The Challenges of ‘Engaging Community Leaders’

Leaders for LeedsI attended Leaders for Leeds this morning – a breakfast meeting that connects a group of people who are trying to work on achieving ‘best city’ outcomes, aka make Leeds a better place to live.  I jotted down a few notes, some taken from our conversations and some capturing thoughts that I didn’t have time to express, and these form the basis of what I have written here.

The theme of the session was ‘Engaging Community Leaders’ exploring the premise that Leaders for Leeds needs to get more and different people and perspectives into its network.  We were invited to explore what might need to happen for more community leaders to show up.  This raised a number of interesting issues in our conversation and the thoughts it prompted in me:

What do we mean by community?  Geography? Interest group? Ethnic group? Faith based group? Age group?  Community is a weasel word.  We can utter it with gravity and credibility while conferring on it no specific meaning.  It is a broad signaller of intent, with no specific commitment or rationale attached.  I reckon what we actually mean by ‘community’ is often ‘target population’.  Except Leaders for Leeds has no ‘targets’.  We are not clear on whose voice we want in the room and why.  We don’t know whose voices are missing.  If ‘they’ were present what would they say and do?  How would that help?  Who would that help?

‘Community Leader’ is an equally difficult term.  Often it is little more than a media label applied to someone who expresses an opinion about a community issue.  They may lead a project, or an organisation, but do they lead a community?  Leadership is usually contested.  They might lead some but not others in ‘the community’!  We also discussed how bestowing the title of community leader can be damaging to the individual concerned and their relationships in the community.  Few are prepared to put themselves forward as community leaders.  The label does not fit.  They don’t recognise it.  Call yourself a community leader, or be called it by someone else, and you risk getting a backlash.

We also talked about ‘community leaders’ who are appointed or recruited, either from the community or into the community, to do a specific job for a particular sponsor in ‘the community’ and how seldom they seem to become effective catalysts for lasting change.

So why the interest in ‘community leaders’?  Is it because it is a convenient idea?  If we can find them they provide a short cut to ‘engage with community’?  Are we looking for individuals who have respect and influence in communities that we don’t?  Are we looking to extend our power and reach through them?

Or is it because we believe in the ‘law of requisite variety‘ that says the more diverse our membership the greater the diversity of the issues that we can respond to effectively?  That we recognise deeply that unless we get more diverse membership our capacity to act as change agents is limited.

We also heard how for one participant how attendance at Leaders for Leeds was largely symbolic. They got little from it themselves, but their attendance served as a reminder that black and minority ethnic people are here.

Conversation then turned away from leadership and towards the  issue of power.  Are we seeking to give those that ‘organise’ in our communities more power to work on what matters to them?  Can we do that? How?  Or are we seeking power for ourselves to influence and create change in those communities by finding individuals to act as bridgeheads for us and our projects?

We then talked about Leaders for Leeds providing access to those in power and also about providing a broader perspective of the city as public, private and third sector gather together.  The issue of access to those in power was interesting to me. Do we believe that if we can relate to them and influence them we can secure different outcomes?  Is that the game plan?  That what we need to do is persuade those in power?  Do we believe that power is essentially wielded from the top down?  Or could we conceive of Leaders for Leeds as a mechanism that serves the voices and needs of ordinary citizens – giving them power to shape their own futures and recognising how we might often need to get out of the way?  A city of 750 000 voices rather than ONE?

For me the key challenges facing Leaders for Leeds are:

  • How do we enable small groups of people that care to have conversations that lead to action?
  • How can we encourage them and amplify their power to transform lives for those that most need change?

(As I was pondering these thoughts and jotting them down in my notebook I then heard one young woman say “In my community many young people believe that they have to be bad or pregnant to get attention!  How could Leaders for Leeds challenge that believe, in that community?  Probably not by inviting folk to meetings – but by going there, by listening and responding, respectfully.)

So I guess it comes down to one big question for me:  Is Leaders for Leeds there to help existing power structures to cope with change?  Or is it there to help them change?  Perhaps radically?

Not a bad bit of brain tickling from a 20 minute conversation!

121s – The single most effective tool for improving performance at work?

I am continually surprised by the number of organisations that I work with who are exploring the ‘higher planes’ of performance management and the pursuit of excellence (using balanced scorecards, strategy maps and so on) who do not yet practice some of the management fundamentals, such as 121s, feedback and coaching.  By getting these management basics right I believe that most organisations can make substantial improvements in performance quickly and at low cost.

What is a 121?

A 121 is a planned, structured, documented meeting between a manager and a direct report held on a weekly.

Why are they so effective in improving performance?

  1. 121s provide the foundation on which managers and their reports can build a genuine and powerful working relationship that provides the foundation for high performance.
  2. They provide the report with the opportunity to bring to their manager’s attention where they need help, support or permission to act.  Providing reports with this opportunity in a structured way will dramatically reduce the time that managers spend reacting to ad hoc requests.
  3. They give managers the chance to talk about issues that have occurred over the course of the week that may impact on the report – either because of changing priorities in the business or because of some aspect of their work.
  4. Managers have the chance to talk on a weekly basis about the medium and longer term future.  What training and development does the report need to develop their career?  What projects and opportunities might be on the horizon that the report may be interested in working on?
  5. 121s provide the foundation that allows manager’s to make the transition from fire fighting to genuinely managing and developing performance.

I manage 10 direct reports – I won’t have time to do weekly one to ones.

Lack of time is the most common objection to implementing 121s.  If the manager has a team of ten, then 121s will take about 6 hours a week – allowing a little time for note-taking and follow-up actions.

After 2-3 weeks of doing 121s the vast majority of manager’s report that they are saving time.  Because reports know that they have structured time with the manager they will hold non-critical issues until the 121, instead of raising them whenever they have the chance.  Interruptions are reduced significantly.

Regular 121s allow many minor adjustments to be made in the work of, and relationship with, the report.  This means that more problems are nipped in the bud and more opportunities are spotted and acted upon quickly – saving lots of fire-fighting time later on.

Scheduling 121s can be a problem.  But most managers’ diaries have plenty of space just 3-4 weeks ahead.  This is the time to start booking 121s.

If the number of direct reports goes much above 12 then fitting in weekly 121s can be a problem – and they can be made fortnightly instead of weekly.  If your team is made up of some full and some part-timers then you may want to schedule 121s with part-timers on a less frequent basis.  121s still work if they are not done weekly, but they do not work as well and the results take longer to show.

Why do 121s have to be documented?

Taking notes, and following up on them, is a vital part of effective 121s.  It demonstrates that you are taking the meeting seriously and that you are committing to acting on what is discussed.  The notes also provide a comprehensive record of what has been discussed with the report over the year and make annual performance reviews much easier to do.  They also allow you to keep accurate records that can be helpful when making a case for promotion or dealing with poor performance.  I recommend the use of a simple proforma, which is handwritten during the 121, and stored securely in a file for each direct report.

Making the Commitment

121s show a very real commitment from the manager to each of their direct reports.  This commitment has to be maintained so that 121s become part of the management routine.  They should hardly ever be missed.  121s have a major impact on organisational culture when they are adopted throughout the organisation as they show a real commitment to people and performance.  However if the organisation is not prepared to commit top them as a part of the culture, they work just as effectively for individual managers who chose to adopt them.  In fact these managers soon develop a reputation for excellent service delivery, as great people developers and soon stand out from the managerial crowd.

Implementing 121s

Making 121s work requires both will and skill.  Managers can be trained in how to effectively set up and maintain a system of 121s in a half day training session.

LGI Data from Patient Opinion

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Strengthening Bottom Up

Whether it is more ‘civic enterprise’, community engagement or ‘Big Society’, people with power, but increasingly little money, are looking for new ways to get things done.

The large capital infrastructure projects have not given us more inclusive communities and now we can’t afford them any way, so in some quarters at least interest is shifting from old school top down strategy to a more emergent process of bottom up development.  To processes where large numbers of people can shape their own futures and as a result the futures of the communities that they live in.

But making the shift from top down to bottom up is far from easy….

Over the last few years I have been developing low and no cost approaches to economic, personal and community development leading to new projects such as:

These are my best efforts to provide an infrastructure that allows the private, public, third sector and those of ‘no sector’ to give and get the help that they need to develop enterprising projects and people, and for the development of ‘community’ by building relationships and networks around local activists.

To bring ‘bottom up’ development to life.

Top Down: Bottom Up

Top Down Development

Top down development is characterised by usually a small number of people recruited or elected to develop a ‘strategy’ that will lead to progress.

The ‘strategy’ is usually accompanied by a ‘plan’, where costed elements are prioritised and scheduled for delivery in the full expectation that things will, as a result, get better.

The strategy and its associated plans are usually supported with evidence and feasibility studies showing just why this is the right course of action and how benefits will accrue and to whom.  In recent years it seems we have stopped worrying about ‘to whom the benefits will accrue’ and accepting that the trickle down fairy will ensure that any wealth and wellbeing created by the plan will be enjoyed by all.

Top down development is also characterised by:

  • delegation down a chain of command to manage implementation – this is not always well managed
  • fierce discussions about the correct allocation of scarce resources – this can divert us from real issues and burn millions
  • disputes about chosen methodologies and the viability of alternatives – as everyone tries to get a piece of the planning budget
  • piloting and subsequent rolling out of schemes and plans – a belief that what worked elsewhere can also work here, and there….
  • attempts, with varying degrees of honesty and legitimacy, to encourage participation in the top down planning process – phrases like consultation, co-production and engagement are used liberally.
Top Down Development is really the only way to manage large infrastructure development projects.  It is a characteristic of electoral democracies where we vote in a small group to develop our strategies. It is also a characteristic of feudal and despotic states.

Bottom Up Development

Bottom Up Development is characterised by people using their power to develop their self interest. Remember self interest is not selfishness but means ‘self amongst others’. One of the important lessons from top down development is that often the best way to develop ones own self interest is to look after the self interests of others.

Sometimes bottom up development is also characterised by groups of people coming together when they have shared self interests.  In bottom up development this coming together around common cause requires little engineering. It sometimes just happens.  But it can be supported and encouraged. It is often discouraged.

Bottom up development is characterised by:

  • Individuals working in their own self interests in the way that they see fit
  • Individuals looking for  the resources that they need to make progress
  • Individuals pondering their options
  • Individuals coming together around common causes – forming associations and organising in order to increase their power
Bottom up is the only way to really get large numbers of people engaged in their own development and developing agency in their own lives and communities. Bottom up is about life in a participative democracy.

Bottom Up AND Top Down

Both bottom up and top down processes of development are necessary in a modern society.  Top down to plan and provide the infrastructure required and bottom up to allow individuals and groups to use it effectively.  Nearly all development work is done in a top down way.  It is my contention that we need to invest significantly in bottom up development and its relationship to top down, if we are to build communities full of active citizens.  If we are to encourage civic enterprise.