The Half Way Point

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It’s the half way point in the Leading from the Middle course, and as part of a research project being conducted by two of the course tutors I was asked if I would create a visual depiction of what it means to be a middle manager now that I am half way in – a repeat of an exercise we were tasked with during the third session on context and culture. The first was a group exercise, but this time the artwork is all mine, for which I offer my humblest apologies.

I’m sure my artwork needs no interpretation, but I’ll give you one anyway. I have tried to call back to the scenes, images and ideas of the first image, so you can see the setting of rolling hills and wild countryside has been repeated, and on the far left is the palm tree and little island paradise from the first image, representing that we have now well and truly left it behind on our journey to success! There is, however, one person left alone floating in a pool of their own contentment, as there always seems to be someone who just doesn’t want to leave their comfort zone and join in the adventure.

That’s me in the middle, armed with a sword and shield of confidence, leading my team who are now on a coach as I’ve found the coaching sessions of the course to be particularly enlightening. The sun represents the course itself and the team who are teaching us, casting their rays of illuminating knowledge upon us. We venture forth to face the big scary dragon of external pressures on the university. If you’re reading something into this like the dragon being a metaphor for the horrid Tory government and their insane drive to marketisation, well… that’s just your interpretation!

SLS Appraiser Training Workshop

HR and SLS, which uses a slightly modified approach, have recently revised the university’s appraisal scheme and documentation to try and make it more guided and to encourage reflection in the appraisee. This workshop was to discuss those changes and share best practice across the service.

Also covered in detail were your own responsibilities as a manager for ensuring that the process was a success, from logistics such as room booking and setting aside adequate time for both yourself and the people you are appraising, to how to guide the discussion by asking effective questions and how to identify suitable objectives for the coming year which map into departmental and service level objectives. The discussion we had around effective questioning was particularly useful, as it neatly ties in with the work I have been doing on the Leading from the Middle course, particularly the sessions on coaching.

Session 5: Emotional Intelligence

Today’s session began with a discussion of organisational culture, using Johnson and Scholes’ Culture Web as a starting point, then breaking us up into groups to explore each of the six factors making up the organisational paradigm and how they are expressed and represented at the university. Those factors were broken into two groups, representing soft and hard aspects of the organisational culture, soft being:

  • Ritual and Routines;
  • Stories;
  • Symbols;

and hard:

  • Control Systems;
  • Organisational Cultures;
  • Power Structures.

This was followed by a discussion on the differences between, and the problems caused by the discrepancy between how the most senior management wishes an organisation to be perceived and what it is actually like and how it is perceived by others, internal and external. Of particular note was the problems that arise when management tries to change or impose a new set of values.

We were then asked to reflect on our personal values and how those link to, or are in conflict with the values of the university. This wasn’t too difficult for me. I know myself, and there are some pretty core values which came to mind instantly, including inclusivity, openness, honesty and trust, and I’m pleased to be able to say that these are fitting in very well with my team and the culture at the University of Sunderland in general. It’s been almost two years now and I’m still very happy here and glad I made the leap from Northumbria, an institution where they tried to change the organisation’s culture and values from the top with results that decorum prevents me from commenting on.

This all led into the core topic for today’s session, emotional intelligence. The concept of emotional intelligence, henceforth EI, was popularised in the mid-90s by Daniel Goleman, based on the work of Mayer and Salovey. In his 1996 book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, Goleman defined EI as “… abilities such as being able to motivate oneself and persist in the face of frustrations; to control impulse and delay gratification; to regulate one’s moods and keep distress from swamping the ability to think; to empathize and to hope.” A great deal of research was introduced to us, much of it as post-session reading, going into the history and developments of EI as a concept, and showing that the ability to manage our emotions and relationships has been consistently linked to effective leadership.

A number of self-assessment exercises to measure EI have been developed by psychologists and we were asked to complete one of these, the Schutte Emotional Intelligence Scale, which provided a global EI score and scores in the four individual capabilities:

  • Perception of emotion (self-awareness);
  • Managing emotions in the self (self-management);
  • Managing other’s emotions (social awareness);
  • Utilization of emotions (social skill).

My global EI was 123, with a mean of 125, but my scores in the related capabilities of ‘managing emotions in the self’ and ‘utilization of emotions’ were above the mean, and in the remaining two capabilities a little below the mean. That is a result that rings true to me, and accords with my personality as an introvert and my Insights Discovery profile which pegged me as a ‘Coordinating Observer’.

EI can be developed and improved upon and the session gave us some tools and ideas on how to do this, one of which was to keep a reflective journal, which is handy for me, as that is one of the reasons I keep this blog! Although I must admit that, being public, posts here are edited and tailored for an audience, rather than just being for myself and thus completely candid, and while I do also keep a private journal, work related things rarely make it in there.

The session linked EI back to transformational leadership by introducing us to the Betari Box, showing the cycle of how your attitude affects your behaviour, which affects the attitude of others which affects their behaviour, and that comes back to affect your own behaviour; and highlighting the body of research that shows a strong link between high EI and successful managers.

Finally, Goleman’s work on types of leadership was discussed and we performed an exercise to divulge our own leadership styles and preferences. The six leadership styles identified by Goleman are:

  • Coercive – demands immediate compliance;
  • Authoritative – mobilises people towards a vision;
  • Affiliative – creates emotional bonds and harmony;
  • Democratic – builds consensus through participation;
  • Pacesetting – expects excellence and self-direction;
  • Coaching – develops people for the future.

Goleman argues that all of these styles are of value in different situations, but cites evidence in the form of case studies and surveys that shows that generally some are more effective than others, with a coercive style being least effective and authoritative the most. Note that authoritative in this context doesn’t mean leading by command, by asserting authority, but leading by example and being able to articulate a clear, achievable goal, while giving people the trust and freedom to find their own means of getting there. The self-assessment exercise revealed that I lean towards the affiliative and democratic styles, but shows an interesting gap in how comfortable I feel using an authoritative style and how often I actually use it. Something to work on I think. Something else I’ll take away from the session is a sense of responsibility to be more proactive in setting the mood of the team on a daily basis to help make the university a positive and happy place to work.

What Makes a Good Project Manager?

Attended a session delivered by David Bewick, a project manager at Nissan and the University Liaison Officer for the UK chapter of the PMI, the Project Management Institute.

David started by discussing the role and background of the PMI and presenting their definition of a project as “… a temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product, service or result.” He then moved on to talk about the composition of project teams, the role of the leader, and factors affecting project success, of which he said communication was by far the most important.

The session was fine as far as these things go, but it was pitched primarily at students starting their careers in industry and I don’t feel like I learned anything new. There was some brief discussion at the end about differences between traditional project management and new methodologies such as Agile which David largely dismissed as being best suited for IT. On the Scrum Master training I completed last year much was made of how Agile and Scrum can be applied to any context. I think there is an element of proselytising which comes from people who have made their careers in particular specialisms.

Personally, and perhaps because I work in IT (I do at least try to be conscious of my own cognitive biases), I am much more of a fan of Agile and Scrum because I have seen too many traditional projects which have, not failed, in their own terms, but delivered very sub-par solutions. Take the Pearson LearningStudio Course app for example. Without any inside information (Pearson are incredibly secretive about absolutely everything) I would infer that this is the result of a project, and a successful one too, as it has delivered a unique product with a particular feature set to a specific time. The problem is that those features are pathetic, and the app is an embarrassment. No course content can be viewed through the app, there is only a limited of tools which can be accessed, and only one, Threaded Discussions, has been fully implemented. It is so bad that when it was released to us one of the features listed was ‘the ability to sign out’. The app was last updated on the 2nd of July 2015 and is currently on version 1.0.1. Why? I believe because the project to deliver the app was completed. And that was that, mission accomplished. One of the principles of Scrum however, and a concept that I love, is that you don’t have projects, only products which are subject to continuous development and improvement.

Managing Absence

Attended a briefing on the new HR / SLS procedure for managing short and long term sickness absence. The session covered the impact of absence to the university and the trends over the past few years, best practice for reporting and monitoring absence, the paperwork required by HR, triggers for referral to occupational health, new guidelines on phased return, misconduct (which is extremely rare), our responsibilities under the Disability Discrimination Act, and how to access internal and external services which are available to help people, such as counselling for stress and mental health issues. The purpose of the new procedure is to give line managers more direct responsibility and to try and remove the perception of HR as the ‘police’.

Session 2: Knowing Yourself to Lead Others

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The first full teaching day on the Leading from the Middle course was delivered by an external company, Insights, who used their Discovery tool, a kind of personality test, to create a profile for each of us before the session, and then used to session to explain the theory and how it can be applied to learn more about our own personalities and preferences, and how to quickly assess others and the best way to interact with them based on their profiles. The basic model is composed of four colour energies, cool blue, earth green, sunshine yellow and fiery red, a concept that can be traced back to Hippocrates’ four humours and developed by psychologists such as Carl Jung in the twentieth century. Insights have taken this further and developed their own model, a wheel with 72 types to give a more nuanced view of your personality. These are arranged under eight broad headings which are, going counter-clockwise from blue to red, Reformer, Observer (blue), Coordinator, Supporter (green), Helper, Inspirer (yellow), Motivator and Director (red).

I have to confess to being a little sceptical about this kind of thing. I enjoy studying the underlying psychology, and if it has been presented within that framework I think I would have gotten more out of it, but when they are corporatized and packaged up into small, discrete packages that can be easily sold to organisations by external consultants, and when something seems to be unnecessarily overcomplicated, then a little warning bell goes off in my head.

Nevertheless, you don’t get anything out if you don’t engage, and so I can reveal that based on the Insights Discovery Evaluator, a series of 25 preference statements which you rate to generate your profile, I am a blue, green, red, yellow kind of person. Not a huge surprise to me, and it accords with a self-assessment I made based on a ‘colour summary’ in one of Insights’ handouts in which I ticked mostly blue, quite a few on the cusp between blue and green, and a couple of red qualities, specifically ‘Fears: Losing control’ and ‘Decisions are: Pragmatic’. On Insights’ 72 point wheel, my conscious wheel position is 54, ‘Coordinating Observer (Accommodating)’, and my less conscious wheel position is 14, ‘Coordinating Observer (Focused)’. This is a bit of an interesting position; if I had to pick where I thought I fitted I would have went for either Reformer or Coordinator, though Observer is in the middle of these two so perhaps it’s right. The ‘Preference Flow’ shows that I skew towards red and yellow which, if I understand this right, means that I am making an effort to go in this direction, against my natural inclinations, which is a good thing. Most of my cohort were in broad agreement about where they came out in the evaluation, though a few reds noted that they feel that they are being forced into this category unnaturally due to pressures at work.

It’s not all about colours, and the profile which is created delves into quite a lot of detail about your personality and style, highlighting perceived strengths, weaknesses and communication strategies. I found myself agreeing with most of this analysis, even if the language was a bit over the top at times – “her original mind, fine insight and vision” (urgh) – but some of it was wrong and I would argue that some statements which were presented as positive things are really more problematic. For example, the statement that I am a “no-nonsense person who is not often attracted by the strange, exotic or unfamiliar” is patently untrue, certainly when it comes to my work and technology where I delight in being on the cutting edge. Another statement that stood out to me, as it goes to use of instinct which came up a few times, was “may be rather slow to make decisions as she wants to gather all essential information before acting.” This may be true in an ideal situation, but in reality, when there are deadlines and pressures, or no clear indication on the correct course of action, I am a great believer in going with instinct or in choosing the more positive option, something which I find usually works out well.

One of the most useful things I will take away from the evaluation and the session is the need to adapt communication strategies to match the preferences of the other party, so that you are not, for example, unnecessarily forcing a more red person to give you too much detail before starting work. Also, using the most appropriate colour response to a situation to get the best results, so in my case that could be being more open and sociable in less formal meetings for example. There were also some comments in a suggested development section which I found useful. “Accepting that perfection can be a rather obstructive standard to constantly aspire to” is something that I am aware of and I know that I can spend too much time on something when ‘good enough’ is enough. Also, “never attending a meeting without speaking out” stood out as, thinking about it, I can see many examples where I am very quiet in meetings, and I will be more conscious of this in the future. However, as a counterpoint to that I do feel the need to note that there are so many meetings I attend which are almost completely pointless and accomplish very little.

Session 1: Induction and Academic Skills

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This first session of Leading from the Middle provided us with background and context of the course, including how the course has been designed and developed from what has gone before and the experience the CaPE team have gained in providing leadership and change courses for private enterprise over the last few years. Also covered were academic skills and writing conventions, resources available from the Library and HR, and what is expected from us as students, particularly around assessment.

The course has a single, two part assessment which comprises a 5,000 word narrative report which demonstrates personal transformation throughout the course, built around a work-based project, and a separate portfolio of evidence, around 1,000 words, which backs up the narrative report and is mapped to the learning outcomes.

Given the reflective nature of the assessment, a large part of the session was devoted to reflective practice and introduced us to concepts including Dweck’s growth and fixed mindsets, and Kolb’s learning cycle. The image above shows Snook and Nohria’s ‘Knowing, Doing, Being’ model where ‘Knowing’ is your education and experience, ‘Doing’ is your skills and competencies, and ‘Being’, a commonly neglected area which describes your beliefs and values. Also discussed were some common management styles – the seagull, the mushroom and the plate spinner – and the place of middle managers which we identified as both the most difficult position to be in, having to keep different layers happy, but also possibly the most influential.

The specified aims of the programme, as quoted from the module guide, are:

  1. Personal development of students;
  2. Develop transformational leadership;
  3. Lead and manage change;
  4. Transfer learning into the workplace.

There are detailed learning outcomes broken down into knowledge and skills, but there is also a more concise summary in the module guide which is it also worth quoting:

  1. Increased confidence in undertaking management responsibilities;
  2. Self awareness of preferred leadership style and preferences when communicating with, and influencing others;
  3. Understanding leadership theory and the principles of leadership, particularly within an HE environment;
  4. How to work with your staff to create a high performing team;
  5. Be equipped with skills and knowledge to hold conversations with a purpose such as providing feedback and communicating during times of change.

With regards to the work-based project, some initial thoughts I have are the implementation of a call logging system for the team, something I’ve wanted from day one but which could be difficult for political reasons, as the university does actually have a system in place but it is just not suited to our needs and so doesn’t get used; something around making improvements in accessibility of the VLE and learning materials, something I am already involved with but it could be firmed up to become a proper project with definitive outcomes; or developing some bespoke learning materials for our Oculus Rift, something I would like to do but it would need an academic partner and have some real pedagogic benefit to warrant the development time that would be required. HR will be approaching line managers during January to discuss possibilities and scope as it is a desirable aim of the project to get some concrete benefit for the university out of it, though from the perspective of the course the outcome of the project is secondary to how it is managed and how we change and use what we are learning in the delivery of the project.

A very positive session on the whole, and I hope that the more I learn the more I will be able to resolve the tension I have between being a developer and wanting to make things and help people, and being a manager with a duty to lead my team and take responsibility for all of our work collectively.

Finally, as a piece of ‘fun homework’, we were asked to think of a song that describes our management style. I think I have failed in this exercise, but I do think that Stealers Wheel’s ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ does a great job of describing the position of middle managers in general!

Reinventing Performance Management

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A half hour webinar delivered by Octavius Black, CEO of Mind Gym. After first discussing the problems inherent in traditional performance appraisal schemes – e.g. too infrequent, too focused on weaknesses, perceived value of schemes too tied to personal relationships between appraisee and manager – Octavius moved on to the substance of the webinar, how to make such schemes more successful and achieve the right amount of positive stress for optimal performance. The six points they have identified, all based on psychological research and backed with evidence and case studies, are:

  1. Purpose: People need to have a sense that their work matters.
  2. Challenge: Work has to be sufficiently demanding. Where specific hard goals are set people perform better than when they are just asked to ‘do their best’.
  3. Attention: Demonstrating attention to detail in people’s work shows them that you have paid attention to it and gives them specific, concrete areas to build on.
  4. Growth: When people’s work is based on their strengths and what they do best they perform better and show continuous improvement – a positive feedback loop.
  5. Recognition: People need to feel that their work is recognised and rewarded, but as measured against their colleagues and not some arbitrary absolute.
  6. Choice: Giving people autonomy and ownership of their work and development.

Mind Gym’s paper which goes into detail on all of these points is available for free on their website here by registering with them, or you can watch a recording of the webinar or download the slides here.

Implementation of ITIL in Helpdesk Software

Had a short internal training session from a colleague in IT Support on how they have implemented ITIL best practice into the University’s helpdesk / customer support system, a customised version of SCSM (Microsoft System Center Service Manager). Of particular interest was their ‘prioritisation matrix’ on how to categorise calls and assign an SLA to them as I can use this to inform development of our own systems and processes for managing customer support within the team.

Customer Support Report

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Something which surprised me about WaLTS when I started was the lack of management information on the work we do to support our customers. There has been a few spot audits to analyse busy periods, but nothing coherent or consistent, so I asked the team to start recording resolved work using a simple form and then presented the results in a report for the benefit of our senior management. Those graphs will take a little time to fill out, but we’re off to a good start.