Wednesday, April 09, 2008

‘Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing’ - Albert Schweitzer

I remember my first week in the first senior healthcare management job I ever had. I was 22 and had got this job at a relatively young age in those days. Any ideas of pretentiousness were quickly dispelled by events.

I discovered that I had walked straight into something of a mini crisis in the Transport department. The Transport department consisted on one van driver and a relief driver who covered in the absence of the full time driver. My arrival coincided with a long spell of sickness for the relief driver and then after I had been in post for less than a week the full time driver went sick. I was assured this was not linked to my arrival!

Although my job was of course much wider than merely managing the transport it was nevertheless a small but important part of my duties and so I was immediately on the spot.

I had numerous demands from all the other departments who had been awaiting my arrival as the new hospital manager and yet there was a mini crisis in one small department.

I searched around and asked people what were the contingency plans for such an event. There were no plans as this had never happened before.

I suddenly became aware that I was alone here and had to do something. The only solution I could think of was to 'become the van driver' for a week until the regular driver came back to work after his sickness. And so my new smart office clothes that I had been proudly wearing for just three days were hung up and I donned the overalls and tunic of the van driver. I read the shift duties and asked around to become familiar with the duties. I was loading dirty laundry and unloading clean laundry I was a courier service delivering post and blood samples between hospitals and health centers. I was a 'people carrier' transporting nurses back and forth to the neighboring town for their training sessions. At the same time I was trying to fit in learning about other and bigger elements of my exciting new job.

Although this was not exactly how I had envisaged starting my career as a manager I still remember it well and I think it stood me in good stead for future challenges.

Having ‘been there and got the tee shirt’ I felt in a good position when challenged about the efficiency of the department – I was speaking from an informed position.

Over 20 years later when I was managing mental health services we had a staff crisis owing to industrial action and a work to rule.

I was telephoned by the Manager of a residential unit for Older People with mental health problems to say that the weekend coverage was stretched to breaking point and there were concerns that patient safety may be at risk unless we could approve overtime.

We were not allowed to pay overtime and so I offered to work two 12 hours shifts on the Saturday and the Sunday as an unqualified Nursing Assistant if it would help. The manager of the unit was grateful if a little suspicious about my motives and agreed that I could provide a pair of hands for two shifts to help cover the immediate crisis.
Those two days were as informative and instructive for me as any in my whole career and I learned so much. Working alongside the front line staff in such difficult circumstances was a profound experience that I will never forget and although I had always prided myself in how much I felt I could empathise with front line staff, this experience proved to me that we never truly know what it is like until we do it.

Moving on another few years I started a job as a Locality Manager and I wanted to get a feel for what it is really like to work as a District Nurse or Receptionist or Health Visitor and so I planned to spend at least one day working with a member of each of the professions I was accountable for. I planned it in partnership with the professionals concerned and there were a few cynical people who again were presumably suspicious of my intentions and motives. On the whole though I was received very well and again I found the learning to be very special. I felt privileged to be able to share the time with those staff and I am convinced it gave me much greater awareness of some of the things they have to deal with in the everyday sparring that goes on. There is simply no better experience than ‘doing the job.’ When circumstances dictate you have to ‘get your hands dirty’ and remember where you came from and why you are there.

I feel it should not be something we only do as leaders when there is a crisis. I would suggest all leaders or aspiring leaders would be well advised to build into their regular regime some time spent alongside their front line staff.

Leadership Lessons

‘Walking the talk’ means getting your hands dirty. You never lose the responsibility of making sure the job gets done. Your credibility is linked to how dirty you are prepared to see your hands become.


dave wheeler said...

I'm thinking that perhaps every person on this planet who ever held an entry level job has one thing in common. At some point we said to ourselves "If I was running this place, things would be different"....and we each had a list ideas or suggestions that, if implemented would have really improved performance and results.

5020 manhours saved per month. $475,000.00 annual savings.

This is what my 76 person team's suggestions and ideas saved our work center in 1986 when we lost 25 % of our manpower and 18% of our budget due to the Air Force's post Cold War Force reductions. I did two things, I had been in this position for two weeks so I went to each person and department and asked them "What the hell are we gonna do to make this work" I also stayed out of my office. I put my stuff on a push cart and wheeled it around the building or hung out in the break room. They came up with 78 different suggestions of which we were able to implement 46. None of these ideas involved automation or buying computers to do it. It was nothing but eliminating needless or redundant work, improving existing processes within their areas, improving work between departments and our external suppliers. Yeah...the folks on the frontline can make a difference. It was only later did I realize that what we were doing was actually some basic "world class" management and business practices that are still just as effective and get the same types of results 22 years later.

I loved your Leadership Lesson. You hit upon the single most important quality I have found a leader must have...credibility. I asked my team leaders why they hadn't made these changes earlier and they told me " No one ever asked us for feedback". I then asked why didn't they just tell my predecessor about them. Their reply..."Why? That guy was a real *&*%$" (pick your own expletive). My take-away from this...your position gives you some vey limited authority. Your real authority or "power" is earned and can only be given by those who you lead. You can have allies or's your choice!

Sorry for the length but this is a great topic!

Trevor Gay said...

Never apologise for long comments Dave – especially when they are so rich with practical experience, wisdom and leadership advice as your comments always are. You have great advice to anyone willing to listen. I love the front line have all the answers position that you and I both promote. I agree that leaders are only as good as their followers!

spinhead said...

Dave, your comment reminds me powerfully of a how Thor Heyerdahl learned how the giant stone statues of Easter Island were moved from one side of the island to the other, with a mountain range in between: he asked. When the locals showed him how it was done he asked them why they'd never shared this knowledge before, they said everyone assumed they were ignorant natives so he was the first one who'd ever asked.

This point is also emphasized at great length in an incredible and hard-to-find book from the 1930s called "Enchanted Vagabonds", a true story by a chap named Dana Lamb and his wife Ginger. (I'll leave it to you to read it; one of the best management books I've ever read, and has nothing to do with management!)

Always always ask the locals.

Trevor Gay said...

Brilliant comments Joel - I am with you 100% - the 'experts' are ALWAYS local and very much at the front line.

Wally Bock said...

Congratulations! This post was selected as one of the five best business blog posts of the week in my Three Star Leadership Midweek Review of the Business Blogs.

Wally Bock

Trevor Gay said...

Cheers Wally - I am delighted - thanks for that vote of confidence!

dave wheeler said...

Spinhead-thank you for the tip on the Enchanted Vagabonds book. I just ordered it and I'm sure it will provide many terrific stories and examples to use in the training that I do. "Always ask the locals"...truly words to lead and live by. Thanks again!

David Wike said...

Well done for your ‘award’ Trevor. I agree that this is a great topic. The benefit of asking the locals or the frontline is something we all seem to agree about. Involving them in the solution to problems is a very powerful way to give them ‘ownership’ as demonstrated by the story below that I have copied from my April Random Ramblings newsletter.

“I read a story about an American guy who set up a charity to help build schools in remote mountainous areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The whole operation was very low key and relied on engaging the support and physical help of the local villagers to build the schools. This being in marked contrast to the big charities and state aided programmes, where help often arrives in Land Cruisers rather than by donkey, and rather takes over proceedings.

When the Taliban and local war lords get a bit frisky and anti-western, they trash the schools, hospitals and other structures built by the big operators, but the schools built by our man and his helpers are left untouched because the locals have taken ownership of them in every sense of the word.

This is a simple example of how beneficial it is to involve the people who are actually affected by a project, whether it is a school in North West Pakistan or a new business project. If people are involved with something they will always be more committed to it than if it is imposed from above.”

Trevor Gay said...

Wise words David thanks

I don't know why so many managers believe that 'top down' planning ever works - in my career it was always better to allow front liners to lead improvement. A no brainer as far as I'm concerned

Troy Worman said...

Fantastic post, Trevor. Thanks!

Trevor Gay said...

You are very kind Troy - thanks :-)

John O'Leary said...

Spinhead & Trevor, your comments remind me of a time I was working with frontline workers to redesign workflow in an Ontario sawmill. When we solicited cost-saving suggestions from one worker and learned of a simple and quick fix that would save the operation millions of dollars, we asked him why he didn't mention it before. He replied, "I did 10 years ago, but my supervisor told me to just stick to my job, so I did."

Trevor Gay said...

Hi John – thanks so much for that superb story. You have given us a perfect example of why I have such great faith in front line employees and so little faith in power mad managers whop don't listen. Front line employees have all the answers - they just need to be asked and LISTENED to. It is no good asking and then ignoring.

As the immortal Peter Drucker said: “Ninety percent of what we call ‘management’ consists of making it difficult for people to get things done.”

Mr Drucker's quote sums up that supervisor perfectly don't you think?