very thing we were brought in to change. But it was clear to us both that the systemic problems were most clearly evident in the Borough Commanders so the most successful approach was to convert them. Once converted, we could use them as the champions to fight the battle elsewhere in the organization.”

With Fergus’ persistence, I watched the Borough Commander population learn to value his input. I came to realize that what they were valuing was input from an expert who approached them in a partnering role.

Just like in the model we were offering, it was important not to command; but it was equally important not to be overly subservient.

The experience, born out in other organizations since, leads me to believe that when leading from the middle you are most highly valued when you observe a few broad parameters, best illustrated when looking at the role of an HR Business Partner for instance, who often has to “lead from the middle”

An HR Business Partner has to actually be an advisor. This means demonstrating an understanding the business and the issues that front line operations (in our case, the police officers) face in their work.

Trust must be earned and communicating an understanding of the core work that needs to be accomplished is the best way to earn that trust.

Fergus and I developed a deep level of trust with our clients using one-to-one personal coaching.

This is partly why Ken and I have chosen the scenario model with the fictional Brian in this article to illustrate our points; because each relationship was unique and customized.

Earning the position of a sounding board means offering open and honest feedback. An HR Manager has to be willing to Challenge preconceived notions, including what is not being said, and how things are handled.

One of the benefits of being civilian staff members was that Fergus did not have the rank culture to impede or push him; and, as a contractor, I was not stuck in the HR functional power lines.

We could use our outsiders status to challenge the status quo by using our expert professional and managerial skills to role model the difference in behaviour.

Fergus brought in other non-police examples of the same general management dynamic, primarily using situational competency, to help Borough policing staff manage a variety of situations.

Largely these were non command-control contexts. We focused a great deal on applying the Four Directions Of Influence to community policing, which was an area of policing that was under the spotlight after the Macpherson Enquiry.

  • An HR Manager has to be willing to offer useful alternative models that are applicable to the realities on the ground.

Theory or vague instructions simply wasn’t going to cut it with the police. For Fergus and I this meant that we had to be face-to-face with the realities they faced every day, not hiding behind tools, processes, rules or heavy HR planning processes.

  • An HR Manager has to be available when required for urgent situations. And not just to leadership but available to the entire management team.

We learned to be nearer, and to increase our participation in meetings. Granted, Fergus had to avoid being “on-call” for every tiny catastrophe, but he also had to be present when needed so that learning could be applied to practical, tangible situations.

And the biggest learning, we came to realize, was when the stakes were highest.

It paid off.

“The Boroughs we were working with started performing better and delivering better than others,” Fergus told me. “I used the evaluation of the Borough Commander model to show that it was the appropriate leadership model for these new roles. This attracted the attention necessary at the "centre" and slowly others came on board.

The new Director of Resources for example, was non-police – from the IT industry – so we began to work with him on the internal customer service culture shift and to professionalize the civil functions under his jurisdiction.”

Someone said to me once that changing organizational culture is like changing the direction of an oil tanker.

A 500 foot, 8000-ton oil tanker needs over a third of a mile to turn around. In fact, to stop a fully loaded oil tanker coming into port, travelling a standard operating speed you would need to cut the engines 15 miles from the dock as it can take up to 20 minutes for the tanker to come to a complete stop.

Similarly in organizations you can’t change the culture overnight. Often it takes months, if not years, in a large organizations to fully change the culture.

And sometimes, oil tankers just don’t like to move.

“Its too bad it was ruined,” I sighed into the phone as I gazed out the window at the heavy snowfall and wondered what the weather was like back in London.

“Just as we were really making progress there was an internal 'political coup' The agenda was diluted”.

I sighed and said again, “ruined”.

“Give over,” Fergus cried. “If it was the Borough Commanders who killed the project then I’d buy your BS. But it was our colleagues in HR!

The worst passive / aggressive behaviour was not the rank police culture – that lot, they were transparent, easy to spot, and easier to navigate – “– with a little help,”

I interrupted. “Help from Brian and a couple of wonderful senior police officers in Celia and Bridgit. You have to admit, they mentored me.”

“In a rank culture, where their status is low to say the least, the civilian functions will guard what little power they manage to carve out for themselves jealously. And just as often, they will try to limit your scope and impact.”

I heard Fergus grunt as he stood. It must be late there, and I should let my old friend turn in for the night. He’d have an early start.

“Didn’t work though,.” Fergus gloated.

I could almost hear the grin down the line. “Despite those efforts to kill the project, the foundation work got done. Those Borough Commanders we worked with are still in post. I see them on the telly, on the news all the time.

I’m very proud.”

Russell Stratton of Bluegem Learning and Ken Cameron of Corporate CultureSHIFT are leadership consultants and business coaches with over 25 years experience of working internationally with clients in both Europe and North America. They are the co-creators of the Managaing the UnManageable workshop and will be presenting the sessions “Leading from the Middle” and “The Art of Managing Your Boss” at the CPHR Alberta Conference in Edmonton, April 10-11, 2019.

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