With the current focus on austerity management and the questioning of budgets, you probably have little time for a strategic review of the leadership traits that will contribute to your survival and growth. By this I mean the habits and behaviour that will enable you to effectively plan and lead your team as it seeks new ways of working.
In the 1980s and 1990s, considerable emphasis was placed on identifying and developing proven leadership skills and techniques. Most famously, Stephen Covey identified The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and his book sold in the millions. I have borrowed Covey's phrase to identify seven habits that act as a Rosetta Stone for parks managers. This article seeks to identify those habits and encourage you to score your current level of skill so that you can identify those that need to be enhanced.
The seven habits have been identified through discussions with senior colleagues in our sector and leading management practitioners. This skill set is also the most likely to be required by prospective employers, and for that reason alone it is important that you undertake this personal inventory and take action - to enhance your value to both your current employer and prepare yourself for new opportunities. The habits are listed in the box above.
To make best use of this self-analysis, you should assess your current level of proficiency on a scale of zero to five, where five is exceptional (half marks are acceptable). The best score possible across the seven habits is 35 marks.
Individual scores below 2.5 per habit suggest that you should concentrate on improving your abilities in that particular area. An overall score below 17 suggests that you should identify those skills that require further action and include them in your continuing professional development (CPD) programme.
After reading through each habit, ask yourself: "Am I a zero or a five, or somewhere in between?" Before scoring your ability, consider examples of these behaviours you have been successful with in recent times. Then, record your score.
Habit one: anticipate
It is far too easy to become obsessive about what is directly ahead and to ignore longer-term possibilities. It is essential to develop an instinct for identifying innovations and new practices within or outside the sector that may lead to significant change.
To master this skill, you must interpret ambiguity and synthesise information from many sources before developing a viewpoint. What you are seeking are patterns and similar indications that show that change is imminent and useful. The aim here is to arrive at a "good enough" position and leave perfection to others.
This form of critical thinking questions everything by reframing problems to get to the crux of an issue - its root cause and/or advantage. This should also lead to a decision and action.
One other aspect of anticipating is ensuring that you are exposed to new ideas and opportunities through networking. Ask yourself:
- How well developed are your sector-wide and external networks; how do they assist you to identify potential changes and ideas?
- How skilful are you at both listening to and critically evaluating ideas that arise from networking activities?
Once you have answered the above, review your list of contacts by type - for example, opinion formers, innovators and technical experts - and then ask yourself if you have the right balance for your situation.
Habit two: develop sustaining partnerships, alliances and stakeholder management
In such a complex and ever-changing world, we need to engage with partners and stakeholders to ensure that we have their expertise and support so we can achieve our objectives. It is folly to believe that we can be entirely successful on our own merit.
Developing and, importantly, nurturing and sustaining partnerships and alliances are at the heart of this habit. For example:
- Total consensus is rare. The aim is to foster open dialogue, build trust and engage key stakeholders, especially when views diverge.
- Understand what drives other people's agendas.
- Bring tough issues to the surface, even when it's uncomfortable to do so.
- Assess risk tolerance and build support.
To repeat, it is a matter of understanding what drives other people's agendas, even when that is uncomfortable. Once this is achieved, it is then a case of following through to build the necessary support for agreed actions.
Habit three: building high-performance teams and learning
You are only as good as your team, and your team is only as good as its own teams. With this in mind, it is essential that your staff are the best by evaluating their skills and encouraging them to engage in honest feedback about how the plan is working. This is crucial, because success and failure are valuable sources of organisational learning.
Here is what you need to do:
- Ensure that you have an effective CPD programme.
- Encourage and exemplify honest, rigorous project debriefs.
- Shift course quickly if you discover you are off track.
- Celebrate both success and (well-intentioned) failures that give insight.
Every leader is tempted to deal with what is directly in front of them, because it always seems more urgent and concrete. Unfortunately, if you do that, you put your plan and service at risk. While you concentrate on steering around potholes, you will miss windfall opportunities, not to mention any signals that the road you are on is leading off a cliff.
This is a tough habit. It is hard to be a strategic leader if you do not know what strategic leaders are supposed to do. In essence, they focus on the future by ensuring that their teams are as prepared and skilled as possible. They constantly seek game-changing information at the boundaries of their sector and undertake this search with their partners and stakeholders.
Habit four: walking the job
This habit may surprise you - far too many seem to believe that they can lead and manage through emails and their iPhone. They cannot. There is no substitute for getting out into the parks and other spaces with your team members and seeing for yourself how well the service performs. In this context, "seeing really is believing".
Your presence on site and willingness to listen to colleagues as they explain what they do well - and what they could improve on given greater freedom or resource - is a leadership function that should not be undervalued. You should never be too busy to be a leader and to be seen out and about walking the job, listening to colleagues and stakeholders.
Begin today and diarise one day every two to three weeks for the next six months as a "walking the job" (WTJ) day. Set an agenda for each WTJ of issues that your team or managers wish to discuss or bring to your direct attention on site. Write up your reflections and proposals with your team and then take action.
Incidentally, do not forget to send a thank-you note - preferably handwritten - to the staff you met on site or who accompanied you. These personal touches bring leadership to life, creating both goodwill and showing that you care about their contribution to the service's success.
Habit five: branding and marketing
Determining how to position your service, its brand, and marketing it should form part of your strategic plan. We work in a political economy, therefore the normal market economy branding and marketing approaches can only take you so far; you have to remodel them to fit the multifaceted political environment within which your service operates.
How well, therefore, does your brand and marketing plan harmonise the political and advocacy needs of your councillors, external funders and central Government's priorities? What are your four main priorities and how are you advocating them across your political and professional networks? This requires you to:
- Identify the nature of your brand - what is it, how does it differentiate you from your competitors and how does your logo tell that story?
- How have you incorporated those answers into your strategic and operational plans and actions?
Branding and marketing are far more encompassing than a strapline and promotional activities. They require you to know and understand your users and financiers, to appreciate their wants and aspirations and to match them with services and genuine environmental standards.
It is also necessary to have a "No" response. Not all branding and marketing is good for your service. You have to develop a sense of what works and where the inputs and outputs achieve a sensible balance.
Habit six: value for money and financial awareness
This is a matter of establishing how you measure and relay to cabinet members, councillors, stakeholders and your team the value for money that your service creates. Evidence-supported decision-making is becoming commonplace when arguing the case for budgets and resourcing parks services; you should be continually collecting, evaluating and synthesising your service's evidence. The evidence you are seeking is:
- Public satisfaction with the service.
- New developments or changes that you have initiated that increased visitor numbers.
- Positive press and magazine features about your service.
- Comments from visitors that compliment the service, much in the way that theatres use quotes from reviews to "sell" their show to prospective customers.
- Pictorial evidence of cost, use and value for money using simple-to-understand metrics - for example, "each week our staff walk a distance equivalent to that from Land's End to John O'Groats while mowing the football pitches". You get the idea.
Habit seven: reflect
This is perhaps the most obvious and least understood of the habits. Just thinking about what you have done and how it has worked out is not a broad enough canvas on which to evaluate your achievements. What is crucial is that you understand your assessment in the context of what other services have achieved and the expertise and assets that you have at your disposal compared to others. Once the assessments are complete and you have taken action to resolve outstanding difficulties, move on.
There is no advantage in constantly picking over past successes or failure. Once you have reflected on them and have taken appropriate action, it is essential that you let them go. Far more harm is done by regurgitating the past than is ever done by moving on to try something different or innovative.
How well have you fared in this self-evaluating exercise?
Obviously, this is a daunting list of tasks, and frankly, no one is born a black belt in all these very different and complex skills. The good news is that they can all be learnt - whatever gaps exist in your skill set can be resolved. You may take issue with the order and even some of the detail, but can you afford not to take seriously developing the leadership and management habits that will ensure the continued success of your service? No, I didn't think that you could.
Reflecting on your skills and abilities and then taking action to enhance them is the gold standard in leadership behaviour that will position your service at the forefront of successful parks provision. It is now time to reflect, renew and react.
Seven key habits
2. Develop sustaining partnerships, alliances and stakeholder engagement
3. Building high-performance teams and learning
4. Walking the job
5. Branding and marketing
6. Ensuring value for money - financial awareness
Sid Sullivan is a parks consultant.