I’m not here to climb the ladder. I’m here to knock it over.

National Blog Post Month — Blog #3

This late breaking post on day four is brought to you by a toddler that has decided to co-sleep/wrestle since bringing home all the plagues; warm cups of lemon-honey water to sooth my late stage head cold; and a busy brain full of leadership quips.

I’m not even sure I’m using those semicolons right, but I need to get some things off my wheezy chest.

A piece of lemon next to a jar of honey and a spoon on a cutting board.
Tempted to add whiskey.

I’ve got a ramble-y way about me today, so as a final edit, here is the TL;DR:

My journey into leadership started when I wasn’t okay with how people were being treated by the system I was in. I took note of hierarchy, competition for resources, and a lack of attention by structural leadership. All of this diminished collaborative contribution and problem solving capabilities.

It wasn’t anything fancy. Just websites. Websites that were barely readable by most people and organized according to the confusing government structures people were attached too. We needed a way to make sense of the system and bring people together to make it better, while they were at odds with each other. It was my first foray into leading a committee and solving for some tough human dynamics.

I wasn’t very good at doing what I wanted to get done then. I hadn’t yet developed a suite of bureaucracy hacks for decision making or honed my ability to facilitate group process. I did cut my teeth there though, and people took notice because I tend to use every new thing as an experiment for learning how to get results — for me and others.

I was surprised when senior leaders started asking me to do more because they considered me “courageous.” It just seemed like the work to do because I was junior and didn’t have all the answers. I needed to test things out.

I’ve been more confused by leaders and peers expressing their expectation for me to move into leadership, because from what I can see, I don’t seem to fit in there. It isn’t typically where the courage shows up.

I’ll come back to that.

Public service is complex and hard.

Shouldn’t we all be courageous? Shouldn’t the leadership table be courageous? I ask because despite them valuing this attribute, I’ve learned, that is a rare leadership table.

Courage accepts risk. It seeks out where to have a high probably of big impact. So I think people with courage are likewise able to understand and work with the dynamics of situations that include negative risks, including making tradeoffs. At least, that’s how I’m making sense of it.

Over the course of my 20 years in public service, I’ve noted where the highest probability of success with big impact is. I feel like it is so valuable to know this, that I should almost be whispering it to you right now…

We need high performing teams, enabled to seek out and deliver the things that have high impact, with high probability of success.

(Okay, I didn’t need to whisper that. It’s all over the internet.)

I could spend the rest of this blog, and my next two cups of honey lemon water, breaking this down. Like, what are the ways we determine high impact? User research. How do we know we will have success? We don’t: we build in feedback cycles. Etc.

That’s as far as I’ll go, because I meant to start reflecting on and writing about my experience with leadership and I’ve gone astray.

Does Leadership equal probable high impact?

Despite wanting to have a big impact in my public service career, I’ve avoided climbing the ladder into leadership. I’m technically there now — as an excluded Senior Director — but that’s only because I was made to apply myself by a caring mentor. He knows how passionate I am and he assumed there was a bigger risk of that passion getting results at leadership tables. I suppose the expectation is that someone like me would have influence at those tables.

I question that to this day.

If my notion about high performing teams is accurate, then it is whatever you can do to create the right conditions for those teams and to orient them to high impact problems. Often, you need high enough level of responsibility up the “ladder” to clear the way for this. But not always.

If the proverbial leadership ladder moves a person to the place where they can have big impact, then why is risk aversion — to good risk and bad risk equally — seemingly common? Why, despite there being no shortage of material to read on the matter, are so many leaders unable to understand and/or apply the grit it takes to build teams?

I think the answer is varied, but includes that we haven’t equipped leaders to really understand risk and how to manage it in complex environments.

Vertical vs horizontal.

I gave this blog a provocative title. The imagery of knocking down a ladder crawling with suit wearing, phone gazing, people competing with each other to get to the top while it is crumbling to the ground is somewhat entertaining. And it’s hyperbolized, of course. I’m not interested in that much disruption. But it might be happening anyway.

I’ve started writing a few blogs in the past exploring why I feel that the public service is teetering on significant decline, if not crisis. Cutting to the chase: we have increasing complexity and chaos, inflexibility, and we can expect to see a breaking point.

What I really mean by “knocking over the ladder,” is to enable the leaders, who want high risk of creating public good, to climb down and access the ways and means of doing so (enabling teams). Flat organizations are a common concept many are familiar with. Simon Wardley’s doctrine is a good place to explore what good looks like (do yourself a favor and click the cells and then the more button to have a read and chuckle.)

After reflecting on the pep in the step of leaders who have newly experienced a high performing team, I think I can answer my earlier question about why leaders don’t express courage. I think they don’t actually trust their people can deliver. It’s a pretty nasty loop.

We’re super fortunate in the BC Public Service to have the The Exchange lab, founded by courageous people, who have the aim to disrupt this loop. This is where we are learning about and developing the ways and means for everyone, including leaders, to build good service delivery teams.

My earlier quip about not fitting in at the leadership table comes full circle to the leaders that attracted (and pulled me into) the Lab, where I finally accepted my leadership fate. Their success, and the lessons from similar others around the world, is now translating into good training and, slowly but surely, performance metrics and other enablers in the public service.

The other benefit of knocking over the ladder, which I do take as a metaphorical path to higher probability of positive impact, is that others have access to creating that impact too. What we believe to be true about an engaged workforce, is that it includes participating in creating positive impact (purpose), with some autonomy and mastery (thanks Daniel Pink.) No one should feel that they have to climb a ladder (especially a dysfunctional one) to be engaged.

I celebrate every time I meet someone who has the power, influence, and courage to shift the system. This includes bringing in others that are courageous who can help even more people battle the inertia holding them back. Most of the time they aren’t in structural leadership positions, but when they are, its magical.

We really are all in this together, regardless of where you are in the system. Thank you: you know who you are.

the shadow of a ladder on the ground
Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

A final note on the leaders I have to thank and what I’m learning next.

I’ve learned something from every single leader I’ve ever had.

Some were extremely adept at navigating formal, bureaucratic, intergovernmental systems and they challenged me to be good at that too, including things like briefing notes and strategy writing.

Some were terrible at administration, and because I needed to spend money to achieve outcomes, I had to learn how to do that stuff and they gratefully encouraged and supported me to do so.

Some were so toxic and self serving that I gained more determination to build a healthy system that could root them out.

Some were so trusting and able to let things go that they enabled me to step up and develop skills and a solid network without specific, constraining direction.

Some were so kind and people focused that I was sustained personally, while going through really difficult times, and learned about the importance of doing the same for others.

Most were driven to create the best possible outcomes for the people we serve, and did the best they could with what they had, when they had it.

My musings here about courage and leadership are narrow. There is much, much more to the work of caring for people and nurturing organizations than just pushing forward in the face of uncertainty for positive public impact. We need to do this while sustaining a healthy public service. This requires multiple skills, from a diverse leadership team, that encourage each other to have the kind of courage we need to be responsive to a challenge filled future, I believe.

And finally, as much as I’m openly musing on what I’ve learned about leadership here, there’s so much more to learn.

I’m personally digging into discovering new ways to lead a program based on performance metrics that are meaningful and feasible. With the pace of change, and the breadth of impact my team can have for people, it is important to be able to take our learning forward and be accountable for the results. From my experience, it’s one of the hardest things to do well, with solid evidence, when the work is qualitative and fast moving.

If you have any advice/experience, I’m all eyes/ears!

H

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Heather-Lynn Remacle

Slow to judge, quick to suppose: truth and alternatives I’m keen to expose. Open by default. How can I help? https://bit.ly/32Fmz2l