It’s two months since I last blogged. In that time, I have been asked frequently if I have been ‘winding down’ as I worked my notice period in my job. If only! It’s been busier than ever, and despite having several topics in my head, blogging just hasn’t hit the top of the priority list.
Endings, we are told, are important, and easily usurped by exciting new beginnings. My job over the last 3.5 years has been such a huge part of my life, that I want to bring it to a conscious end. It’s the job that I have lived and loved; the job that has changed me. It has taken me to a new understanding about what I am about as a leader and even as a person. So forgive a self-indulgent reflection and help me say ‘goodbye’.
One of the defining moments in my early career was the experience of sitting in on a ward round on a busy acute mental health ward. I was so appalled by the way in which the consultant psychiatrist spoke to (at) the patients he ‘reviewed’, reinforcing misery and hopelessness in disrespectful and inhuman tones, that I knew I wanted to stick around and make a difference. That was 12 years ago. My approach to making that difference was to become technically competent in my work. I thought what I needed to do was to build up a knowledge base, develop management skills, know how to handle situations that arose, and drive service improvements so we were always pushing forward. The focus was on the execution of the job. Success was based on delivery of tangible goals. Of course all those things are necessary and to be valued, but it wasn’t until I was nearly a decade into my career that I realised this just wasn’t enough.
People are rarely inspired by competence. They may respect it, trust it, rely on it, take it for granted, but it’s unlikely to light a fire in their belly. People are inspired by people. That means allowing the person behind the job title to show. Now this is where it becomes difficult. On top of my introversion preferences (already well documented in my blog!), I grew up in an environment both at school and at home where reserve and modesty were the prevailing values. Quiet diligence, cleverness, belief and courage, alongside self-effacing humour, characterised life. That conditioning runs very deep. So the idea that I might have to talk openly about my values in my work, what drives me to do what I do, was pretty intimidating. Couldn’t I just be competent? No, actually.
So what brought about this revelation? Two things and some perfect timing. I began a year-long leadership programme at the same time as I was co-leading the most comprehensive service redesign our organisation had undertaken, the most important feature of which was cultural transformation. The programme gave me new insights into the way I worked and the impact it had on others, while the redesign gave me the opportunity to put new approaches into practice. I made a huge personal effort to let go of some of those inhibitions, and verbalised the longstanding passion I have always had for better services which value the person ahead of all else. And I know it’s an old cliche, but yes, it has been liberating. I nurture things that I used to dismiss as unimportant to my work – my personal narrative, my values, my connectedness, me.
I have a chronic uneasiness with aspects of leadership behaviour in which said leaders ‘big up’ how fantastic they are at doing it. The obvious question is, by whose measure? It should only be their ‘followers’ of course. Showing the human side often seems to tip over into self-publicity and a worrying absence of humility. I have been overwhelmed with the generosity of comments from all sorts of people, who have nothing to gain in offering them, as I leave this job. While these comments often leave me feeling awkward or embarrassed, I also feel a real sense of achievement, to an extent I have not felt in any other job. From that, I conclude that a conscious re-evaluation of what is important in the way I work, what I pay attention to, has produced a real impact for people working in and accessing services. I walk away from this job knowing that I have achieved good things, learnt from and spoken about the mistakes I’ve made, and found in myself a better leader. I doubt those enduring values engrained through childhood will ever leave me, nor would I wish them to, but I have learnt to harness them rather than being constrained by them. So perhaps this is not an ending, but a staging post in a lifelong journey. Either way, this is the job that changed me.