Wealden District Council is hugely ambitious. From handling one of the largest volumes of planning applications in the UK, to an unwavering commitment to sustainability and the environment, their strategic aims are clear: to ensure everyone living and working in Wealden can thrive whilst also enjoying outstanding natural beauty. In 2019, plans were made for taking Wealden forward with exciting projects around regeneration, commercial plans, digitalisation programmes, and building homes that enable residents to thrive.
Managers and staff at Wealden have long been recognised for their good work, as shown by the fact that the Council enjoys the highest overall satisfaction rating of any authority in East Sussex. Despite this, the Council faced several challenges. Meeting their strategic ambitions is no easy task. Like many public sector organisations, Wealden District Council has needed to change, adapt, and bring in new ways of working. Working commercially and in a business-like way was vitally important to sustainability whilst also meeting the needs of residents and businesses in Wealden. The Council also fully anticipated further challenges to come – whether due to EU transition, funding difficulties, population changes or the political context. Therefore, the Senior Leadership Team recognised they could not lead Wealden forward on their own. They needed all 365 staff to be high performing, and fully committed to their work. They also needed competent and capable managers who could lead the implementation of strategic goals, taking their teams with them.
Wealden had identified the need to develop and grow the managers of today, for the challenges tomorrow will bring. Managers at Wealden, already highly effective in their roles, needed to develop leadership skills and be confident that they too could make change happen. We were approached by the HR team, due to our previous work with the Policy, Insights and Communications team.
Their brief was to create a blended learning programme, with a distinct brand, that would generate enthusiasm and energy. This was also an opportunity to bring managers across the organisation together, to share insights, work with each other to solve organisational challenges, and to build collaboration amongst the management population.
We were asked to create a video to explain why we would be a good fit for Wealden.
It was clear from mc’s submission and video that they had thoroughly researched Wealden and completely understood the brief. There was a clear thread to our Corporate Plan and Values. Their approach felt fresh, exciting and contemporary and matched our organisational ambitions.
Averil Price, Corporate Director
We were thrilled to be selected as Wealden’s learning partner, and set about designing a bespoke, practical and exciting programme. This programme needed to deliver the following outcomes:
We set about getting to know Wealden and the challenges that managers were facing. From reviewing strategy papers and organisational documents, to interviewing participants and Senior Managers, we were able to build a good picture of the learning needs and opportunities available at Wealden. We recommended a 6 module approach, culminating in a Graduation event.
Each module lasted one day, and participants attended in cohorts of 12 people. This size of group enabled full participation, so participants had enough time with the trainer and could fully discussion and share their ideas. Each participant had a learning partner, or buddy, who helped them to challenge their thinking and to share ideas both within and outside of workshops. The Graduation event was part learning review, part pitching to Senior Managers, and also a celebration to mark the hard work participants put into making their cohort a success.
The programme was a fully blended programme. This means participants were supported in taking their learning out of the workshop and into their everyday work. We did this in several ways:
The programme was also recognised as Institute Approved by The Institute of Leadership & Management. This provided a quality mark, and more importantly an opportunity for participants to extend their learning. The participants have individual membership which gives them access to the My Leadership, the Institute’s award-winning digital learning resources as well as a certificate in recognition of their hard work.
The programme was set to start in November 2020 with two cohorts meeting in person. Due to the uncertainty around the Covid-19 pandemic, we took the difficult decision to move the programme online. The online learning was very similar to the face-to-face programme design. We kept it hugely interactive, engaging, practical and energetic to avoid Zoom fatigue.
This programme went beyond a simple training course. It was vitally important that Managers were able to make changes to their work. To enable this, the programme was sponsored by Averil Price, Director. Averil has a keen interest in learning, and as qualified coach understands the power that comes from giving people ownership and space to try new ideas out. Averil supported the programme in various ways: from co-designing the content and approach, to joining cohorts at the start of each programme with inspirational discussions on leadership. She also took time to ensure participants felt empowered to make change happen, to challenge their own managers, and know they had the support of the SMT.
I have felt totally engaged in the development and roll-out of the programme. Yvette is a highly engaging and effective trainer who has delivered each module with passion and great knowledge. She has checked in with me at every step to ensure that the programme delivery has met our expectations. Feedback from the participants has been amazing and it is great to see how they have grown in confidence. The future for Wealden is looking bright.
Averil Price, Corporate Director and Leading Wealden Forward programme sponsor
Participants also needed the support of their own line managers – the Heads of Departments. Therefore we provided briefing documents, guiding the Heads of Departments in the ways they could coach their colleagues and enable them to put their learning into practice. We provided summary sessions, so that Senior Managers and Heads had an understanding of the tools and approaches used in the modules.
At every graduation event, SLT attended to hear from participants directly about both their experiences on the courses and to pitches for change. Each cohort put forward a number of ideas for making improvements, and how they aimed to make these changes work.
The programme has to date been a great success, not least because every participant has put a huge amount of energy and effort into making changes to their work, taking their learning forward and supporting each other. We were able to track participant changes through an evaluation process. This included collecting feedback in every workshop, and asking participants to report on their progress. We also developed a bespoke survey, which both benchmarked and evaluated management competencies for every participant. In their post-course survey, every participant was asked to describe their learning, to provide examples of changes that they have been able to make, and the benefits or impact of doing so. Participants also received feedback from peers and colleagues, through a 360 survey based on the same set of competencies and questions.
Every participant was able to demonstrate a positive change in their management. They described the tools and approaches they have been using to solve real-work challenges, as a direct result of the programme. This included a focus on commercial skills development, whereby using decision-making tools such as Boston Matrix and PEST/SWOT analysis have helped them to identify priorities in their work. They have also developed a mindset for innovation, challenging ways of working and identifying new ideas. Key learning here was that being commercial in the public sector is about balancing hard measures, such as spend and income, with social returns that ensure communities thrive.
I have in the past struggled with the concept of LA’s and in particular my service being commercial. This module taught me that you can you a commercial view on all aspects of what we do. Making sure we have the right resources, people with the right systems in place is essential.
Cohort 2 Participant, Survey response
Participants have also shown a positive change in their people management skills – whether that’s holding more effective performance conversations, being more confident and comfortable to give feedback, using coaching to develop others or improved team building. The result is that their teams are more empowered, and more confident which in turn is building service improvements.
The wider benefits from these changes have been that managers now have a shared language and toolkit, enabling more effective cross-team working and knowledge sharing.
I have learned that when working with other services that I need to consider multiple angles of ideas when working on projects.
Cohort 1 Participant, Survey Response
The 360 results support this, and show that these changes are being noticed and welcomed by other colleagues and stakeholders. Surveys show that colleagues feel supported, challenged and empowered by managers. New ways of working are being developed and implemented, in more innovative ways.
See the interviews below for examples of the changes that participants are making:
Sara was on Cohort 1 of the Programme (November 2020 to April 2021)
I’ve worked at Wealden for a long time and most of that time in Customer Services. It’s really important that my team have good relationships with other departments as we provide first point of contact support across the Council where possible.
I know how important it is to see how different departments fit together, and how when someone makes a decision in one department it can affect another. The Leading Wealden Forward programme was brilliant at highlighting that to everyone. Having dedicated time together to work on things that matter to us, sharing ideas, and getting to understand each other was really valuable.
It is also lovely that the connections we made on the programme have lasted. We’ve met a couple of times now as a larger group.
I’ve taken a few things away from the programme that stuck with me. We looked at making priority decisions in a few different ways including learning when to let go of a project or idea. Even when you’ve put huge amounts of energy and effort into something, it’s important to step back and realise when it isn’t working any more – and stop.
The programme also confirmed for me that my management style is ok because everyone is different and it’s good to have a range of different approaches. In the Leading Me module we looked at techniques to balance work with life, and to look after our own wellbeing. I use these tools and ideas to help my team and me to focus on home as well as work. You have to do that to be effective.
I really enjoyed how interactive the course was. We spent a lot of the time talking things through and trying tools out. We had activities to do between the sessions, which helped me to process what we learned. This wasn’t heavy, and we didn’t have to spend ages writing essays or anything like that which I wouldn’t have enjoyed. Instead, we were tasked with working on things with our buddy. I really liked having a buddy. I like to talk things through, so having someone who I can run ideas by or share plans with is very useful. We still meet, and that’s been really nice too.
Overall, I really enjoyed the programme, and I regularly tell people so!
Mark was on Cohort 2 of the programme (November 2020 to April 2021)
The Leading Wealden Forward programme gave me, and my colleagues in Building Control, some great opportunities. My colleague was in Cohort 1, and together we had ideas for innovation in our Service. We used the tools from the programme to explore those using things like the SWOT analysis. I am very passionate about our work, and that sometimes means I can find it difficult to present my ideas at a rational and objective level. These tools helped me think through what I hoped to achieve and how I would go about that. I needed to do this to get buy in, to get the go ahead and support needed from senior managers.
That said, no matter how well you plan, senior management are likely to have a different view. They have a different perspective because they operate at a strategic level. So I also needed to think about that before presenting my ideas to them. The programme was sponsored by Averil, which gave me the chance to build my relationship with her, and get traction on our ideas. She gave us advice, guidance and useful criticism around our blind spots or places where we needed to do more thinking. Having that inroad to CMT (Corporate Management, Wealden’s executive management team) was vital to ensuring we had thought through our proposals. It also meant we were more confident in our presentation. In that way, the programme has helped me to be more assertive too – to pursue ideas.
During the course itself, I really liked the way it was facilitated. Our trainer, Yvette, was good at explaining things, and we spent time discussing tools together. I also liked using learning logs, and using that to help me review. I’m dyslexic, so sometimes struggle with lots of writing and trying to learn that way. For me, the approach used help me to create memories about what we learned, and connect this to my work.
It was also a great opportunity to get to know other people, and build my internal network. People from our Cohort have moved into senior management, and it’s useful to have that relationship. To be able to talk to people across the Council. Spending time together was very helpful. My only criticism of the course is that I would have liked more of that discussion time. Elongating the programme would have given us the chance to try ideas out a bit more. Being online meant the days had to be kept a bit short, so I understand that. We didn’t need any more content as such, it just would have been useful to slow down the pace at times. I know this has been changed for later cohorts, so that’s good.
Overall I’m really pleased I went on the course, and it has helped me with my ambitions for our Service.
Debbie is an experienced HR professional, and was on Cohort 3 of the Programme (January to June 2021).
As a HR Business Partner, it’s crucially important to me that I have a really good understanding of the challenges and issues facing managers at Wealden District Council. The Leading Wealden Forward programme has been brilliant at enabling that.
At the start of the programme I was both new to Wealden, and new to Local Authorities. Having the opportunity to meet my peers and spend dedicated time getting to know them, their ways of working, and their challenges was invaluable. Our cohort had a diverse range of managers, so I really got to know different parts of the organisation. It really accelerated that process of building relationships that is so vital to my work. The sessions themselves were very interactive, we had plenty of time in breakout rooms to discuss the models or tools introduced, and to put them to good use for ourselves. This also gave me the opportunity to understand the frustrations managers have, and how in different departments we impact on each other without always realising it. We’ve been able to overcome those barriers as a result, there is a lot more collaboration across the organisation. I got a lot from having a Buddy on the programme. We’ve kept that relationship going, and continue to meet regularly. Having this sounding board helps both of us, to understand different perspectives and try out ideas.
For example, the Tier 3 managers have continued to network well with each other. Alumni from across the cohorts get together for a quarterly meeting where we share updates, hear about organisational projects and build connections. We’ve been able to spot opportunities to work together and make links. We draw on the skills, knowledge and experience of different people – so overall we are more effective. Through this, we are innovating together, and making changes to our approach to how we do things in HR. For example, I’ve put together a Recruitment Working Group to improve the way we engage with applicants, to bring to life what working at Wealden is really like. I’ve seen other examples of fresh approaches too – especially in our community work. We have opened up more opportunities to engage with those living in our local community; to gain work experience placements and employment within the Council; through different access to work programmes, and also apprenticeships and the Government Kickstart scheme and graduate management trainee placements. These kinds of initiatives came about through fresh thinking and being solutions focused.
This is going to be very important as we look forward. In the coming months there are some key personnel changes that will mean thinking about new directions and looking for new ways to deliver the Corporate Plan. I’ll be using the ideas from the Commercial and Innovation modules to help me with that. I’ve learned the value of stepping back, taking stock, and evaluating what we do properly. I’ll be asking: what do we need to do differently? What are other organisations doing that we can learn from? What works well, and how do we sustain that? We will have those structured discussions and debates before rushing into making change. We’ve seen this working in action, and are making great progress on things like digitalization of HR processes.
On a personal level, the programme has also made me more effective. Looking at where I was when I did my pre-course questionnaire, and my post-course report I am really proud of the transition I have made. My role has expanded, I am more focused in how I work, and I have stuck to habits that enable me to deliver on important areas of work. I had a lot of support on the programme, both from my manager and with Averil. The programme helped me raise my profile. Building relationships with senior management has enabled me to think about how we in HR can make organisational change. This was made clear to me when I found out I’d been nominated in four categories of the WOSCAs (Wealden Outstanding Service to the Council Awards). I am so touched by that. I actually won the ‘Colleague of the Year’ award. This shows that the work I’m doing is making a real difference to people. I can see the impact we in HR are having, and I’m really proud of that and my team!
Karen was on Cohort 3 of the Programme (January to June 2021). At the time, Karen was an HR Officer for Wealden. Karen was promoted to her new role in July 2021, and took on the additional responsibility of managing the HR admin team.
When I first heard I was going on the course, I was a bit unsure. I was asking myself, why me? I wasn’t a manager at the time, and didn’t really see that as something I wanted to do in my career. However, as an HR person, I work with lots of managers all of the time, so it was important for me to experience and support the learning from the programme.
Once the course started, I very quickly saw that actually I did deserve to be there, to be part of the same development process. I was doing my CIPD qualifications at the time, learning lots about HR practice. The Leading Wealden Forward programme gave me a great opportunity to put what I was learning into action by getting to know other managers. Spending time in break out rooms, talking to managers, understanding their challenges and being able to give them advice and support showed me I wasn’t out of my depth. So in that way, the course really helped me with my confidence. I could help managers, encourage them, and support them in their approach to managing people. This also helped me to understand the value of my role to the wider organisation. I can see the contribution we in HR make on the bigger picture – like with the Corporate Plan. Leading Wealden Forward helped me to connect the dots and to see the impact I have.
Since the programme, I have become a manager myself. That means I’m getting to use those tools and ideas myself, as well as advising others. As I keep progressing in my role as a manager, it’s good to know the toolkit is there. I can go back to it when I need to, to look up the ideas when something new comes along.
What is fascinating is that I am using the techniques we learned all the time, and doing so unconsciously. I’ve developed habits and have made them my own. For example, I use coaching skills a lot more – with people I’m supporting in my HR role, as well as with my team. I’m also proactively adapting my approach with different people. I’m moving through the intelligent leadership cycle by being mindful of what people need for their development and flexing my approach in a considered way. The course has helped me to think about that, to pinpoint the skills my team need and the opportunities I can give them. I used to worry about delegating but now I see delegation as an opportunity. I support people to develop, to learn new things, and I’m not dumping on people. I feel like I’m giving something back, allowing others to develop and become more knowledgeable. I know I can help people to learn, they can learn from me and my experiences.
I’ve been making changes to the admin team and how we work. In this way, I’ve also been a leader and have been innovating. We’re streamlining processes, changing ways of working, and reviewing procedures. I’m open to new ideas; and have encouraged my team to be the same. It’s great to see them asking questions and challenging the way we do things. I’m regularly asking for and giving them feedback. Innovation isn’t always about new and exciting things, it’s just as important when you’re trying to make change to everyday things like processes. We’re constantly challenging why we do things the way we do.
I have also really valued the buddy system. My buddy and I continue to catch up on a regular basis. It has been a huge help, having someone you can talk to on a personal and professional capacity. The reason buddying works so well is that they can understand the context – working in the Council. However, they also have a balanced view as they are not in the team. They are someone who really gets it. I really appreciate having this relationship. My buddy comes to me for help, and I give it. I don’t feel like she is coming to me as HR but as a true peer and mentor. We keep these conversations confidential, and they also give me a confidence boost.
I’m much more confident now. It’s rewarding being a manger, I’m really enjoying it.
Finally, participants now want to keep learning and making changes. Participants themselves recognise there is still room for improvement – particularly when it comes to balancing the various demands on their time. With big ambitions, comes the need to prioritise effectively which is tricky for operational managers running a service. That said, participants are keen to keep working on this, and are supported by senior managers to do exactly that. All participants have created development plans, and want to continue to use the toolkit.
35 participants have completed the programme. Managers are being further supported in their development with a Coaching course and many learning partners continue to support and challenge each other. Cohort 4 is underway, developing those all essential people and business skills needed to lead Wealden forward. We’ve taken on board feedback from previous cohorts, and the modules are now two half-day sessions. This gives participants more time to work with each other, as well as giving them more time between sessions to put their learning into practice.
The approach taken with this programme can be adapted for your organisation. We can provide ready-made Institute Assured development programmes or create a bespoke programme which addresses the unique challenges you face. Contact us online or call us on 020 7978 1516 to discuss your needs.