You need three ingredients to be really unsuccessful. You need to be blind, you need to be blind to the fact that you’re blind and you need to have very selective hearing. That’s according to Sir David Varney and he should know - he has recently resigned after only six months as chair of the worst performing NHS trust.
As a highly respected and experienced troubleshooter, he has held senior posts at Shell and British Gas and was adviser to the previous prime minister on public service transformation. He learnt the hard way that senior management teams need to see the bigger picture, be aware that they only ever have a snapshot of what going on and accept that they don’t always know best.
Varney refers to his experience of working for Shell during the Brent Spar fiasco when Shells plans to dispose of the oil platform at sea provoked a very high profile environmental campaign and resulted in an embarrassing and expensive climbdown. In an interview with the Guardian, he states that “we didn’t see at an early stage that what was a technically correct answer was not politically acceptable. Then we insisted on going ahead despite the fact that we had evidence that we shouldn’t. And then when voices started to say internally this may not be the right thing to do, people tended to define the issue in terms of loyalty to the organisation”.
As a former senior manager in a large local authority, I recognise this scenario all too clearly. The determination to bring about radical change can result in leaders and their senior managers forcing ahead, ignoring information that doesn’t support their view and being dismissive of those who ask awkward questions or put forward alternatives. When the changes are unpopular it is all too easy to see all opposition as motivated by self interest and dismiss it as “well they would say that wouldn’t they” or “turkeys don’t vote for Christmas”.
A willingness to listen does not show a lack of resolve. The ability to take on board criticism without appearing defensive and the willingness to explain decisions shows true confidence without arrogance and the recognition that sometimes even the right decisions have to be reversed shows insight and courage. This is very difficult in the political environment in which the public sector operates where party political point scoring can get in the way of good management and the media don’t let the facts get in the way of a good human interest story.
The harsh financial climate in the public sector requires the highest quality of leadership - managers who can take unpopular decisions and can deliver change - bu if you are part of a senior management team you have a responsibility not to become so hardened in your resolve and so certain of your beliefs that you can’t see alternative views.
Blair McPherson is a former senior manager in a large local authority and author of People Management in a Harsh Financial Climate published by www.russellhouse.co.uk