Local Authorities around the country are going through significant strategic, operational and cultural change. Solihull MBC is no exception – a major restructuring and a new focus on effective leadership and high-performing teamwork have been on the agenda to help it meet challenging efficiency targets.
The Environmental Services division of Solihull MBC is one of the busiest, responsible for (among other things) refuse collection and recycling across the Borough. Space2BE has been working with the Authority and Alan Brown, now Head of Environmental Services, for a number of years.
Space2BE was first brought in to work with Alan, who had worked in local government since leaving school, and over the following 30 years had steadily worked his way up through the ranks. “I’d been highlighted for executive coaching as part of my development plan,” says Alan. “I’d got to the point where I had a lot of operational knowledge but needed to develop my strategic thinking. I had a list of things that I wanted to improve, and my line managers had also identified some things that they felt I needed support with.”
From the coaches presented, Alan selected Karen Griffin to work with him and an eight-session programme with work for Alan to do in between was agreed with his line managers. The idea of coaching was entirely new to him: “I went into it with no preconceived ideas of what to expect from executive coaching, but I found the whole processes enormously helpful. Karen really pushed me and I needed that support – without it I might have lost my way a bit.” He explains that before the coaching, he was probably too focused on his own job and immediate environment. “I wasn’t really thinking about what the impact my work had on the wider business:
If I do this, where will it be felt?”
The coaching sessions, gave him a new perspective. “It’s really helpful to be able to have a conversation with someone who isn’t part of your day-to-day work. Karen was able to give me good advice on how to deal in a practical way with problems I was coming up against in the office, and it was great to be able to go through situations without a deadline and with someone that I didn’t feel under pressure to impress. By the end of the sessions with Karen I felt I was able to see the bigger picture around my immediate job. I had a better perspective – a helicopter view of the business, if you like – which was exactly what I wanted.”
The coach’s view
“Alan completely underplays his role here,” says Karen.. “While it’s always lovely to receive such compliments about our work, my view is that we as coaches are purely facilitators of learning and I have to say that Alan was one of the most committed coachees I have ever worked with. Given his objectives, I varied my style during sessions from facilitative to directive as sometimes he needed to learn about leadership and strategy and Alan soaked up new knowledge like a sponge. In between sessions he then immediately ran with it and applied everything he was learning about himself and leadership to his own role. This meant that he was embedding the learning which is a critical part of the journey.”
Getting the upper hand
Just as the coaching sessions were coming to an end, Solihull MBC completed a stage of its restructuring process that meant that the opportunity arose for Alan to apply for a promotion.
Alan was able to use his new knowledge, confidence and skill to great effect in the interview process, which he felt gave him the upper hand. Space2BE also supported him with some adhoc advice about how to approach the assessment centre: “That’s the ethos of Space2BE – they believe in supporting their clients even once the formal arrangement is over.”
Alan was promoted to Head of Environmental Services, effectively transforming his role from an operational position to a corporate one.
Karen remembers being “thrilled” when he got promoted. “When you’ve worked with a coachee and you believe they have potential beyond their current role it’s always really pleasing to hear that a promotion has been given,” she says. “Alan deserved it and to my knowledge has made significant performance improvements in the teams that he leads”
Building a new team
The ongoing restructuring at Solihull MBC meant that Alan found himself in charge of a new team, many of whom had not worked together before. With budgets being trimmed across the Authority, it was essential that his team quickly became as efficient as possible. “Not every area of the department was working as it should, and my aim was to get everyone working to as high a level as possible,” Says Alan.
Realising that he needed to build a strong team atmosphere, Space2BE were called in again to carry out one-to-one coaching within Alan’s management team to help them develop their own leadership skills. They were also asked to design and deliver bespoke leadership team training to improve the skills of the leadership team and drive high performance behaviours across the rest of the team. So far there have been six of these half-day sessions, covering topics such as influencing others, coaching for performance and leading change.
“Karen and her team talked about behaviours and the impact your behaviour has on others,” says Alan. “The results were excellent; the department was doing fine before, but now they are seen as one of the highest-performing teams in the Authority. I don’t believe this would have happened without the external intervention of Space2BE”
Since then, Alan’s responsibilities have grown still further. He was also asked to temporarily head the Planning & Public Protection department as well as his own, at a time when the Environmental Services department has grown still further with the signing of a long-term agreement with the private contractor Amey plc. “When I initially took over this department I had 40 staff,” says Alan. “When you take the contractor staff into account as well, I know have responsibility for around 300.”
The agreement with Amey meant that employees from two very different organisational cultures had to work alongside each other. Aware that this wasn’t going to be easy, Alan asked once again for help from Space2BE to encourage everyone to work together and to bring together the management styles and ways of working.
Amey’s staff now sit alongside Authority-employed staff and, as Alan says, “You’d never know that they were employed by different organisations. They work together brilliantly, sharing everything and working out problems together. It’s all about trust and that’s something that has to be built.”
Alan describes his department as somewhat ‘swan like’. “Smooth and serene in appearance but working away furiously underneath.” And the results are clear; over the past two years £3.5m has been trimmed from the budget annually but the resident satisfaction rate over that time has rocketed. “Local authorities are under massive pressure but we’ve improved the quality of our services and have saved money at the same time,” says Alan.
He adds that he would “definitely recommend” Space2BE. “I don’t think I would have had that confidence in my own abilities without their help. The tools and skills that I learned have helped me steer the ship to where it is today.”