‘What is it that can only be done by us?’: preparing your team for a difficult winter

The months ahead are going to be challenging. Now is the time for civil service leaders and their teams to discuss how they keep their resilience, say Hilary Douglas and Peter Shaw
A car that has come off the road after overnight snow hit parts of the UK in February. Photo: PA

Autumn and winter hold uncertainty for us all. Many of our coaching conversations touch on the challenges of keeping people motivated, when they had hoped that the pandemic would be a short sprint of a crisis rather than a marathon. Sometimes we find the leader has been taking everything on themselves in an effort to protect others – but then sees that this risks leading to their own exhaustion. We encourage leaders to explore sharing the challenges with their senior team, remembering that no leader knows everything, and that it’s a strength to recognise what you need from others.

We are now seeing leadership teams deliberately setting time aside to reflect on how they work together and what they have learned about each other in recent months. It is a different sort of conversation from the what of strategy or task. It is ideally done in a shared physical space, suitably distanced, but if that’s not possible, reflecting together virtually is better than not doing it at all. One senior team decided they would break up the screen time by having an “Away Week”, with two hours’ opening conversation on a Monday, 40 minutes in pairs on each of the next three days, and another two hours’ plenary on a Friday, ending with some downtime for socializing.

Drawing from their experience over recent months, these teams are asking what they have learned about their respective strengths and what events have built or undermined their trust in each other. They are describing how colleagues can bring out the best in them, and what can trigger behaviours they then regret.  They are finding – if they didn’t fully appreciate before – that one person’s love of a no-holds-barred debate is another person’s conflict nightmare – or that the quietest member of the team may bring particularly creative insights or be more resilient to pressure.

Armed with these insights, teams are exploring how they will support each other through the coming challenges. They are working on defining the value-add they can bring and examining questions like: what is it that must be done and can only be done by us working together? What could be done by others if given enough guidance and direction? Where might we need to take the risk of putting something on hold because of other priorities?

Sometimes we suggest a “pre-mortem” about their key objective. If the team stood in the future and discovered that the goal was missed, what would be most likely to have gone wrong? What could they do in the present to make failure less likely?

The biggest risk may be that the team does not take others with them. Hence the importance of addressing questions like: “What do our people, customers and stakeholders need from us now?  What’s the shift we need to make in our mindsets and behaviours if we are going to be as influential as we need to be?”

Some leaders are holding back from this type of conversation with their senior team, because they don’t want to overload them further. Their reluctance is understandable – but potentially misguided. It’s often the case that team members are waiting for the conversation to happen.

Some team members will be keen to advance their careers and want to learn what it means to work at the next level. Others may want to ensure that their particular strengths will be used to the full in facing the coming months. A number may want a stronger sense of support from their colleagues. Most people prefer being in a team with a strong sense of shared identity and purpose, however hard the challenge.

As one of our clients said to us: “Working as a team helps to keep you and everyone else going.”

Hilary Douglas and Peter Shaw are former Directors General in the UK Government who now work with senior leaders as coaches at Praesta Partners. They are co-authors of The Resilient Leader (2020) and The Resilient Team (2017) which are available to download from www.praesta.co.uk


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