December 9, 2010 at 6:06am
How a central London public service team morphed into a high performance dynamo, raising the number of training interventions by 621% and reducing unit costs by 79%. Leaders trained, empowered and equipped their people then got out of their way.
The Learning & Skills Council (LSC) was part of a £9bn national organisation responsible for planning and funding vocational training for adults and young people in England. Central London LSC was one of 47 areas focussed on meeting the skills needs of local economies, investing over £320m annually through training providers and Colleges. The central London economy is the most complex in Europe with 130,000 employers and 1.5m employees. It is the venue for many International and national headquarters, central Government and a multiplicity of small and medium sized businesses. Get the skills investment right and we would see an impact well beyond the geographical boundaries we served. The challenge could only be met by creating a LSC team which was as dynamic as its customer base.
- Joining the LSC in late 2003 Tony Nelson (the LSCs first local Skills & Workforce Development Director) quickly realised that the Skills Directorate was a reactive body, with a 'cheque-book' approach to investing public funds. He had been brought in by Executive Director Jacqui Henderson CBE to focus on improving the work with employers.
- As they were approached by innovative training providers the Skills Directorate would earmark funds for large numbers of small-scale interventions. Faced with a wad of papers to sign off a scheme for just £300 Tony said 'stop'. What was required was a strategic approach to skills investment which would make a sustainable difference to workplaces across central London.
- This needed two things - a strategy and a team equipped to deliver that strategy. The Directorate was dysfunctional and demoralised and would need to become a team. They would require high order influencing skills to operate collaboratively across complex partnerships and networks.
Key Innovations & Timeline
- Creating the strategy was the relatively easy bit through 2004/5 and was achieved through the use of open space groups with external stakeholders and internal focus groups.
- The innovative piece was through 2004 creating the conditions in which the Directorate members could become a team quickly and then allow high performance to emerge and flourish. This meant working on open communication, trust, and team dynamics.
- Next came equipping team members with advanced personal influencing skills to support strategic networking, partnership working and relationship building with stakeholders. Tony had brought in training consultant Dave Peel to design and co-deliver a high performance programme, giving folk a shared set of models and language for understanding the changes they were experiencing. Dave had designed a similar programme for Tony in a previous P&L organisation so they both believed this would work again, albeit in a different culture.
- Team members found they had increased choices available when selecting appropriate behaviours in their new roles. Managers were trained in coaching skills to support the transitions involved.
Challenges & Solutions
- We needed to raise the gaze of our people - to focus them on why we were investing millions of pounds of public money. This purchasing power had to be used to re-shape the publicly funded vocational training market. The market was not delivering what employers said they needed in their workforces. The transformation of the Directorate into a powerful, strategic investor had to first happen in the minds of my 30 + staff.
- In parallel to this change of thinking ran the requirement to re-engineer the routes to market. We could create the capacity for working at a higher level if we contracted out hands-on activities which included workforce development advice to employers, support for achieving Investors in People status and 'brokering' training solutions between time-starved employers and training providers.
- As well as delivering all this change, Tony was tasked with making staffing reductions of 20%.
- Change the purpose; raise aspirations and expectations; improve the distribution channels; increase the quality and reach of the service; equip the staff; and make significant cost reductions - all at the same time!
- This was achieved through building a clear strategic intent; making that understandable; building a high performance capability in depth and then - getting out of their way!
Benefits & Metrics
- The programme involved 6 intensive workshops over an 18 month period between 2004 and 2005. Managers and subsequently many team members were also trained in coaching skills. 88% of team members and 100% of managers in evaluation reported increased effectiveness, with triangulated favourable comments from external stakeholders. This was despite the challenge of 9 new people joining the team whilst the programme was running.
- Communication within the team showed a marked shift from the benchmarked scores with a 300% improvement. Trust levels went from 23% low/77% medium to an astonishing 71% medium/ 29% high. 78% of delegates in the training thought their personal understanding of change had developed. Motivation levels increased by 54%. 71% reported better influencing skills.
- In an independent LSC Employee Opinion Survey in 2005 Tony's Directorate scored significantly higher than other central London depratments - trust + 6%, focus on learning +19%, communication +9%.
- By putting the skills learned on the programme into practice, the Directorate were able to support an additional 81 employers achieve the coverted Investors in People award. They also raised the total number of other employers assisted with training from 227 to 1312.
- External stakeholders showered praise. 'A lot more focused... a much more proactive partner' ( London Development Agency); 'Relationship has strengthened' (Training Provider); 'more open and transparent' (FE College); 'we resolve issues... more focussed' (Capital Quality Ltd); 'there has been a change of attitude' (Holts); 'actively listened to us' (Training Provider).
- It is essential that the most senior manager personally role models the changes required so that theory becomes practice very quickly
- It takes courage and resilience to continue once the organisational cynics get warmed up - but we saw even cynics converted and become enthusiastic champions in time. Don't give up.
- Maintain the momentum - interrupting the training will cause loss of traction. The first 18 months is vital.
- Build the team capacity to take ownership of its own ongoing development - integrated coaching is essential for this. It also maximises value for money and ROI.
- The training programme won a prestigious National Training Award in late 2005 which served to re-energise the team as external recognition was gained for its impact.
- The lessons of this intervention have been incorporated into a High Performance model formed from Tony's Master's dissertation in 2006, embracing meta-research of high performance practice across the world. His consultancy BrQthru now trains leaders in this approach internationally. The five compelling themes of what high performance leaders pay attention to are Adaptability, Leadership, Focus, Openness and Reputation.
- This story of transformation would not have been possible without Jacqui Henderson spotting Tony's potential and givng him the space to experiment
- Dave Peel was the expert with the map - now helping Tony do more of the same in 2010 with educational leaders in Iraq
- The true actors in this story are the 30+ members of Tony's team who trusted and responded - you each have a share in the co-creation of this narrative