3 v 45: The three most important things I've learned about culture change

In: BlogDate: Aug 05, 2021By: Billy Burgess

Over a 25 year career, Isabelle Trowler has worked within children and family services across local government, the civil service, the voluntary sector, and for her own organisation. The roles have taught her a great deal about resilience, remaining upbeat, and facing hard challenges. 

Isabelle became the chief social worker for Children and Families in 2013. The title of her talk at the 2017 Creating Happy Workplaces in the Public Sector Conference—“3 versus 45”— refers to her general tendency to speak about 45 things. For this talk, Isabelle sought to condense the lessons she’s learned into three main points she thinks everyone should take on board.

Read the transcript and watch Isabelle's full talk below.

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3 v 45: The three most important things I've learned about culture change

I’m Isabelle, I’m the Chief Social worker for England and have been in this post for about 3 and a half years so I am now a civil servant but I have a background of 25 years in local government, a few years in the voluntary sector, a couple of years in my own organisation, always within children and family services but the bulk of it in children’s social care, so that’s child protection, looked after children, children with disabilities and the broader safeguarding partnership work which I’m sure lots of people are familiar with.

What’s interesting about those 25 or so years is that it makes me wonder how qualified I am to talk about how to make people happy at work because I’m sure I made some people happy at work but I’m also sure I made some people quite unhappy at work and I’m going to talk to you about some of those experiences and what they’ve taught me. Now, how I’m going to run the session is linked to something that happened to me last week. Now, I have many deep personality flaws and one of them is that I absolutely hate to be told that I’m wrong. I was speaking at an event on Monday just gone and last week I sent my presentation to the guy who was organising the event who I’d never met before and he sent me this long email about how I’d got it totally wrong and that I was saying too much and I really needed to rethink what I was doing and I was like ‘hold on a minute! I’m doing you a favour, I’ve been doing this stuff for 25 years; I’ve been across the globe speaking in America and Australia, all across Europe, I do three or four speaking events a month and it’s all gone ok and you’re telling me I’m wrong?!’ and then I got the briefing for this event and it was saying similar things, you need to keep it brief, don’t say too much, very few slides, so on and so forth and they’ve given me instructions on how to run the session – so for once in my life, I’m going to do as I’m told but with a slight edge of cynicism about it!

So, what we’re going to do is, a few minutes from me, a few minutes of discussion on your tables, not taking feedback, another few minutes from me, some further discussion and we’ll see how we go. The instruction, from my ‘friend’ from last week that I alluded to, said that really I just need to talk about three things, and that’s why the presentation is called 3 versus 45 because usually I’ll talk about 45 things. To get from those 45 things, I had to think really hard about which 3 things I would really want you leaving here with when we’re talking about running large organisations, leadership, how you change culture and what you do. I came up with three things, as instructed and I condensed everything that I think I’ve learned over my time into them and these are the lessons I want you to try and leave with.

The first one is about being yourself. I think in order to be yourself, you have to really know yourself and I think there’s something really important about authenticity in the work that you do. When you’re a person of influence, regardless of where you are in an organisation, the way you conduct yourself is important. I remember some advice from my mum when I was starting out at about 20, I’d gone for an interview and didn’t get the job and she’s ‘oh, it doesn’t matter, just be yourself’ so I always have done from that moment on and sometimes it’s gone well and sometimes not so well! I think that one of the things you have to learn is how you understand yourself and the kind of person you are at work and that’s really important because when you know yourself and own who you are, it’s really helpful because you are able to manage yourself but also it means other people are able to manage you. Of course, we all do that within organisations and the strategies that I have used over the years, we all have some kind of supervision or performance management framework or those 30 to 60 degree feedback things, which I absolutely loathe but after you’ve canvassed 50 people over 10 years they do know who you are so you do have to pay some attention to them! I’m a big people watcher, so while I’m talking to you I’m watching you, I’m watching your responses and how you’re reacting and how you’re sitting and I might read you completely wrong but actually being constantly vigilant about people and how they’re responding to you is absolutely critical in understanding who you are and how what you do elicits certain types of responses in other people. It’s a long haul to get to the point where you know yourself. When I was recruited to this job, it was a phenomenal palaver, it went on for weeks and I had all kinds of weird tests to do, the usual psychometric tests, I had to be assessed by a psychologist, go through a number of interviews, I had to meet the secretary of state and it was the last big panel with lots of very important people on it and a woman chairing it who was the independent commissioner for senior civil servant posts. I knew it had gone well, people were laughing, I knew I was this close to getting it and she asked me the last question that they always do, ‘so what are your weaknesses?’ and rather than, like any normal person, making a couple of references of where I can grow and develop, I said ‘well, don’t get me started!’ and the panel looked utterly alarmed and I gave the longest answer of the interview, I went on and on about all of my weaknesses and gave them all the risks if they recruited me and they were absolutely horrified but they still gave me the job and what that gave me, which is really important, was a platform to be myself, that they knew who they were getting. I have managed to convince them that I did know how to handle myself, with having all those deep flaws! It’s a journey that you have to go on and it’s a really important part of giving people confidence so that they can manage you throughout the process of working with you in organisations.

Knowing yourself doesn’t, of course, mean that you are fixed. You have to flex and adjust your behaviour to context and the mood of whatever is presenting, whether that is in the moment or across several years in an organisation. You learn how you thrive at work, so I know, in order for me to do well at work, I have to be really interested in what I’m doing, I have to be successful, I have to be motivated and you have to know what it is that makes you tick and if you’re not getting what you need from an organisation, you can try and find ways of developing that so that the context is right for you but if you can’t, then I think it’s best to move on and one of the real indicators of doing that is working out who your boss is and if you can work well with them then that’s great but if you can’t – and you’ve tried, then often it’s best to just give it a rest.

So, first exercise, you’ve got a few minutes – exchange your personal strategies to know yourself and how to get the best out of you.

Ok, so I’m going to ask one question, because I can’t help myself! How many of you think you know yourselves inside out?

(No-one signals they do)

That’s interesting! Right, next topic.

Trust in others. This will be where I talk most actually. There’s a really big caveat to this. That trusting in others does not mean trusting in everyone. When you are trying to build trust I think that there’s a journey you must take and certainly in my world, where you are managing high risk, I would not go carte blanche and say it’s a free for all. I think it’s a process that you take your organisation through and whatever context you’re working in, number one piece of advice is that you always locate your allies and you know your enemies. It is something that I’ve learned over the years, to my bitter experience.

You do have to find a place where you can start, from a position of trust with workforces. I have a very particular experience of this in Hackney and when we implemented something called reclaiming social work, which was a transformational model of practice. When you’re on this journey, when you’re trying to change culture and you’re moving to a more trusting position for the organisation, then you have to have a theory of change, you have to understand how you’re doing that. It is not going to happen overnight, you have to send signals across the organisation which means you are doing something different. You don’t have to be quiet about it, I think it’s really essential that you explain that is what is happening, so in Hackney, when I went there, it was an extremely fragile service, it really needed a lot of development to be a really good public service. We talked to staff all the time about what we were doing and what the process was. At the beginning of the process, it was very command and control but we knew that we were shifting and over time, it took about 5 years, to get to a culture where we trusted our workforce absolutely and we dealt with exception. We constructed how we worked and who did what within the organisation based on a position of trust and because most people want to do a good job, they can do a good job and that where things go wrong that is exceptional. You deal with the exception and you keep the trust and confidence in place. In children’s social care we are absolutely strung by procedure and rules. Due to a number of high profile child deaths and the response has always been, ‘well, we will tell you what to do. If you can’t do it and children keep dying, then we are going to give you an instruction manual and you better follow it.’ – Well, that just doesn’t work but what we’ve built up over that time is this huge national guidance, regulations and legislation which tells us what to do on a day to day basis and is very hard to unpick and one of the things that we did was to delegate our decision-making as close to the front line, to the most junior members of staff that we could in the organisation. The best example of this, which was such a fantastic learning point for me, was about money. We had heard for years that we give social workers responsibility for some of our most at-risk children and yet we won’t let them spend £20. In some of our evaluations that we did in our organisation, it was highlighted that it took one social worker an hour and fifteen minutes to get a bus fare for £1.15 approved and that’s how it is in a lot of places today. We had to argue really hard with the authority to say ‘you’ve got to give us delegated decision-making on money’ and they thought we were insane, giving social workers spending authority, all hell will break loose! After arguing that it already had, we were already massively overspent and we’ve got these big bureaucratic structures to try and manage our money and no-one can actually decide anything, eventually they let us do it and we have a budget called Sector 17 budget which we can use to support families in the community and we spent less with that budget than we had ever done in that service because when you give the responsibility to frontline practitioners, they know the story better than anyone about what needs to be spent and why.

The rub of this is that when you delegate, those people take on more responsibility and this is why this sort of process takes time because people are fearful, with good reason, of responsibility and triggers a sense of blame if you’re not used to it. You have to take time to build people’s confidence and I think that there’s a really important relationship between building trust and building loyalty. Having these two things in the organisation are really important. If you’re a senior, whether you’re a team manager, a director or the chief exec, you have to model taking responsibility and you have to show people that when push comes to shove, you will have their backs.

The two best examples I can give, when I was on that journey with the workforce, was, firstly, when we had a failed inspection over something and the people more senior than me were saying that someone’s head has got to roll. I said there is no way that you are going to get anybody on this, if you want to get somebody, then you get me and of course, they didn’t. The second time, in really tragic circumstances, was when there was a child death, again, the pressure within those systems are to blame somebody and to hold somebody to account was massive and again, I said that if they wanted a head, they have mine and they didn’t take it. What I would say is that I’m no martyr. If I thought that somebody was behaving recklessly in my organisation on my watch, then I’d have a very different response but it’s about getting that balance between trust and loyalty and having people’s backs and making it absolutely clear where your red line is in terms of what’s acceptable and what isn’t.

This concept of decentralisation, dispersed power, delegated functioning, is really quite new in the public sector and I think we should see much more of it. I also think that the other trick that I have learnt when you’re trying to build that trust, is that you have to solve other people’s problems first. You can look at this in two ways. Workforces and particularly people on the frontline for these services have lots and lots of problems with the way the organisation is run and they might not be the same problem that you have but they’re big problems for them and you have to pay attention to that, you have to try and help them sort out the things that are barriers to them being effective in their organisation. On the other end of the spectrum is going back to the boss, and in my case in the last two or three years, has been ministers. There’s no point in me waltzing into a room full of them saying ‘what you’re doing is dreadful, listen to me, you’ve got it all wrong!’ That just isn’t going to wash, you have to understand where they’re coming from, what the problems are that they want to solve and you have to help them solve them first and that is how you build trust and confidence to go further and push the boundaries of what you want to achieve as an individual.

Just before we go into our next exercise, I want to show you this, it’s called a real organisational chart, I love this because it’s funny but it’s absolutely true, when you’re dealing with organisations that you’re primarily dealing with people, and you’ve got the funny side of it – who’s jealous of who and who supports the same football team but on the other side of it, it shows that the people at the bottom of the chart are unhappy and the more senior, further up, you go, the happier you become and right at the top is the person in charge who is really happy and that’s because they really trust themselves, because they’ve got a lot of control and influence. The trick is to marry up the people at the top with the people at the bottom and if you build that trust and confidence then slowly the smile changes a bit.

So, next conversation – how do you show that you trust them and what else could you do to build an organisational trust strategy?

When we’re talking about organisations, we’re only ever really talking about people and ideas. So much of what we do when we’re thinking about organisations is thinking about people and how you enable them to realise their ambitions for themselves. It’s also really important to remember that people have lots of ideas and there are really good ideas and there are really bad ideas. It’s about how you manage them, the good ideas are great but of course you never know until sometime on and what you do with bad ideas, how you respond to them and how you handle persistent failure, to some extent. One of my favourite quotes is ‘For every complex problem, there is a solution which is clear, simple and wrong.’ Part of your strategy, when you’re thinking about you’re running teams or organisations is how you deal with things when you get it wrong. Simplicity is important but you can’t lose the complexity of things either, so it’s getting that balance. I’ve seen it many times, if you over focus on complexity, then you just become stuck because it feels so complicated and complex and that you can’t really do anything about it so I think one of the real tricks is, whatever role you have in overseeing other people, is that you help them to conceptualise and think in ways which don’t remove complexity but make it coherent, for the organisation but also to whatever service you’re delivering to so that it’s straightforward for them too.

I think that one of the real dangers of doing that stuff is over influence, so it goes back to your allies and who you choose to listen to and who you allow to influence you because we’re all in that business. One of the things that I’ve learned is that you have to recognise when you’re over influencing. Influencing is great, you want to influence but I can see, certainly on my journey, where if I’m the only person that somebody is listening to, then everything gets skewed and you have to know when you’ve won the war, in a way and you need to let other people take it up and shape it and deepen it and reflect multiple realities instead of just yours. I think that when you’re trying to work out whether ideas are good or bad, it’s important to go back to the people you’re delivering for and it’s such a powerful thing. For example, last week I was in Liverpool with 18 grandparents who look after their grandchildren and for one reason or another they’re caught up in the child protection system, they think it’s absolute madness, they can’t understand how we are organised and the way that we do things and how we make the decisions that we do and it was a really good reminder of what this is all about and why we’re doing what we’re doing. It’s hard to do but it’s important to haul yourself out of the mire or organisations and go and have some good conversations with the people at the other end of your services.

Once you’ve gone through the process of deciding what you’re going to do, you’re giving people license to do different things then I think what’s key is the communication factor and lots of people will say it to you but it is so true that you have to be in a state of extreme communication, so that whatever it is that you’re doing you have really strong communications systems in place, so that people can keep on understanding, debating, challenging the way that the team is being run. I remember in the work that I’ve done, about two thirds of the way through the reclaiming years, things were going well and we had massive communication channels all over the show to the point where I thought we should just shut up and do something! So I said that I was going to close some of it down as there’s so much talking going on and I was advised by someone not to do it, they said it was absolutely vital to keep the lines of communication open with the people that you want to work with and work in the way that you imagine.

Now, true to my personality flaws, before we go into the final conversation, I am just going to add a fourth thing to this. I’m going to leave you with Mr Messy. This has been a theme of a lot of discussion that I’ve been having in the last couple of weeks with various groups of people and I think when you’re talking about real cultural shifts and organisational change to remember that it is always messy and that to be successful in making these changes, you have to be able to live with it, it’s about being able to live with uncertainty. This concept of Mr Messy came from a guy I follow on Twitter, who said ‘The only kind of change you can make happen suddenly, on a large scale, is destruction. Whereas creation of anything real and valuable starts small but it’s ambitious’ and I just know that it’s right, that when you’re beginning something, you will not know how you’re going to get there but you do know where you want to get to, that you’ve got that grand ambition for how you want to see things running. He says ‘for real change to take hold, you need to involve people who don’t always agree with you and you need a tolerance for messiness: the neater the plan, the more fictional it is’ which I think is a brilliant line. Anyone who has ever tried to change anything will know that that is spot on.

As an additional point, when you’re trying to change culture, or change what’s happening in organisations, then new ideas are great, you want that innovation and energy and spirit but you need the history of the organisation as well, you need wise counsel.

I’m going to leave you with that and move you into your third conversation which is, how do you hardwire new thinking and wise counsel into your organisational functioning.

End of session questions:

Delegate one: I’m going to throw your question back to you, how did you hardwire new thinking and wise counsel into your functioning, particularly DFE?

Isabelle: Well that’s been the order of business for the last three years for me really and we’ve done a whole range of different things and we’ve had three changes of leadership over that period too so what you do really shifts. When I first arrived, there was a much stronger push on innovation, it’s been ongoing, it still is and it’s being evaluated still. We’ve also managed to secure funding for a work centre for children’s social care so the way I’ve seen it happen over the last couple of decades is that we have pockets of brilliance and then it sort of dissipates, we never capture it so having this institution is in a way, holding what we know and then going out and finding new ideas. The wise counsel has been one of the tensions in my role but it’s been really good, there are a lot people who have been there for a lot longer so having that really steady, group of people who understand the machine in a different way to me has been hugely beneficial to me.

Delegate two: I work in a multilayer, multi-organisational structure and what I think I hear you saying, which I share experience in, is to keep the momentum going is very difficult and sometimes it’s personality driven, rather than organisational factors, so what is the way forward?

Isabelle: I think, in terms of the reclaiming story, what we did there was really make people think about how they worked and what they did at the organisation to really make sure that the changes endured. I don’t think anything ever stands still, and in a way, we don’t want it to, you don’t want people locked into the same way of doing things but the proof would be whether it is still there in ten years’ time?

Isabelle's first principle is to always be yourself. To be yourself—consistent, honest and authentic—you first need to develop self-knowledge. Gaining comprehensive self-knowledge can’t happen in isolation.

Isabelle believes observing people’s reactions to the things you do is essential for grasping who you are. Honesty also plays a big part—if you’re regularly deceiving the people you work with, even via minor acts of equivocation, you’re hiding the real you and limiting the growth of self-awareness.

Self-understanding leads to a strong understanding of your workplace attitudes and behaviour. This not only allows you to moderate the way you carry yourself at work, but gives your co-workers a good idea of what to expect from you. Self-knowledge also lets you assess what things are required for you to thrive in a job and determine whether a particular context suits you.

Trust is Isabelle’s second principle. Specifically, trust in others, although she cautions against blind faith in everyone you meet. You need to locate your allies and know your enemies, no matter the workplace environment. However, it’s possible to build a culture of outright trust in the workforce, where anything that deviates is dealt with as an exception.

Most people want to do a good job, says Isabelle, and doing so is much easier when trust permeates an organisation. In this environment, it's an exception whenever something goes wrong and it therefore won't derail the foundational trust and confidence in place. Building trust and building loyalty are important factors for creating productive, happy workplaces.

Isabelle's final point centres on people and ideas. While everyone has a lot of ideas, even those who're experienced and highly qualified won't always produce good ideas. Isabelle uses the quote, “For every complex problem, there is a solution which is clear, simple and wrong,” to draw attention to the need for a balance of simplicity and complexity within workplaces. The trick is to acknowledge complexity, but work within a coherent framework.

Isabelle also stresses the importance of managing your influence. Leaders want to exert influence, but they've got to know when they're overdoing it. Leaders don't want to quash an employees' own ideas by being too dogmatic with their views.

What You Will Learn in This Video

  • What it takes to be yourself

  • How observing other people’s reactions to your behaviour contributes to self-knowledge

  • How self-knowledge helps you assess what’s needed to thrive in a job and whether a particular context suits you

  • Why it’s important to locate your allies and know your enemies 

  • The value of building a culture of outright trust

  • Why you need to find a balance between simplicity and complexity in dealing with workplace issues

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About Isabelle

Isabelle took up her post as Chief Social Worker for Children and Families in September 2013. Since qualifying as a social worker in 1996, Isabelle has worked within the voluntary and statutory sectors both in education and social care settings, and in a variety of practice and leadership roles. She co-founded a new model of delivering child and family social work in the UK called ‘Reclaiming Social Work’ and more commonly referred to as the ‘Hackney model’.

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