I met Helen Sanderson on Twitter I think. It might have been Facebook. A gentle enquiry between both of us to see how we could help each other explore the insights we had both discovered in a series of books we had both read at much the same time. Synergy. They were Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organisations and a little later, An Everyone Culture by my fellow LBS alums (now lecturers) Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey. We never did work together, and it took us another 2 years to have a proper conversation about what we’ve learned so far. This is that conversation.
Where did the decision to test self-management come from?
When we began this conversation you talked about finding a surprising similarilty in many of the leaders you interviewed, Jenny, in that they had either lost someone very close unexpectedly, had suffered a life threatening illness or a psychic experience. My Father died at 53. I was getting towards 50 and asking myself a question: “If I only had another 3 years left would this be what I wanted to do?” I found in reading RO that Fred had articulated a lot of things I didn’t have a framework for which felt immensely exciting. I had never heard of Spiral Dynamics. But I instinctively felt he had framed something I could understand, recognise and work with.
Where were you as a person and team at the time?
Our team at Helen Sanderson Associates was very much in the green, family space already. We were really good at holding each other up, bringing the whole person to work, focusing on values. But we were really rubbish at holding each other accountable. We would much rather be nice to each other.
I was part of creating that. Some of that culture was very personal. When I read An Everyone Culture, that introduced me to the concept of immunity to change maps. I realised I struggled with giving people feedback and having difficult conversations. My internal dialogue is about being perfect and if I was going to be giving people critical feedback and have difficult conversations, I had a fear that they would be able to do the same to me and that might expose my less than perfect qualities. So at a very very deep level I was stopping myself being able to give more difficult feedback although I was very good at the appreciative stuff. That was rubbing off on our culture.
What challenges surprised you?
The most challenging thing I have learned is about personal development, who you are and how you show up at work. I’ve had to look again at who I am as a leader. One of the mistakes I made was stepping back too far, too fast from my role as CEO/leader as we first moved into t his journey. We had a discussion as a team, and decided to move in the teal direction. I ceded my responsibility as a CEO, and I was so focused on not being the CEO any more, I stepped back too far. Finding the balance between showing up as a leader and not taking authority from a positional place is an ongoing process and a difficult thing to balance. My fear was of overstepping the mark and not fully embracing teal, so I was focused on my own behaviour of losing the vestiges of power as a CEO and didn’t always take into account the impact on the rest of the team. And continuing to figure out how I get better at having difficult conversations, holding myself and other people to account.
The biggest challenge is the accountability one. Learning how we ask for what we need. Part of that is how you sense what you need and then being able to ask for it really directly without worrying about whether you are going to upset or offend someone. A colleague of mine needed something but was challenged to be direct. She felt she was ‘dubbing her colleague in’ if she pulled someone up on their accountability. It’s extremely difficult to find it comfortable to say – you acknowledge this is your responsibility and I can ask you for this without worrying about being rude and/or overstepping the mark. We now use cleaner and more direct language. I feel I can say with ease – Emily, this is one of your accountabilities, please can you check. Before I would worry about how to frame that ‘ask’, I might be too aggressive. We’ve studied Non-violent and compassionate communication as a way of doing that more. It isn’t easy; it’s on-going practice with coaches to support us. But we have processes that we can now use to help us take accountability seriously without worrying that it would have a negative effect on our relationships.
Some people left. Primarily because I had changed the psychological contract with them. I stopped being a leader in an obvious way and they joined the organisation because they wanted me as a leader. I was very surprised that was the outcome. I never thought that some of my colleagues wouldn’t be with me any more when I started this process.
Where did you begin?
Logical part of my brain goes: ‘Fred says there are 3 things and we’ve done 2. We’re good at Wholeness, we know how to create person centred teams. We’ve done a lot of work around Simon Sinek, purpose and why. That’s not a challenge for us. If you were coming to do an analysis of our business, you would absolutely say that accountability was what we lacked, so self management was absolutely what we needed to do. There were probably 10 different ways we could start, but I was intrigued by holacracy in particular the meeting processes. If all of those 3 things weren’t your strengths I don’t know where would you start. That would be difficult I think.
I think we did a lot of work at putting structures in place to do this. We went to Holocracy first of all. The 3 team members who had read Fred’s book got support from Susan Basterfield to work with us to step into these new roles. To step into being accountable. I have a quote on my wall from the Dalai Lama “You have to know the rules well enough to break them”. That’s where we wanted to start. We wanted to become holacracy practitioners so that we could understand what we wanted to take and leave.
Holacracy is very technical, the pass rate is tough. You need some detailed knowledge to pass. The one thing we didn’t embrace after our training was the holacracy constitution. We were especially fascinated with tactical meetings because we have done so much work in that area at HSA, we took the governance processes, but rather than taking a fully formed constitution, we wanted to have an emergent one. We used our governance process to grow our own constitution.
What characterises the difference between being a CEO in a hierarchical environment and being a leader in a holcratic environment?
The overwhelming emotion for me, as I’m speaking to you now, is relief. By having distributed leadership, acknowledging that we are all leaders, that we all have accountabilities and all have responsibility for staying connected to our purpose and living our values, a great weight dropped off my shoulders. It was very liberating.
What were the surprising gains?
Because I stepped back from being responsible, from being ‘mum’, Wellbeing Teams happened. It gave me the space to make bolder decisions about what I wanted to express, create or be part of. I would still be figuring out how we could keep developing as a great green organisation but never quite making the transition to teal.
I experienced a flourishing of creativity. Because I wasn’t holding everything together or trying to, the sense of liberation enabled other issues to emerge and gave me the capacity to explore things differently. It completely changed my relationships with my colleagues.
I hadn’t realised how much the self-management journey is about personal growth and development. Not what I do but who I am and how I show up at work. I didn’t think that working on myself would be anything to do with Holacracy.
Many of us are happier. I didn’t think we could be any happier than we were as a team. We’ve focused on wellbeing and happiness and bringing the whole person to work for 10 years. If you look at the 3 breakthroughs of Laloux, I thought we had nailed 2 out of 3 and that our journey would ‘just’ be about implementing self management. I was looking for the shift in accountability; that collective stepping up together and embracing accountability in a different way. nWe definitely achieved that, but with all the other outcomes there has also been an increase in our happiness together. Through working on our accountability processes and mindset we’ve achieved a different way of being together.
What didn’t you use or did you adapt differently?
We didn’t get on with the Advice Process – we’ve used it in finance only. But we began this process when the financial crashes were happening. We didn’t have any money to spend, we couldn’t afford anything so therefore if you wanted to make a proposal, we had to present it as a business case – a risk worth taking. So the Advice Process never felt applicable to us. There were so few things that would need finance, the advice process didn’t take off. If affording something for £1m would have ever been in the frame we would have had to make a lot more decisions. As it is for us it’s simple. Three of us were making financial decisions on a channel on Slack. The 3 of us that were responsible for a yes or no would get together very quickly.
Tell us about the emergence of Wellbeing Teams
When I read about Buurtzorg it was very inspiring. In the UK, they already have Public World connecting with primary health projects, setting up projects at hospitals like Guys in London. My PhD is in Psychology and it’s home care I feel really drawn to. Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal also inspired me to rethink how we look and think around topics like older age. I had already been writing guidance for the government around The Care Act 2014 so I was very close to what the act says. My first step was really recognising that transferring something from the Netherlands to the UK was going to be a bit of a challenge. At first I t thought we could take what Buurtzorg did because that was really powerful but that wasn’t possible. So I spent the Summer researching as much as I could and put a blueprint together about how we could do it in the UK. Then it was about persuading people with whom I had social capital to test it out. We created 4 test and learn sites across the UK.
But the feedback I got was that we don’t need any more pilots; we need something we can do at scale. I looked at Lean startup approaches. I was a graduate of Seth Godin’s Alt MBA. I was in touch with a lot of entrepreneurs and learned a great deal about how they think about things. Initial I planned to launch Wellbeing Teams as a social franchise. But in the middle of 2017 I did have a bit of a lightbulb moment around ‘skin in the game’. If it’s your business, your CQC regulatory responsibility and your money, you would have to be bold to believe me to take a risk on a very different model, just because I think it’s a good idea. I needed to get skin in the game and I needed to put my money, the money I could raise, at risk, and be a registered manager and with CQC myself.
So now I’m thinking about how much I am prepared to risk. That might be what it takes and that’s where I’m sitting right now. Making Space are grand parenting me in this, helping me be brave enough to take this leap. They’ve been brilliant.
What do you hope to achieve with Wellbeing Teams?
A lot of homecare organisations being very person centred in a traditional way. I want that to be extended to create thriving, happy, fulfilled colleagues. I want to create a place where everyone flourishes. Where they feel this is the most important work they’ve ever done. Where they feel the most supported they have ever been. Where they are constantly stretching and growing as people. Working together in a way that enables all of us to flourish. If we can create teams that are experiencing that, we will support individuals to flourish even better than we can today. We’re doing this in partnership with Community Circles. Really it isn’t about home care, what I am hoping will be to create a new way of being together with compassion, flourishing and wellbeing at its heart which can work in a virtual ward, a hospice at home, or supporting young people in transition. Wellbeing Teams will be offering neighbourhood support in a neighbourhood to people who are patients at a local GP’s practice – whatever their label is.
Today I see this is a series of experiments. What I learned in the entrepreneurial world is about radical experimentation and being comfortable with uncertainty. How can compassionate people create compassion in communities. We will fail and learn to succeed. I hope I can keep being brave enough to fail so that we can find a way to create this together.