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Engaging leadership

Engaged leadershipWhatever your political persuasion, it's hard to deny that the service provided by the NHS is not as responsive as it was a few years ago. The Patient’s Association’s most recent report on waiting lists highlights some of the statistics and the implications; implications which have important parallels for business leaders.

Within your organisation right now, there are people who don't behave the way you need them to, processes that don't work as well as they should, and systems that are increasingly unfit for the needs of the people using them. You might not be fully aware of them, or you might have a good reason for not prioritising them on your own personal waiting list, whether that's lack of money, capacity, or the confidence to fire that person you know you'll probably have to replace at some point, but you could be seriously underestimating the long-term cost of that delay.

When surgery is delayed, for example, it turns out a huge amount of time and money ends up being spent managing the symptoms; initially the pain, then the psychological implications like depression. The person needing the surgery works around the problem, but that causes other issues – someone awaiting hip surgery will put more strain on other joints to stay active, wearing them out much faster. And when the intervention finally happens, it's with a greater risk of failure because they've been physically and psychologically weakened by the wait.

The same is true for your business.

The longer you spend managing the symptoms, rather than fixing the underlying problems, the more strain you put on your best people, the more pressure you put on morale, and the more likely you are to pay the price in lost talent and time off. The longer a poor manager stays in their role, the more poor employees they're likely to hire, and the more good ones are likely to walk. Beyond that though, you're doing deeper damage. When your people are having to fight the systems or each other, just to do their jobs, you start to establish some very difficult-to-undo behaviours and beliefs; slowly at first – you'll have to look for them to see them – but they gather pace.

Trust in the leadership erodes, enthusiasm for the business as a whole wanes, and the culture starts to fragment into silos and cells. As friction grows between teams and individuals, information stops flowing and starts becoming currency instead. And when you do get around to fixing the underlying problem, whether that be a difficult individual, a broken process or a defunct system, trying to reignite that passion, reboot that culture, restart the lifeblood of open communication, can be incredibly hard. Sometimes the goodwill and good people you've lost turn out to be irreplaceable.

Engagement works both ways. Most of the time we hear how leadership is about getting everyone in the organisation fully engaged with your strategy, your vision and your values. But it's also about getting yourself and your team engaged with the organisation, the people working in it, and the challenges they're dealing with every day. It's about listening to their issues in real time, quickly picking someone who has the desire and the skills, and giving them the authority and resources, not to alleviate the symptoms, but to get to the root cause and fix it.

If you're not engaged with your peoples’ concerns, it's impossible to engage them with yours. So take a couple of hours out next week, walk the shop-floor, and ask the people you meet about the problems they have, the niggles that irk them, the workarounds they use to get the job done.

If they trust you, they'll tell you. If they don't, they won't. Either way, you'll learn something valuable.

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