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Investing in Our Greatest Asset: Our People

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It’s election time in Australia!

Criticism of government agencies in relation to their investment in seminars, training, mentoring and the professional development of their employees almost always guarantees a prominent voice in the media, especially at this time.

Grateful that we live in a democracy, I welcome scrutiny of public spending and measures to ensure transparency and accountability across all sectors.

This scrutiny of government expenditure and programs to develop staff is at its loudest during the lead up to elections.

Determining the value of programs against a range of key indicators is critical, but is there really any value in the pre-election ritual of using public sector workers as a convenient knocking board?

A more helpful approach is a goal of continuous improvement for the delivery of programs to grow our people — our greatest asset.

As a modern sophisticated society which needs to compete on a global stage a mature position is needed on how we invest in professional development for the people who deliver our public services.

Our rapidly changing, increasingly socially, culturally and economically diverse society requires innovative thinking. We cannot expect to solve tomorrow’s problems with yesterday’s solutions.

Investing in people by way of sourcing the most relevant mentors, coaches and trainers can and must drive the innovation that ultimately delivers wider benefits to our community.

Clear guidelines around why, who for and how these programs are delivered is essential, but we cannot stop investing in our people.

As a public servant in Australia and abroad for over two decades, myself and my colleagues achieved personal, professional and managerial growth as a result of our employer’s investment in professional development workshops.

Our ability to achieve better and higher outcomes was partly shaped by the different perspectives, thought leadership and expertise of the external providers we were exposed to.

Enlightened managers and leaders know that our people are our greatest resource.

Nurturing talent and treating people with dignity and respect almost always results in the ten-fold reward of greater productivity, professionalism, loyalty and excellence.

We rely on government sector employees to educate our children, protect and care for our community and keep our essential services operating.

Helping these employees to realise their full potential and the organisations they serve to become more innovative, agile and effective is a privilege and worthwhile.

Politics may be politics, but isn’t it time to show greater maturity? The tendency to use those who serve our community as pawns for political posturing is unwarranted.

How do we live an ethical life in the face of global upheaval?

Stan Grant, the wonderful Indigenous Australian author, broadcaster and commentator recently delivered the Colin Simpson Memorial Lecture and the subject of his speech was ‘How do we live an ethical life in the face of cultural devastation?’

Grant’s address focussed on the atrocities and murders committed in the 1820’s battle between his Wiradjuri people and the new settlers. This battle led to the devastation and wiping out of half of his people.

He talks about the greatness of leadership shown by Windradyne, his people’s leader at that time. Windradyne fought for years for his people, defied the settlers and in the end, with his people devastated, his land taken, his culture facing destruction, he made a courageous choice. Grant describes Windradyne’s true courage, which was knowing when to face up to a new reality and protect and defend what his people had left.

Grant and all indigenous people still experience ongoing conflict, cultural devastation and challenges in Australia today, as they try to reconcile the loss of one tradition and the inevitable acceptance of another.

Given back in May, Grant’s address now appears prophetic.  I wonder whether he had even contemplated the global challenges and upheaval that we would all bear witness to a few short months later?

Like many people I have been contemplating, reflecting and trying to reconcile the shocks witnessed throughout the world. As hate crimes, extremism and the displacement of people tragically continues in parts of the ‘Eastern’ world, volatility is rising in the ‘West’.

With decisions like Brexit, the United States (US) election results and the rise of populist parties like One Nation in Australia, the politics of fear and division, and the sinister forces of ignorance and arrogance have gained momentum to engage the increasingly disenchanted yet influential section of our communities.

While so many parts of the world and it’s peoples are suffering, dying and losing their homes, land, culture and sense of belonging, many of our leaders have responded with proposals to build ‘walls’, to shut ‘the others’ out. These leaders espouse that the secret to making their nations ‘great again’ lies in looking after number one.

I grieve for the apparent loss of ethics and values that I had hoped united humanity. But, like Grant, I find myself asking the same question – how do we continue to live an ethical life in the face of global upheaval?

As Grant so rightly points out, these are critical times that we are living in and we need to ask ourselves some fundamental questions.

The one positive I take from recent world events is that we no longer need to waste time speculating about whether there are dark forces at play around us. Recent results in countries like the United Kingdom, the US and Australia (with impending elections across Europe also threatening the rise of populist, far right parties) have brought the darkness into the light. We can now see clearly what we are dealing with. The challenge for us now, is how do we respond?

Are we ready, willing and prepared to take up a place at the centre of our respective nation’s social, political and economic life? Not as acquiescent assimilationists, but as agents of change determined to engage and lead from a position of strength and strong values?

Facing up to ethical challenges amidst global upheaval will require courage.

More than ever, we need to re-engage with those that have felt unheard and unrepresented. We need to protect the vulnerable and marginalised and to hold up those that have committed to lead this work.

We need to redefine leadership and take on more of these roles ourselves, for the sake of our families, community and country.

At this time, when we reflect on the year that was, with all it’s turbulence, triumphs and traumas, I hope we can re-affirm and commit to embracing our power to create ripples of change – in our own lives, our organisations and in our communities.

The challenge for me, for us, is to see 2019 as the year filled with opportunities to inform, educate and unite our communities. We need to reach out to everyone, especially the disenfranchised.

This can only be done if we are prepared to live a life bigger and beyond ourselves.

Let’s reach out without judgement and continue to live lives in harmony with our humanitarian essence. This should be the new global movement that I’d love to see us all working towards.

Like Windradyne, let us have the courage to face up to our new reality, to uphold humanitarian values and protect and defend those who need our help more than ever.

Creativity in a crisis

If you put fences around people, you get sheep.

– William McKnight

It’s been an interesting year!

Amidst the global tragedies, the loss of yet more legends and the circus, spectacle and surprises that have been the current US Presidential reign, the Brexit fiasco, and closer to home the leadership spill and forthcoming Federal elections, the common theme that keeps coming up, and the words that keep getting mentioned in conversations with friends and colleagues are LEADERSHIP and CRISIS.

Given the palpable uncertainty around the globe at the moment, I thought it was a good time to give you my perspective on leading in times of crisis and uncertainty.

As many of you know, especially those of you who are history buffs, Sir Ernest Shackleton was a great explorer who found himself and his crew in a life-or-death crisis when they had to abandon ship in the icy waters around Antarctica.

It was 1914, and Shackleton’s expedition had planned an unprecedented land crossing of the frozen continent. When the ship got stuck in the ice and sank, the crew began a harrowing 18-month survival test.

They stayed alive as they moved among the drifting ice floes until they eventually found an island, where they established a camp. When their provisions began to run low, Shackleton and several crew members boarded one of their salvaged lifeboats and made a daring 800-mile voyage to a whaling station. They returned with a ship, and all 27 men survived the ordeal. Their story is incredible and nothing short of miraculous.

Many books have been written covering the profound lessons found in this dramatic story of survival and endurance. I personally think there are many lessons we can learn about crisis leadership from Shackleton’s experiences, specifically creativity.

The Harvard Business Review talks about crisis leadership having two distinct phases. First is that emergency phase, when your task is to respond quickly, stabilise the situation and buy time if possible. Second is the adaptive phase, when you tackle the underlying causes of the crisis and build the capacity to thrive in a new reality.

Looking first at the emergency phase, I agree with Dr John Maxwell, that there are two types of people during an immediate crisis – those who freeze, and those who focus. Great leaders are those individuals that have the capacity to focus and react quickly and clearly during the initial stages of a crisis where immediate response can often be what is required.

The skills that enable most leaders to reach their positions of command and influence —analytical problem solving, crisp decision making, the articulation of clear direction—can get in the way of success. Although these skills will at times still be appropriate, the adaptive phase of a crisis requires some new leadership practices. One in particular that I want to focus on here – creativity.

Shackleton and his men were stranded in one of the coldest places on the planet, but his creativity never froze. Instead, it was critical to the team’s survival. His creativity was central to the survival of the lives of the men who had entrusted themselves to him for their journey.

When one studies Shackleton’s experiences, three principles about leading with creativity during crisis came to mind.

1      Creative activity increases creative ability.

As you become active in creativity, you gain more creative ability. Many people would love to have creative ability, but they’ve never done creative activities. When we freeze, we stop creating. Shackleton practiced ‘routine’ creativity, for himself and for his crew. So when problems presented themselves, he and his crew never gave up on their ability to come up with creative solutions. Creativity can be seen much like a muscle: The more you use it, the stronger it gets.

2      The rule book no longer rules.

Everybody wants to give you the rule book. David Kelley was right when he said, ‘The most important thing I learned from big companies is that creativity gets stifled when everyone’s got to follow the rules.’ And Thomas Edison, probably the greatest inventor ever, would tell people who visited his laboratory, ‘There ain’t no rules around here! We’re trying to accomplish something.’Structure and rules serve us well, but legalism can choke our creative spirit to its death (and I know that’s a strange thing for a lawyer to say!) Imagine if Shackleton would have followed the ‘rules.’ The story would have certainly had a different ending.

3      Creativity always finds a way.

Imagine yourself stuck in the same situation. It would have been very easy to have simply looked at the first couple of options, realised they really weren’t options and waited to perish. Instead, Shackleton began to be creative. He began to think of things that were seemingly impossible. He had no other option than to consider all options – impossible or not – because it was a case of life-or-death. Most of the time in the life of our organisations, we aren’t facing life-and-death and so we do not pursue creativity long enough to let it find a way for us.

Peter Drucker once said that the best way to predict the future is to create it. We, just like Shackleton and his team, can create the future we desire if we allow ourselves to begin to think in ways that we haven’t thought before; if we allow ourselves to dream of new ways to do things.

In our fast-paced, competitive world, few resources are more valuable to organisations than creativity, and this is especially true during a crisis. That is when real leadership either rises or falls, and unfortunately, creativity often finds itself swallowed by urgency. Who has time to think outside the box when the box is collapsing around you?

Shackleton, however, saw beyond the problems to the big picture. He recognised creativity’s importance in keeping him and his crew alive and functioning as a team when they had little margin for error in the bitter cold and isolation of Antarctica.

Not just a skill, creativity was also an attitude in his life that enabled him to find the solutions to the obstacles they faced. When others would have frozen – literally as well as figuratively – Shackleton focused creatively on surviving the crisis.

So, use your creativity, letting it get stronger. Throw out the ‘rule book,’ and let creativity help you find a way – just as it did for Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Leaving space for grace

One of the various hats that I wear is as a Board Director of a Uniting Church Educational Institution.  This work aligns with my passion for education and the transformative power it has on children and our leaders of tomorrow in fostering critical thinking, problem-solving, connectivity and imagination.

During our Board discussions the topic of marriage recently came up.  Many of you in Australia will have taken part in the postal plebiscite that took place in November 2017, where we were all required to vote either YES or NO to changing the laws in Australia to legalise marriages between same-sex couples.

The debate in the lead up to the postal vote was an emotional and often divisive one, with politics, religion, personal views and fear mongering all playing a part.  Members of the LGBTIQ community felt outcast, marginalised and traumatised, and many conservative community members felt unsafe and scared of what impact marriage equality would have on society.

I was recently reminded in discussions with the current Moderator of the Uniting Church in Western Australia about how this institution chose to deal with this vexed and complex issue.  The approach struck me and resonated with me so deeply, that I have chosen to share it with you in this newsletter, as I believe there are lessons for all of us to take into our own lives, relationships ad organisations.

In the lead up to the marriage equality postal survey all the main religious organisations and churches went to the Government and made it clear they would be in the ‘NO’ camp.  The only exception to this was the Uniting Church, who, after a number of Assembly discussions and meetings of it’s various bodies and congregations, decided it was important to adopt a different approach, recognising the differing and strongly opposed opinions within its congregation and followers.  The Uniting Church decided to adopt the approach of holding space for grace, and making room for and recognising both the YES and the NO view amongst its own.

When the Australian population voted resoundingly in favour of marriage equality, the Uniting Church also came to a decision.  That decision would allow and celebrate the freedom of conscience for all it’s bodies, institutions, ministers and followers.  Essentially the Uniting Church’s view is that there is space on this issue for two opposing and different views.  It is celebrating difference of opinion and the ability for human beings to respect and  live/work in a world where two opposed opinions exist.

The practical impact of this is that no definitive decree has been made by the Uniting Church that will bind all of it’s followers.  If a parish, school, minister or member of the congregation wishes to celebrate, attend, host or preside over a same sex marriage then the Uniting Church allows, supports and celebrates that decision.  Conversely if those same bodies or people decide to only uphold the traditional view of marriage as that between a man and a woman, and refused to celebrate or officiate over a same sex marriage, then that is supported by the Uniting Church also.

Whether you are in the Yes or the No camp is not important for the purposes of this true story.  The lesson for me is in how this institution chose to deal with two opposing and strongly held views of people within it’s own ‘family’ or under it’s one roof.  It is a timely reminder that there is always room for differing opinions, as long as we can hold them with grace, respect and peace.

We could all do with taking this learning into our relationships, homes and organisations, and now more than ever, our leaders would do well to remember that our differences are often what makes us strong as a group, not what should divide us.  There is room at the table for everyone and if we could just hold the space to listen, understand and respect each other and our views, wouldn’t the world be a much kinder, inclusive and peaceful place.

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