If I ruled the world, all public sector senior managers would do a secondment in the community by @Jargonautical

20130529-173130.jpgI recently overhead one of those slightly awkward “what’s your job” dinner conversations. Guest 1,”I’m an NHS Senior Manager”…..Guest 2, “Oh” ……. Guest 1, “I’m actually a nurse by background. I did all my practical training on the hospital wards, qualified as a nurse and moved into management much later on”…… the conversation went well after that.

The ‘in between the lines’ message was; ‘I am a serious professional, I am caring and compassionate, and I have earned a position through working at the front line’ (rather than some fast track graduate who had a minor brush with patients on a gallop to the top). In these days post Mid Staffordshire Hospital Inquiry it was important for this individual to establish their credentials. They wanted their dinner companion to understand what they were about.

There are lots of positives that come from practical, experience based job development:

  • Learning from colleagues who have developed the wisdom that comes from experiencing thousands of different situations over many years;
  • Speaking the language of that specialist group which gives deeper meaning and speeds up understanding;
  • Being able to try, fail and learn in an environment with colleagues around that can manage and mitigate risks; and very importantly
  • Getting close to the service or product users and developing an understanding of life from their perspective.

This is hard won experience that comes at a cost, mainly time and application (effort).

Can you teach care and compassion? The big question for me in all of this relates to the role of senior managers and leaders. If you’ve never been part of the system you are managing, can you really understand it well enough to lead it effectively?

Second question; if a large component of that service is about caring and compassion, how does it work if you’ve never experienced what it’s like to be at the front line? As a senior manager how do get a better understanding of what it feels like to be on the receiving end of ‘your’ service? A situation where a paid employee of a big organisation is making some pretty serious decisions about what happens to you. How do you get to understand what it feels like to be confused, vulnerable or afraid?

I’m not sure if you can you teach compassion, empathy or how to be caring on an MBA? (I’ve no doubt a Business School prospectus is offering it somewhere). For me, the point seems to be; if you want to understand, you need to get up close and experience how it feels, not just learn the theory.

How about this for a suggestion? Over the weekend I was involved in a conversation with Lucy Knight (@Jargonautical) and Claire OT (@claireot). Lucy proposed the following; “if I ruled the world, all senior public sector staff would do a part time secondment in the community”. Have a read of this post ‘govsplaining’ by Lucy which gives a very practical insight into different approaches between the voluntary and public sector.

I must admit to getting slightly over enthusiastic about Lucy’s idea and suggesting some sort of ‘National Service’ scheme where everyone spends time working in a community or voluntary activity. I’ve always been a big enthusiast of ‘back to the floor’ activities, particularly for those people who’ve climbed so high in an organisation that they’ve lost touch with the front line, or in some cases never had it in the first place.

The idea of part time secondments for senior managers working in service areas where they have direct contact with citizens and service users could have an incredible impact. Not just the contrast between how services are run but also the service user experience and how it feels. Imagine the impact on a financial target driven, ‘spreadsheets rule the world’, hard nosed Head of Corporate Resources working in a community adults day centre for a few months.

So, what’s the PONT?

  1. It’s easy to loose touch with user experience and service users the more senior you become in an organisation.
  2. Secondments may be a way of reconnecting with the service users and the people who deliver the service.
  3. For activities that focus on care and compassion, experiencing how it feels at the front line may be the best way of gaining some understanding.

Linked posts: Every CEO should try to access the service their organisation delivers using a mobile phone. Not exactly ‘back to the floor’ but it will give a taster of the user experience. http://whatsthepont.com/2013/02/21/every-ceo-should-try-to-access-the-services-their-organisation-delivers-using-a-mobile-phone-at-least-twice-a-month/

Charity Bag Packing at the local supermarket. How it helped some teenage rugby players learn some social skills. http://whatsthepont.com/2011/10/22/bag-packing-social-skills-and-youth-rugby/

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here: https://whatsthepont.com/churchill-fellowship/

8 Responses

  1. This is an excellent post. Acknowledging the importance of having continuing front line experience by senior managers. Thus ensuring there is less likely to be disconnect between impact of high level decisions on customer experience. Question is……………… Will senior managers recognise the need for this connection?

  2. Tweeted recently in response to Hunts suggestion (still live) that Nurses should spend a year as HCAs before qualifying, that equal measures should be applied to those seeking public office. Heard nothing back from the cabinet office yet.
    I think there is an intuitive appeal to the idea that ‘real-life experience’ trumps book learning, but we need to be careful of 1. not vilifying compassionate book-learners (for there are many opportunities in life to acquire the ability to value others) and 2. Not sanctifying the university of life,(because some people learn the opposite of compassion from their struggles at the coalface).

    I endorse every one of your first set of bullet points, but i think they are true in terms of being able to do whatever it is you do better, not in terms of increasing your compassion quotient. Unfortunately, for many the important experiences that encourage compassion in an individual will have occurred – or not – before they reach working age. There is also a role for one’s own natural inborn propensities to play. However, it does seem likely that compassionate employers/managers breed compassionate teams. It is not where you learned to do what you do that matters so much as where you do what you do. A supportive and nurturing workplace, to my view, is the most valuable factor in maintaining the ability to feel, and show, compassion ourselves.

  3. Yes! This is precisely why I chose not to sign up to a fast track graduate scheme when I left uni. Granted it takes a bit more effort to start from the bottom, but the amount of knowledge, understanding and empathy I picked up along the way was definitely worth it. Besides which, I’d just feel weird coming in over someone’s head and expecting them to do something I wasn’t prepared to do myself. If you’re not willing to do something, whether it’s envelope stuffing or manning a helpline, then you’ve got no right to expect someone else to do it for you, simply because you get paid more. (Obviously there’s often sensible reasons to divide tasks up in a certain way, but not wanting to get your hands dirty isn’t a valid excuse.)

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