The leadership art of speaking truth unto power…

Brett Hannam, Chief Executive of the Strategic Investment Board shares his unique insights and experience on the big ticket facets of leadership – change, trust and collaboration – in uncertain times.

Brett has been Chief Executive of the Strategic Investment Board (SIB) since 2012, having joined the organisation as Chief Operating Officer in 2006. He holds honorary fellowships of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the Institution of Civil Engineers.

Prior to joining SIB, Brett had a variety of roles, including Russian Interpreter, Head of IT for a Whitehall Department and Chief Executive of Northern Ireland’s Forensic Science Agency. He holds degrees from Oxford, the Open University and Queen’s University Belfast. In his spare time he enjoys writing and has published two books on the history of County Armagh.

Brett, as CEO of the Strategic Investment Board shaping and delivering major programmes and infrastructure projects for the public sector in Northern Ireland, what for you makes for great collaborative leadership?

There is a word which we don’t talk about a lot which is trust. Whatever we have done which is working across boundaries and organisational boundaries mainly, it has always boiled down to a question of trust. By trust, in this context, my definition is a willingness to open oneself up to the adverse consequences of someone else’s actions. A willingness to do that is both very difficult to do and is not part of a culture of the public sector at all until fairly recently.

However, the whole point as you will know from understanding the theory and practice from organisations is that bureaucracy has very clear lines of accountability and responsibility and very clear definitions of spheres of action. What collaborative working requires is to put all that to one side and commit to working in a different way. We are not going to work to those clear boundaries and hierarchies, we are going to focus on the outcomes, what needs to be done and then go away and do it. What that may mean is that I am working in my sphere of influence and the impact of that is to make you over here succeed in your piece of work and look really good!

​A lot of what we do in SIB is to enable other people’s successes. We can’t achieve anything on our own: we are there to help other people achieve their objectives. In order to do that you need trust because you can’t proceed otherwise if you are constantly expecting other people to let you down or act in ways that they are going to stop you doing what you want to do then nothing will ever get done.

What makes great collaborative leadership for me is a willingness to start to build that trust.

You cannot command trust, you cannot just say ‘trust me.’ It just doesn’t work that way and because trust can be lost so easily, so often on the basis of misunderstandings. It starts to make you feel that what you actually need to build trust is a personal relationship between people.

Trust can also be one-way: I can trust you but you needn’t necessarily trust me. Building that trust involves personal contact, getting to know people as I’m not sure you can trust people you don’t know. I think the idea of one organisation ‘trusting’ another organisation is very difficult to support.

So, what do you need to do in order to encourage that relationship? Well clearly, communication is very important. You’ve got get to the point, the litmus test that when something goes wrong, what is your reaction? Someone has made a mistake, you’ve got to deal with the consequences, what is your reaction? Do you immediately think is there a conspiracy against me or someone trying to make me look bad? Do you suddenly think that you’ve lost all trust in this individual? Or is it ‘I know this person and I know they wouldn’t do that’ or ‘this must be a mistake therefore it’s something we can work on together.’ So, the communication and the avoidance of blame culture is so critical to maintaining that trust. In order to that, you need opportunities to build relationships.

One of the best things I saw in doing that was when the civil service set up a collaborative working group as one of their outputs for outcomes-based planning. They created a course for all their senior civil servants. Although the overt reason for doing this was to learn about what outcomes-based accountability was and the systems it requires etc, I think the other reason for that was to really get people together in a room talking to each other and getting to know each other who otherwise would not have met. If they would have communicated at all in the past, it would have been in writing, very formally and not talking together as they were there. They were then starting to build relationships in a supportive and non-threatening environment and they could then go away and build upon this, which I thought was a really, really good idea.

Finding those opportunities to work closely and effectively together to build trust is really important and it can’t happen overnight. When the OBA was brought in, perhaps even more time would have been necessary as there was a recognition that it wasn’t going to go from one state to another without a transition period. That has all sorts of implications for the way we organise ourselves. If you are constantly moving people on, you only have perhaps two people in a work relationship for a year as then they move every two years. The first six months is spent building up that relationship and then you’ve really only got another effective six months to work together before you start all over again. What does that tell us about the need to change the way in which we move people around? To have that sort of thinking is very practical.

A very interesting point you made Brett was the concept of whole organisations and systems trusting each other. What other things do organisations need to think of in addition to that building of personal relationships and trust to work collaboratively?

​You have to recognise the reality of the politics. One of the few advantages we have at the moment by not having ministers is that ministers aren’t in competition.

Competition is bad for trust. If you have for example a minister from one political party being asked to act collaboratively in a way which might put a shine on another minister who is their political opponent, it’s asking a lot for that to happen. The structures within which we work make that challenging.

Part of SIB work is to champion reform. What are the key factors leaders need to be mindful of to achieve successful change initiatives? ​

​I think the first thing that everyone recognises who have been involved in major change programmes is that most of them fail. It’s just a fact of life. Understanding why change programmes fail is a very important competency. The expectation however is normally that change programmes will succeed. Everyone of course doesn’t start off something expecting it to fail but the fact is that they can and you do have to understand why.

There is often a failure to understand how much people dislike change, how much more they feel ‘lost’ than embrace the potential benefits. That psychological reality is sometimes discarded.

Change mangers often look at things in purely logical terms such that it makes perfect sense. There are arguments for this set of changes, the logic is inescapable, this is what we need to do and how we’re going to do it etc. It entirely sets aside the emotional quotient which is so important to success.

One of the critical success factors for change from my experience is gaining the discretionary support of people. Ones who might be the victims of change who are going to pay the cost of change. There are going to be winners and losers unless the change is transient or superficial. Somebody said it’s not really change unless people are crying which is cruel thing to say but it’s probably true. Then you have people who are leading change and getting them to understand all of that.

​There is still reluctance on the part of those change leaders to take risks. That stems from the same cycle of reasons why people dislike change in the first place. They are stepping into the unknown. They are putting their own personal capital at risk and people are often reluctant to do that.

​So how do you build confidence in change leaders? The traditional way is to do it in an incremental fashion. My experience is that that sort of approach leads to programmes that last forever. They have relatively low impact. They are more easily rolled back. They engender acquiescence rather than support. They don’t last for very long once the impetus for change has been removed; people revert back to the steady, safe operational mode that they had before.

Change initiatives that I have seen that work have been relatively short, relatively sharp with very specific measurable outcomes. They make a shift between Status A and Status B and do little to enable a roll-back. Long change programmes are oxymoronic. You can’t have a long change programme. You can have a sequence of short, sharp change programmes which deliver something which is worth having. The idea that you have one big long change programme which goes on for two to three years, no, it will never work.

In terms of that phrase ‘discretionary support, what would quantify Brett as discretionary support?

​In the command and control environment, your leader can go out there and say ‘You will do this’ and people will, by and large, go along with it. They will go along with it just as far and with as little as they can. They will comply with the instruction and often do it in such a way that follows the letter of the requirement but ignores its spirit. Suddenly then you will find yourself bogged down, finding resistance and difficulties.

​If on the other hand you have gained the discretionary support of the group, then they want to follow and make the change. They will want to embrace it and take the risk but it’s a staggeringly difficult thing to do and it is really, really hard work. Without that discretionary support however, I think you’re on a highway to nothing.

What is the biggest barrier you see to self-confidence for change leaders to take the risk?

​It goes back to that earlier idea of investing your own personal capital. If it goes wrong, you feel you will be blamed. There is so much of that in the work environments we live in or at the very least, it’s not going to be good for your career. People tend to take the easier option to go for the smaller, more incremental change or water it down.

There has to be a culture within the organisation that is prepared to back people in those change circumstances. That’s not to say that they shouldn’t be scrutinised – of course they should – the risks should be calculated. That means that a lot more planning and preparation has to go into it.

Lots of change programmes go off at half-cock as people want to see low hanging fruit taken first. It’s an unfortunate way to think of things like that.

The consequences of thinking in this way are that things need a lot more thought, a lot more piloting where pilots can be thrown away. It needs a lot more focus on explanation, communication and emotional engagement.

It’s not saying that this is going to be wonderful but saying that this is going to be hard work. You’re almost getting back to Churchill saying blood, sweat and tears. People were able to relate to that. I think the truth of that was that people understood what was at stake, what they needed to do and then gave Churchill their discretionary support.

​What have you personally learned about leadership to date which you feel would be most useful to share with others?

​I don’t pretend to be a leadership guru at all but hope that these thoughts will be practical! Firstly, what I have seen is that not all CEOs are leaders, not all leaders are CEOs. I have been fortunate enough to see leadership exerted at virtually every level I have ever worked at. There were leaders who were not necessarily in leadership positions of being top dog or top cat but people who within their own sphere of operations clearly were leaders. They all had similar characteristics I think which goes back to trust. They enjoyed the trust of people around them. They were able to influence their actions and behaviours through that.

Certainly, in my line of business where you have 120 experts, most of whom, if not all of whom, know more than I do about their specialist areas, you have to be able trust the skills and competency of the team. If they haven’t got that competency, you’ve failed because you’ve employed them, it’s as simple as that. Here at SIB we put in a lot of effort to ensure that we get the right person for the right job at the right time. A lot of work goes into ensuring that before anyone ever arrives because it’s the sine qua non.

Secondly, integrity, it might sound like an old-fashioned word, but it’s crucial in our line of business. We have to be trusted by our partner organisations. If there’s the smallest question hanging over our integrity we would be out of a job. We are party to all sorts of sin and vice of which we are repositories which we do not talk about at all.

We do not seek in any way to take credit for other people’s successes which is why for example you don’t see our logo on anything. We are simply there to enable others’ successes. It goes wider than that. I was speaking to people who have just joined us about this.

It’s the importance of speaking the truth unto power. It could be so easy to tell people just what they want to hear and we’ll get lauded for that, how excellent our judgement is and how helpful we have been. We wouldn’t however really be doing our job. You’ll get away with it once but you won’t get away with it twice.

People if they do come back to you will wonder if you are telling them truth or rather what they think that I want to hear?

Speaking truth unto power so important. To enable that, we have to create a culture where that is possible. If you have someone out and embedded in an organisation and their job depends on satisfying the needs of a person above them and that person isn’t at the same level of integrity, they are risking their jobs. We have to give them the ultimate back-up in that context to tell the truth to say actually that ‘I don’t think that you are doing the right thing here, this is what we believe is the right thing to do in these circumstances…’ For people who are exposed in that way – which many of our staff are – that’s a really difficult thing. We have to ensure that people who are in that difficult position that they have the support of myself, the Board and their colleagues when they do the right thing. They will have our support no matter how hard it is. It’s not easy for anyone but if you lose that component part of the trust then you might as well not be bothering.

The third thing is what I would call attitude. It’s more of an approach to ensuring that things get done. It’s not coming in at 9 o’clock and going home at 5 o’clock just fulfilling your hours and thinking that the job is done. It is recognising at times that you just have to throw everything at it and then at other times realising when you don’t have to.

The type of culture we build here is encouraging people to work at home as much as possible. On the other hand, we also want people to think of the office here as home. We want them to achieve a work-life balance which suits them: have no start time and no finish time. If people want to go off and watch the school play, they don’t have to ask anyone’s permission. If the car breaks down and they have to go the garage, they don’t have to ask anyone’s permission, just do it. We trust them with so much else so why on earth wouldn’t we trust them with little things? That side of it is so important; we give our staff a huge amount of autonomy. They are very aware of what needs to be done in terms of outcomes and results. How they go about that, they have to be able to decide on that themselves.

Most people respond positively to these two things. Having a good job where they can see that their results are important and achieving social value in what they are doing are such motivating factors for everyone. We are saying to them to do this in the way that you think is best and when you think it’s best as you are in charge of your life. We hold people accountable for that. They have the delegated authority to go away and do that but if it goes wrong, they also hold responsibility. In my experience, I can’t think of single occasion when this type of approach has been abused. In our circumstances, it works so well.

In working alongside such a wide variety of stakeholders, organisations and interests, what keeps you focused in staying true to your own leadership values?
Just as I have shown how important it is to trust my colleagues, it is vital that they trust me. That requires there to be a really small gap between what you say and what you do. So, if I am saying to people, encouraging them to work from home as it’s good for you and good for the environment, I have to do this too. If I also say to someone that once they have finished their work they should go home as we don’t want presenteeism, then I go home at 4 if I have finished at 4. Sometimes I think I that can’t do that as it goes against everything which was so inculcated in me working for the civil service!

​These may be small examples but the point is that we show these in action. We want to you to feel that when you are doing the right thing that we will always back you up as an organisation. If it becomes a question of having to focus on those values, then there is something wrong because they have to be so much a part of you that it’s just the way you are.

The way things are done is just so important, it’s a personal culture.

However, you don’t necessarily start off that way. I most certainly didn’t because I came from a very different command and control culture. The idea of letting go initially was very difficult for me. Would I feel much happier issuing orders 24 hours a day and constantly checking up on people and maybe sleep easier, no. When intellectually I realised that a different way was the only way to work, then I did and practiced and practiced it until it became something I identified with emotionally as well as intellectually. I then proceed on that basis because if you are only acting out values constantly and not being part of you, how long can you really keep that up? Eventually you will crack as no-one can maintain that façade forever.

When you join an organisation in a new role, you don’t know who to trust, how the organisation works, you have to understand that first and then how your colleagues operate. I was fortunate in that I had 4-5 years before I became CEO that I got to understand how things worked. Having seen previously where the organisation had positioned itself, I was very clear on where I wanted it to be. I had a very clear objective and I wasn’t just trying to replicate what went before so that makes things a lot easier.

I shudder for someone coming straight into a new organisation to lead it and then having to bed in and to really understand the existing culture before you try to change it. Having said this, if you come as an outsider, the government have these things called ‘Gateway Reviews’. They are very short and sharp assessments of the state of a particular project or programme. Very experienced individuals will come in who have no contact with the project before. They come in and for three days they have conversations with everyone involved in it. I did a lot of that before I took up this role and it was staggeringly useful. It was so surprising how you could pick up on the culture of a project such as the attitudes and the approaches and learn from that. It can be done quickly therefore if you approach it like that though it’s not the normal way of doing things. You could take that approach if you were joining an organisation to lead it. It did however take time for me to understand this organisation with its work and all the complexities.

What for you are the most important things for a fulfilling life?

​We can use Maslow’s model, self-actualisation, here I go with the experience of being in work 40 years now! It took me less than six months to realise that I would never reach that state of self-actualisation by work alone. I’m just not that sort of person. I’ve seen people who do and that’s wonderful: their work is their life and their life is their work, they are happy and that’s great.​

I really enjoy my work and am staggeringly lucky in the people I work with who are just universally brilliant and I am so proud of them; it makes me get up in the morning.

​However, if that was all I did in life, I would not be happy. I have a huge array of outside interest, clubs, societies and the like. I also love history as a real interest. Local history is so much more important than people give it credit for. I also took up exercise late in life so I’ve gone from being a slob to slightly less of a slob! It helps to get into and think about other things.

​How do you think coaching can help people in leading their lives and work?

​I am a relatively recent convert to this and I coached some years ago. I seemed to get more out of it than the person I was coaching which was really rather odd! I think however that the person I was asked to coach was doing it as part of a course and that they had to do it. They had a very clear idea about where their career was going and a very clear understanding about the steps they needed to take to reach to where they wanted to be. You then have to think what value am I adding here?

The process is really useful for working and thinking through things and I have been converted.

We are very lucky that we have two coaches here working internally in SIB trained at the Tavistock Institute. It’s a service we offer in our organisational development. We have now created coaching opportunities for all staff if they want it and it’s entirely confidential. It will be good to see how this goes.

Coaching is a space where you can articulate things out loud and when you do this, nine times out of ten you reach a solution yourself.

I think I’ve been coached without me even knowing it! I have been so fortunate to have had the input of people as CEO who are simply brilliant and very impressive. They did it in a way which advised me which was so close to coaching by creating a safe space in which I could discuss ideas.

One of the problems of being CEO which it takes you a while to realise, is that people can tend to agree with you. It can just be a natural tendency in people to tell you what they think you want to hear. So, having someone talk with you whose career is not in any way invested in talking through something is good. This is someone who has experience and has perhaps been through the things that you are going through. With them you can have that ideas space. They can help you with the things that you might need to consider or think about in shaping up your ideas and you can come back to them when you have thought about this. That is just so invaluable. I have high hopes for our coaching.

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