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Solace blog

11th September 2015

Getting Behind the Headlines

Rather unexpectedly, I recently found myself and three colleagues from East Sussex in Ipswich aboard “Victor”, a historic Sailing Boat currently moored alongside the historic dock. We were exploring the area before spending the day with the Suffolk County Council management team to understand more about the county and approaches to our common local government challenges.

Like others, we have participated in a number of joint meetings with neighbouring teams. All have been illuminating. We are in a different “region” than Suffolk so unsurprisingly, we don’t often find ourselves in the same discussions. Seeing and sharing insights through joint meetings is an invaluable way of encouraging reflection on what and how we do things and to spark new thinking but the reality is that it is hard to carve out the time against so many competing priorities. That dynamic puts a really high premium on making the time productive and interesting.

Setting up clear expectations with both teams about the purpose of the endeavour and the areas of interest is obvious and important. The potential for a visit to become a mutual inspection (at worst) or peer review judgement exercise needs to be managed; good teams are cohesive and proud of what they do so there will be a tendency to compete.

Putting the emphasis on effective two-way learning and sharing pays dividends, and the role that the two Chief Executives play in establishing the tone, as well as the content, is important. Deborah Cadman (Chief Executive Suffolk) and I thought hard about the set up for the day, so there was a mix of service specific and wider team discussions with a clear list of areas we wanted to explore. We, inevitably, swapped key corporate documents in advance but ran the day in a way that was realistic about the amount of preparation likely to have been done and also to enable both teams to talk about our places and work in their own words. One of the fascinating aspects of the day for me was listening to the East Sussex team describing with pride, passion, and clarity what, and how, we do things.

Our discussions enabled us to hear the stories behind the headlines so we left with a more rounded understanding of challenges and approaches. We covered specific issues including health visiting, highways, demand management, and health integration. As an example, we heard how Suffolk handed libraries over to their communities, rather than to be staffed by volunteers – an important distinction to understand, especially for an authority about to do the next phase of transformation. We explored our different approaches to working with health and devolution and had time to understand why, as well as how, our approaches vary. We particularly reflected on the quality of the Suffolk head offices (Endeavour House) and how modern office space can support the development of a vibrant work environment.

I enjoyed having some of my thinking robustly challenged, brought back some interesting ideas and insights and enjoyed spending time with the East Sussex team away from familiar surroundings. I was really struck by the breadth of the work, of the challenges and the skills of the two management teams and of the changing context and demands on leadership skills to collaborate, influence and guide as well as the more familiar leading, managing and being held accountable. Which brings me back to “Victor”, now privately owned and offering events, trips and meeting space in Ipswich. Her first captain and crew’s task until 1939 was to collect linseed from farms around the East Coast and take the oil to London. They couldn’t have envisaged all that would be demanded of the boat or future crews; a varied career carrying munitions out of Chatham, housing a strip club, becoming a houseboat, a floating office, being converted into a motorboat and back to sail. I hope they, like us, realised they need to keep their heads up and look to the horizon as well as getting on with keeping everything ship shape.

Time to think about and reflect on what we do is rare but essential and making it happen is a key role for all Chief Executives. Well, thought-out joint sessions are a potentially cost-effective way for teams to learn, better perhaps than conferences and courses? I would be really interested to hear others views and experiences on getting this right.

By Becky Shaw, Chief Executive, East Sussex County Council and Solace Deputy Spokesperson on Leadership and Learning