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Getting out of the helicopter: can public service leaders see the details hidden within the full picture?

Alex Fox

As a relative newbie to IMPOWER, I’ve been struck by the strategic focus on delivering long-lasting change for the public sector. I knew that IMPOWER held strong delivery credentials but, three months in, it’s clear that the commitment to strategically delivering a blueprint for the public sector is not just lip service.

It brings to mind a question I was asked by a mentor when I was an ambitious young manager who had just joined the wider senior team in a national charity: “what needs to change about the NHS?”I fumbled around for an answer, guessing “we need to reduce NHS waiting times” or “we need to get better at prevention”. He had deliberately chosen a huge, swirling question to which there are hundred plausible answers, as well as a thousand wrong ones, to see how far I was willing to lift my head out of the detail. I can’t remember his answer, only that it broadly focused on building an NHS that can help us stay well, get better quickly when that’s possible, and live well for longer when we can’t be cured.

I could instantly see that he was comfortable staying very high level, and I gathered that if I wanted to move into senior roles, I would need to build the confidence to think much more broadly. But I continue to wonder: how useful is an answer of that kind to the huge questions we are faced with about our public services?

To some extent, his point was that you can’t say anything specific in response to such a huge question. An operational answer to a strategic question always misses the point.

In the decades since, I’ve mentored aspiring leaders myself and I’ve seen that a key step in that journey is being willing and able to shift your mindset. I think there are broadly three mindsets in the working world:

  • A ‘done to’ mindset. Assumes we can’t understand and/or affect big decisions about the direction of the organisation. We may be right about that, particularly frontline roles in large, top-down organisations.
  • An operational mindset. In more senior roles you see more of the systems and behaviours at play. Big direction and strategy questions can feel like they’re trying to consider all factors at once, which can be overwhelming.
  • A strategic mindset. Requires letting go of enough detail in order to see the shape of the whole, rather than focusing on an individual or group.

We need that third mindset, and tend to celebrate and reward it, but it also involves trade-offs. A leader who is purely ‘strategic’ can refuse to leave their helicopter and come down to join the rest of us. Because inequalities can be difficult to spot from a great height, they can have more knowledge than impact

The leaders whom I most admire have had vision, but have also had the willingness, and the emotional and social abilities, to dive into the work, experiences and relationships within their organisations – even if those organisations are very large. In flat structures and self-organising teams who are responsible for strategy, operational success and culture are more evenly distributed. That way, more of the team is challenged to look up and out, as well to look down and in, rather than demanding too many viewpoints of one person or senior team. This also makes co-production with citizens who use services more achievable, which is key to addressing the inequalities point above.

When I apply that mindset to the question I was asked many years ago, “what needs to change about public services?”, I come back to an answer I’m not sure whether my mentor would have approved of or not: “we need a new kind of relationship to be possible and expected whenever someone who is looking for help encounters someone who wants to help them.” I believe our biggest public service challenge, more than funding or demographics or recruitment and retention, is that citizens need deeper, longer relationships with the professionals who support them. Professionals who can get to know them, work alongside them and those who care for them, and empower them in ways that are impossible within the brief, professional/client transactions which services typically offer.

Is that a strategic answer? It’s very small and personal, and all about the front line. But achieving it would require a whole new set of systems, incentives, skillsets and behaviours across every public service. It’s not something which any one leader can control or deliver, but it is something that we can all try to influence. That makes it the kind of change envisioned by IMPOWER’s EDGEWORK® approach, which supports leaders to define their ambition for the system that can be influenced, not just the system they can control. The results of that unusual combination reinforce my feeling that it’s that unusual combination which we need, if we are going to have sustainable public services that work for us, and which are proud to hand on to our children.

Written by

Alex Fox



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