At The Change Maker Group, we are looking at many aspects that might help you to stay ahead of the curve. Here is an unusual story from our casebook for change.

We have changed the names of individuals and organisation to protect confidentiality, but the events are real and could happen in any working environment. Stephen Newman picks up the story…

From our Casebook for Change – “Alex” and the Dangers of Hard Work

Everyone was working incredibly hard during lockdown. Long hours invested, frequent communication, dedication of the highest order. What could possibly go wrong?

In this casebook story, we were invited to work with the business growth team of a professional services company to make sure they were at their best during COVID. The team were all working from home. Furloughing staff had been generally avoided. Everyone had critical projects to focus on, preparing for and winning some contracts worth £millions that were due for renewal.

It was not easy communicating with customers. There were daily operational challenges to overcome to make sure service levels were maintained on existing contracts especially when they were up for renewal. Customers were also paying extra attention to quality and performance, making known their concerns about any shortfalls. This is a time when buyers have real leverage and suppliers are under significant pressure to go the extra mile.

In this Casebook for Change, our role was to support the team, we did this by:

  • reviewing their sales and operational processes
  • suggesting ways to enhance working and business practices
  • strengthening customer relationships and
  • generally ensuring morale remained high as the UK plunged deeper into COVID, and organisations faced complex business challenges.

At the head of the team was “Alex”. A long-serving manager who kept the team busy, checked on the progress of every contract and collected information to feed back to the board in weekly reports. ‘Alex’ issued action plans to everyone.  You would think it was every leader’s dream, to have “Alex” managing the team with so much at stake in such a difficult business climate.

We worked with the team in one to one’s and small groups.

They were an intelligent and responsive group, dedicated to their work and keen to develop their skills but COVID and lockdown also weighed heavily on their shoulders. Were their jobs really safe? Why were their customers so demanding? What if they lost a contract renewal? Some of the team were living alone, others lived with their parents or partners who were also working from home. Some had children and were home teaching.

It takes time to build up trust, and in this casebook, once we had built up trust, it wasn’t long before some shared their real feelings, their worries and fears. Once or twice, tears of genuine stress were shed in our sessions.  As the weeks passed, we also noticed the size of the team had shrunk. Three people had resigned to take employment elsewhere. In our casebook for change, we find this is often the result.

At this point, we began to evaluate our relationship.

Was something going wrong? Had we contributed in some way to this situation? We spoke again to the Chief Executive who was adamant that everything we were doing should continue. We were told there were going to be some leadership changes and we should expect to meet at least one new Director.  Finally, looking back, we noticed something else.  Compared to the rest of the team we had heard very little from “Alex”.

We had been obliged to run an additional briefing session for those who could not make the first two and “Alex” was in this later group. On checking our notes, we realised that ‘‘Alex’’ had contributed very little in the additional session. We also noticed “Alex” had not asked any questions. Further checking revealed that after making multiple appointments with the team for follow up coaching ‘‘Alex’’ had not booked in at all.

Before contacting ‘‘Alex’’ ourselves, we checked with the Chief Executive again. We reported our findings to the COO. We were told that ‘‘Alex’’ was always extremely busy. That he was a critical member of the management team. It was recommended we did not contact “Alex”. The view was ‘’ Alex is an absolute workaholic and if “Alex” doesn’t want to get involved, that’s OK. We had been told politely to back off.

‘Alex’ the overworked

As the weeks passed, our relationships with the rest of the team continued to strengthen.

We won all the contracts to be renewed, we helped the team with some other matters, and we received some great feedback. It also became clear that ‘‘Alex’’ may have presented as a valuable hard worker to the board but when it came to leading the team, there was clearly a black hole in ‘’Alex’s” leadership skills.

Each member of the team talked about “Alex” being always busy, that ‘Alex’ rarely returned calls and when conversations did happen, they were always task and results oriented. ‘Alex’ showed no empathy towards the team, and absolutely zero interest in how the team was managing during lockdown. Some reported that ‘Alex’ had behaved in that way for years showing few social skills and little interest in the welfare of the team.

The team felt very uncomfortable with the situation and were afraid if they said anything, they might get into trouble. We got permission from the team to report their comments back to the board anonymously in one last attempt to get the matter of ‘Alex’ on the table. This time …success! The board listened and with their support and encouragement, we finally got to speak with ‘Alex’.

The Outcome

In our casebook for change, we knew that coaching an ‘‘Alex’’ is never easy. Alex is probably not going to feel comfortable having his people management skills called into question. But if successful, a change in behaviour can make a huge difference.

With considerable care and attention, we set up a 360 assessment for ‘Alex’ with contributions from the team. We then invited ‘Alex’ to take a Change Maker Profile  which was a positive way to confirm ‘’Alex’s” skills as both an Implementer, Polisher and Strategist suggesting a strong focus on tasks, direction and results to a high standard. ‘’Alex’s” Playmaker score was low suggesting that ‘Alex’ had difficulty in getting things done through others.

The 360 and the Change Maker Profile proved incredibly valuable and helped remove doubt. They also helped confirm that the lockdown situation had simply exacerbated what had been going on for many years.

The Board also broadened it’s thinking

‘Alex’ received further coaching support and it was good to read the positive feedback from the team members. The Board also came to realise that perhaps instead of seeing any danger, they had been in denial about ‘Alex‘. There were also some other COVID related worries demanding their attention. They learned several lessons from this case: –

  • Good managers need to pay attention to their emotional intelligence. And they also need understand how their teams make meaning of their actions and their communication. Showing empathy and being sensitive to how the team responds to you as a manager is as important as getting good results
  • Your teams should not be afraid to speak up and share their feelings. People need to feel encouraged to share thoughts by managers and leaders. To say, “My door is always open” is not as good as walking out from behind the door and asking for feedback.
  • Business leaders should not bury their heads in the sand hoping a problem will go away with time. It is important to understand the problem fully and not react by blaming what is a potentially long-term issue on the latest short-term event.

For more information or to continue this topic, please contact Stephen.

The Change Maker Group has been supporting leaders of changing organisations for a long time. The context for leading change has changed rapidly in the last few months. But the job of leading change has not. To arrange a complementary call with one of our Change Makers, click here.