By Denise Lyon

WANTED! Managers who are curious, resilient – and willing to challenge their own thinking first

If you look at the job description of senior managers in any public sector organisation, you will find a long list of requirements – pages of necessary skills and knowledge, which applicants will have to prove and evidence to get the job. From managing staff to monitoring a project, from assessing risk to staying within budget, the list goes on and on.

Then there’s attitude and aptitude. Is it followability, intelligence and tenacity that are top of the list? Or is it integrity, common sense and a dash of derring-do?  Maybe it’s all of these and a few more. The more you think about it, the longer the list becomes.

What do we know about good leadership?

So can we make this a simpler proposition?

When organisations take their first steps in rethinking their approach to the design and management of services, we help them get clear on the kind of leaders they will need to navigate through the change. What is it in leaders that will allow a fundamental shift in organisational thinking and perspective to take place? What sort of person will be able to:

  • Challenge their own thinking with a willing heart
  • Put in the hard work to change it
  • When the going gets tough, keep their eye on the prize – much better service, much lower cost?

Here’s what we know.

Open-minded and curious

In the words of the great Frank Zappa, ‘A mind is like a parachute. It doesn’t work if it isn’t open.’ This is absolutely key when it comes to choosing leaders. People recruited to senior posts are not necessarily selected for this trait, and it is important to establish quickly who has it and who is stubbornly focused on defending territory and status quo. The latter will not make a good leader of change, nor indeed in good leader in the new world afterwards.

Truly curious people, if you have them, will make excellent leaders of the system.  A ‘follow-me-and-do-what-I-say’ leadership model is unhelpful and potentially destructive because it concentrates responsibility in one person and absolves others from taking initiative and ownership of problems. Someone who works with people to genuinely understand the issues getting in the way of great service and then resolve them is the kind of leader required.

Strong and resilient

The yin and the yang of transforming a service means there will be highs and lows to contend with. Studying a service as a system uncovers truths about customer experiences that are sometimes uncomfortable and hard for managers to accept. Letting go of long-held management beliefs (‘Targets are good, aren’t they?’ ‘No, they are not, and we will help you understand why!’), takes a robust personality who is willing and able to get over the shocks and move on. As Katharina Haase, Chief Operating Officer at Barclaycard Germany said at the Leaders Summit in March 2016:

You need to change a lot of stuff, be brave about it.

Confronting the waste and inefficiencies a leader has unwittingly introduced into their service design is probably not going to make for their best ever day.

The upside, though, is the joy of ‘getting it’: understanding how to design more efficiently to meet and manage demand, a Eureka moment that will have the convert (and their customers) grinning from ear to ear.

They will also ‘get’ what to measure in order to gauge to what extent the organisation is meeting its purpose, as defined from the customers’ point of view. Owen Buckwell, Head of Housing and Property Services at Portsmouth City Council explains:

It makes your organisation thermostatic. In other words it routinely changes according to how your customers’ demands change.

Good measures help to pinpoint where to focus improvement efforts and quantify their impact when you do. Leaders also learn to ask good questions as Karime Hassan, Chief Executive and Growth Executive of Exeter City Council says:

It’s far more focused and disciplined so that the questions I ask of my managers and the questions I ask of the staff are far more pointed.

Hands on and a bit bossy

Senior people are used to delegating. They need to be good at it to stay sane and keep on top of a demanding job. But here’s the rub. The only way to change a mindset is to experience something personally. Think of it this way: it is no more possible to delegate understanding your service as a system than to delegate learning how to swim. In practice, this means that a leader must stop doing something else in order to free up the necessary time, so a conversation about re-prioritising the work is an important early step. It is essential to get in the pool. Or in the world of service, in the work. Not to do the work, but to study what’s happening in the work, using the Vanguard Method.

Albert Einstein hit the nail on the head when he said, ‘We cannot hope to solve the problems we have created with the thinking that created them’.  Before making any sustainable transformative steps, leaders need to get hands on and understand how their current thinking led to the current service design and delivery.

The brain makes a transformative leap, as Richard Hiscocks, Casualty Claims Director at Aviva UK, found:

Once you realise you’ve been wrong about everything it’s really hard to go back.

Once they do get it, there will be much to do to completely redesign how the service is delivered. This is where it helps to be assured and assertive – even, dare we say it, a little bit bossy. Redesigning to meet demand may entail major actions such as renegotiating contracts, introducing new roles and agreeing different corporate priorities. A well-informed and assertive leader on the case is essential.

So maybe we can make those job descriptions even simpler.


An uncomfortable but rewarding job


An open-minded, resilient, hands-on leader who is willing to challenge their own thinking.