Why leadership means more when it’s spread out
When it comes to effective leadership, the spotlight turns not just on the team at the top. Encouraging leadership qualities in employees at every level can have a powerful impact on performance.
If you google ‘distributed leadership’ you’ll get such a plethora of articles and images it’s almost impossible to work out what it’s really about. The idea has been around for some years now, but only an enlightened few organisations have managed to successfully put it into practice.
One of them is Hft, a national charity providing local support services for people with learning disabilities. And while Hft sits firmly in the social care sector, the principles and approaches for encouraging good leadership behaviours in staff across an organisation apply to us all – multinational or microbusiness, profit-driven or charity.
Steady under pressure
As in many other sectors, Hft operates in a world where outside pressures can set the agenda and influence how the organisation operates, from central and local government to regulators and the families of the people they support. But despite the huge pressure to focus on compliance, Hft has held steady in its commitment to its team, understanding that they hold the key to creating the best experience for the people they’re there to support.
For Hft, individual leadership comes in the form of each member of staff working with another support worker to draw up a client care plan, inspiring them to stick to it and helping them to achieve great things. A few years ago changes in legislation introduced the need to have a care plan for each person Hft supports, so they responded by designing a special training programme which enables them to delegate responsibility to the support workers themselves.
This meant everyone in the organisation had to think in unfamiliar ways about their role in helping the people they support to gain more independence. The main problem lay in switching from care provider to facilitator – as one support worker put it: “people deserve more than just care.”
Initial research revealed that Hft was already doing well with working in partnership, being creative and flexible, aiming for the best and having a genuine passion for what they do. So the next step was to build on these existing strengths by painting a clear company vision and sharing it effectively with their employees. Hft Centres across the country set about designing their own interpretations of this model, so it was always relevant. “They’re quirky, but they really work for us,” says one Hft employee.
Initially seen as “more paperwork”, the subsequent response was extremely positive as it allowed support workers to think deeply about the aspect of the job they found most rewarding – seeing people flourish and gain independence. “We call it person-centredness,” says Paul Twynam, Leadership and Management Specialist at Hft.
The roots for success
Organisations wanting to reap the benefits of distributed leadership will need to make sure they create the right environment for it to flourish. Looking at the Hft example, the roots for success include:
· Thinking very carefully about the different communication needs of different groups of staff, and adapting the channels to suit
· Consulting with staff on all major decisions and explaining the bigger picture, via their Partnership Forum and team meetings
· Encouraging managers locally and at the top to create an environment where people feel trusted to make the right calls about how they do their jobs
· Designing the delegation of accountability into all training, and providing ample support during the transition
Taking this approach allowed Hft to achieve great results in a sector where costs are being squeezed and inspection regimes are tough. And when it comes to fully invested employees, the positivity of Hft’s people speaks itself: “The way Hft does things is how it should be done in the 21st century,” says one Hft employee; “I’m really proud of our approach to supporting people” says another. The longer-term impact on Hft’s working culture means:
· The organisation is freer than most to take strategic decisions without being tied by outside factors
· The organisation is able to plan and manage major change programmes, knowing that their people have the mindset and competence needed for these to work. In the last year alone, there has been a merger and a new strategy launch
· Compliance problems are reducing
· Sickness and absence rates are lower than the UK average for the sector
Across all sectors, being a leader involves developing a vision and inspiring others to achieve it. For example, in the construction industry each contract manager, using the specification as a vision and the programme as a roadmap, has to inspire colleagues, partner contractors, tradesmen and clients to buy in to the suggested ways of achieving that vision – on time, to spec and within budget.