I’ve been working with managers and leaders in public sector organisations for some time now. It’s still a bleak picture for many: a lack of central funding and increasing demand means crucial services are under more and more pressure. In nearly every programme I’ve delivered I have been asked to help managers with leading their teams through difficult times whilst also pushing those same teams to perform at higher levels. And it’s not just a recurring theme in the public sector – we’re seeing it across charities too. Sound familiar?
Managers are taking a long hard look at productivity and asking their teams to seek more effective ways of doing things – aka ‘more for less’. This means having the right people working in the right ways. Not easily achieved when there is a well-documented skills shortage and competition for talented staff remains high. And let’s be honest, another challenge is that some people are just happy to stay as they are, thank you very much.
So what is a leader to do? Give up? Bang head on desk? Have yet another restructure? Put up with the mediocre? No, not at all. Here are just three practical steps you can take:
If your team needs to step up, change their approach and adapt to a new world, give them support to do so through training. Consider the areas that will set them up in the long-term to deliver better services: problem solving, empathy, project management, making effective use of their time and innovative thinking. Help them to see that a job for life is no longer guaranteed. Encourage them to embrace learning so that they can adapt and keep developing – making themselves indispensable. Ensure any training you get for your team provides added value by encouraging staff to share their learning far and wide. Don’t limit your training budget to specialist skills and qualifications for the few – make it support professional development for the many.
If you find yourself facing skills gaps, and fruitless recruitment rounds, either losing good candidates or not attracting them as you can’t compete on wages and bonuses, ask yourself: what can you offer instead? Can you hire for potential rather than experience and give people the opportunity to learn and grow with you? Can you keep them for longer by getting them in earlier in their career? This is not about lowering your standards. It is about seeking more diversity in your team, encouraging fresh thinking and creating lasting relationships. Remember, all too often people suffer from imposter syndrome especially those in groups that have to deal with discrimination and face inequality, and may not apply unless they can tick every box. If your role looks like a big deal, but you can’t offer a big pay to go with it, you will put people off. Therefore encourage applicants to put themselves forward. Tell them about the transferable skills you would like to see, and the development opportunities you can offer.
Asking your team to continue to work hard, to adapt and change, to work through ambiguity, and be even more productive is a big ask. It can be pretty draining. And you push too hard, people will start leaving. As a leader it’s your responsibility to take steps to avoid this brain-drain to prevent your team burning out. Whether they need to develop new skills, embrace new ways of working or manage demanding workloads, give people boosts and help them find ways to be resilient. This means taking a whole-person perspective. Remember your team have other things going on outside of work too. Show empathy and understanding, and do small things to support wellbeing. Practical things you can do include allowing people extra flexibility around working hours to take time out; or providing structured support using coaching circles or action learning sets to give people space to reflect on what change means for them. And get to know your teams – understand their individual motivations and concerns when it comes to change; ask questions and give room for discussion. Be available.
And finally, if you are struggling with working in ambiguity or suffering from imposter syndrome yourself, ask: what strengths do you have that you can gain confidence from? What opportunities do you have to gain new experiences? How can you push yourself out of your comfort zone? And what are you doing to look after yourself?
If you found this article interesting and would like to find out how we can support high performance in your team, contact me on 020 7978 1516 or email email@example.com.
For more information on our leadership training, visit the leadership skills for managers programme page.
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Yvette Gyles, Director