Transformation by the bucket load
Developing the behaviours and mindsets needed to lead transformational change
By Garath Symonds, originally featured in Public Service: State of Transformation Report published by the PSTA
A few years ago, I led a public service transformation. It saw a 60 per cent reduction in youth unemployment, a 90 per cent drop in youth offending and the eradication of youth homelessness. The ‘T’ word is perhaps overused in the public sector, I’m guilty of it myself but, in this case, these changes to delivery were demonstrably transformational. Especially after a 25 per cent funding cut which had no impact on front line provision. As a consequence, by 2015, a teenager growing up in Surrey was less likely to be out of education, training or employment. They were less likely to enter the criminal justice system or be homeless, and more likely to start an apprenticeship than teenagers anywhere else in the country.
The Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply UK awarded our commissioning project ‘best public procurement’ in 2012. Our findings were presented at two different parliamentary select committees. It was evaluated by the Institute of Local Government Studies, attracted attention from seven different governments. And was showcased by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development as an example of public sector innovation.
This, however, is not the transformation I want to share in this paper. The one I’m talking of happened at the same time and is not yet finished. This is about my self-transformation. Building this new model was one thing, but I knew my leadership needed to adapt in order to make it work. As we led the dismantling of old services and contracts, then designed and built a new operating model, I was receiving mixed personal feedback. While I was seen as inspirational and committed to outcomes, I was also viewed as abrasive and overly directive. In early 2012, I received 360 degree feedback that profoundly impacted on me and started my journey of personal development. Supported by an excellent coach, I began to bring my behaviours and thoughts into my awareness through the coaching process.
Recently, before starting this paper, I was chatting to a friendly neighbour in my village pub. I mentioned that I had this think piece to write, he asked what it was about. Recently, before starting this paper, I was chatting to a friendly neighbour in my village pub. I mentioned that I had this think piece to write, he asked what it was about.
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‘Public sector transformation,’ I nervously said. ‘Is there such a thing?’ he replied. ‘Yes,’ I said more boldly, ‘and there is a movement of public sector leaders trying to change how we do things in the UK public sector.’ He wasn’t convinced, and told me how, as a taxpayer and user of government services, he hadn’t noticed much in the way of change since his childhood, half a century ago.
This got me thinking about what transformational leadership really means to me. It struck me that we often start organisational or systems change processes by trying to understand the system we are trying to change – and that this may be no different to personal transformation. My process involved an enquiry into my inner system, its origins tracing back to my childhood; my relationship with my parents and my life experience. As a child I acquired a determination to achieve goals, to have a plan and deliver it ‘no matter what’. This trait came from an experience of loss and helped me have a sense of being ok during periods of uncertainty and isolation. Not surprisingly, it served me well in local government, where delivery can be in short supply and uncertainty in abundance. Early in my career I was promoted very quickly. The problem, however, was the ‘no matter what’ aspect.
All too often, I delivered at the expense of relationships with the people I was supposed to be leading. I remember knowing I had hurt someone’s feelings, feeling it in my own body as a visceral bite, and then discounting that valuable data. I failed to notice what was going on in me or for the other person. I continued to do well at work, and yet I knew at some level I wasn’t really leading. It was only after being in senior leadership positions in local government for over a decade that I developed an ambition to be a leader.
There is some sage advice in the Chinese Confucian Theory of Leadership (551-479): ‘Becoming a real human being really is the primary leadership issue of our time… If you want to be a leader, you have to be a real human being. You must recognise the true meaning of life before you become a great leader. You must understand yourself first.’
This ancient wisdom is akin to modern coaching. The key thing I have learnt is to notice what is happening for me and also for others. To notice my psychological process, as it is unfolding, minding not to react to it, so not to let my emotions take control of me. Because emotional reactivity is infectious, leadership requires the self-discipline to observe the emotional process calmly, and not to become aroused through a process of identification.
The more I watched myself, the more I noticed that I was not in control. I was a machine controlled by my environment and not my self. I would present as angry and later feel shameful. Or perhaps I would give overly critical feedback and notice hurting a colleague. This self-observation work helped me accumulate a huge bucket of data about myself. It was, in essence, a huge bucket of shit; festering and stinking and always with me.
We all have these buckets and most of us never notice they are there. We carry them around without a problem, until life’s obstacles put us off balance. Then we lose our composure and we spill the bucket’s contents. Some of us project the contents of the bucket outwards or we spill it over ourselves. Either way: it’s the same result.
The trick to being a real human being is not to try and empty the contents of your bucket. The trick is to love what’s inside. Not to judge or even try and change what you observe, to simply accept it as part of you, as if you had chosen to carry it (and you have).
My work these days is to compost the contents of my bucket and to use its natural nutrients to grow my essence. ‘The cultivated Self is the leader’s greatest tool,’ observed Laozi in the Tao Te Ching, circa 600 BC. This doesn’t mean the stuff in my bucket never spills out – it means I’m much less likely to throw it over the people I’m supposed to be leading. It is with the awareness that we can start to really lead, to judge less and blame less. To become defenceless rather than defensive, to extend rather than project. By bringing the darkness into the light I get to take control of the machine. I recall in 2009 researching why young people become NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training). And then I set about a redesign of the system to address this social problem.
Perhaps then our job as leaders is to notice all that stuff that gets in our way: negative emotions, incessant thinking, our egoic minds; the contents of our buckets.
In 2018, the system I study most is my system; my inner conditions. This self-enquiry is an attempt to put some distance between my thoughts and feelings and my higher consciousness. Have you ever heard someone say: ‘Speaking as an outsider to this problem I can see what needs to happen!’? This is the work we need to do as leaders: to become outsiders in our own system, to put distance between us and the system we are working in. This allows us not to become the social and organisational complexity that typifies the public sector context; our environment may well be volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – but we don’t have to be. When we identify with what is happening, in us and around us, we literally become part of the problem and not the solution.
This idea of being an outsider in your own system features in the Zen Buddhist tradition. Zen Masters say that if you want to be a great leader you need to stop thinking or stop the flow of thoughts. Leaders who do not achieve this state will be obstructed by all kinds of different emotions including fear, anger, anxiety and sadness. These emotions can be found in my bucket, and this attachment gets in the way of making the right decisions.
For those with a beginner’s mind, the waterfall of thoughts does not distract the ‘thinker’ from seeing the single drop of wisdom. As someone who has been engaged in so called transformational thinking, I recognise the problem of cascading thoughts, and the challenge in getting to the simplicity of the single, transformational drop. We intuitively know that we think most effectively in the absence of negative emotion, when we are in the moment, and not projecting into the future or replaying the past. Perhaps then our job as leaders is to notice all that stuff that gets in our way: negative emotions, incessant thinking, our egoic minds – the contents of our buckets. Then we might stop getting in our own way and see the system for what it actually is. And, well, all of this would have been great to say to my mate in the village pub. Yet a pint of bitter and a bowl of chips got in the way of an interesting conversation about how, if you’re to become a real human being, you must notice the contents of your bucket.
At time of writing, Garath Symonds was Assistant Director at Surrey County Council where he was responsible for commissioning children’s social care and education. He is an experienced change leader and has spoken nationally and internationally on public sector reform, youth issues and social enterprise. Garath is an alumnus of the first Commissioning Academy cohort, a co-founder of the Bold Commissioners Club, and a Go Lab Fellow of Practice, University of Oxford.