Elizabeth Balgobin: Look on your organisation with the eyes of a newcomer

It's important to be honest about the potential health hazards of the 'damp patch' to which everyone turns a blind eye, writes our columnist

Elizabeth Balgobin
Elizabeth Balgobin

Do you remember the excitement of your first day as chief executive of your organisation? Do you remember noticing all the peculiarities of the organisation and identifying the changes you wanted to make? For the past six years I have had this experience at least once a year, and sometimes twice, as an interim senior manager and leader, alongside my consultancy work. I think of it as minding the gap between permanent appointments: being a good nanny until the parents return.

Six to seven years is about the most time I spend in any role, at which point I take the opportunity to reflect on what I have learned and what I can share with others. I have now run more organisations as a temp than I did as a permanent chief executive and have worked with twice as many again as a consultant. Here are a few of the things I have observed.

Every organisation has a damp patch they ignore. You become accustomed to it. It once had a plan to deal with it, then other things got in the way, or it’s just so difficult to deal with that it’s easier to turn a blind eye. Every newcomer to the organisation mentions it and some even offer to fix it, but they soon become habituated to it. That’s fine as long as the patch doesn’t spread or become dangerous.

Have a good look at your organisation and be honest about the health hazards of your damp patch. Are you all following the same systems and are they fit for 2016 and the future? If it is a difficult member of staff, think about the amount of time you spend managing that relationship and the issues for the rest of your team. Is that person stopping you from moving forward or are they the reason for high staff turnover? Management is not easy, but you are being paid a higher salary to deal with difficult issues.

Everyone knows there has to be a business plan. There will be one, somewhere, but for many organisations it is out of date almost at once. Where there is a plan it might not have been communicated to everyone in the organisation and is seen as only for the board and senior management. I have seen very aspirational income plans that cannot be realised with the structure or services on offer. It is vital to be realistic about what can be achieved, then stretch yourself to achieve a bit more, not aim for reaching the moon in a row boat.

I have seen staff demoralised and disengaged because they feel they are being asked to deliver things they feel are irrelevant to the needs of service users. Build your plans from your mission, include your stakeholders and explore the ideas from your staff and service users. Just because it didn’t work in 1998 does not mean it won’t work now. Circumstances have changed and technology has developed quickly.

Times are tough, but be careful where you scrimp. Training and evaluation have taken the brunt of the internal savings in many organisations, but these areas have the potential for longer-term efficiencies. It is vital to ensure you are all up to date on safeguarding, for instance. Evaluating projects ensures you learn what has worked and, just as important, what hasn’t. It’s surprising how many organisations do not know about their local or national infrastructure organisations and what they can get from them. Many have not considered how to do things in other ways, such as using online training materials or shared training with another organisation.

Some have unrealistic expectations of interims and consultants – they expect them to fix everything in the short time they are with you, or do not expect enough, and fail to use the full range of skills, knowledge and experience they bring. I turn down consultancy work where the brief is poorly defined. The consultant is asked to identify the outcome and work to deliver that, leading to both parties being unhappy with the result. The same is true of the interim roles that are expected to deliver a full year’s work plan, on the full job description in a three-month placement. Sometimes you are expected to do everything as it has always been done, when it’s clear that the environment does not stand still.

Employing anyone takes a leap of faith, but when you are asking them to look after the precious jewels of your brand, reputation and money without having time to get to know that person, it is worth taking time to consider what you want and what you are willing to accept. I always ask boards to meet me in the first month so I can give them my initial view of the organisation and pin down what we want to achieve in my remaining time. After that first month I start to work like the rest of the organisation and am at risk of walking past the damp patch too.

So far I have not found an organisation with a tidy shared drive. It is a niggly point, but if your staff cannot quickly locate the key documents for the organisation and are wasting server space pinging the same document here, there and everywhere you are wasting the most valuable resource of all – time.

Many of you will think this is teaching you to suck eggs, but I ask you to look at your organisation with the eyes of a new person next time you return from annual leave and see where you can make some improvements.

Elizabeth Balgobin is a consultant and interim chief executive. @balgobinthinks


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