Finding the Shackleton in Leadership
13th May by Roger Smith OBE
Following on from his previous blog on the impact Covid-19 has had on CLIC Sargent and its workforce, Director of People & Learning Roger Smith provides a personal reflection on the next ‘midway’ phase we now all need to lead.
Now that the adrenaline of crisis has dipped and the new normal starts to plant, this is arguably the toughest stage.
He draws on his own experience of the past few weeks but also takes inspiration from one of the greatest leaders of all time – Ernest Shackleton.
Apart but still together
Since I last wrote, we have had another smaller wave of furloughing and reduction of hours at CLIC Sargent. This brings the total of those still doing a ‘normal week’ to only 23%, and a lot of these usually work part time already. So, yes, we are lean.
Thanks to the hard work and commitment of our Associate Directors, who have been focused on key and vital operational delivery, we in the Leadership Team have been able to continue to be strategic and focused on the bigger picture.
As I mentioned in my earlier article, it will be people that will get us through this crisis and the staff at CLIC Sargent have been remarkable.
Whether it’s technical back up, data analysis, web management, estates, income generation, payroll, income processing or HR, the organisation just works. Critically our clients can still access the social care and support services they need, albeit in a changed manner, and that need is very much heightened for many.
We are of course missing those who are furloughed and our many volunteers. We are also missing those redeployed at our corporate partner Morrisons. There is no doubt that these ‘gaps’ make us feel less of an organisation, and the ‘family’ feels broken up a little.
Some of our staff with reduced working weeks, and especially those who’ve been furloughed, feel anxious that they are not being present to help with the fight against Cancer. Others see the scheme as a relief, a necessity in order to keep themselves and their families safe. So, the spectrum of emotion is wide and impact varied.
One thing I want all staff who have been furloughed to know is that they are making as much of an impact to children and young people with cancer as those of us still ‘on the clock’.
They are making the organisation financially viable and in turn our present and future possible. When we announced the news to individuals, without exception, each person responded professionally. I know this is the case in thousands of organisations across the UK but for me, here at CLIC Sargent, it showed me the measure of the people I work with.
Our new ‘mark’
Shackleton famously reflected that ‘a man must shape himself to a new mark, directly the old one goes’. I might have misquoted that, but the sentiment is there. As I write, CLIC Sargent is shaping into our new mark.
When this dreadful crisis arrvied, everything changed, but the commitment and drive hasn’t. And our new CEO, Rachel Kirby Rider, has been magnificent in bringing us all along into our next crucial stage.
The first wave of changes was primarily about money and people, and they still continue as important threads, but we are now focusing on the midterm future and what might happen with successive responses to the coming and going of the virus, the ‘R’ rate, and the impact of social distancing and travel avoidance (plus a whole lot more).
This is the time get strategic, to plan for the future, to trust ourselves that we can get more right than wrong and to reflect on what we do and how we do it. With reference again to Shackleton, that’s the new mark.
Whilst lockdown will loosen, this doesn’t mean we bounce back to how we were pre March. We need to do the thinking first and balance Mission with Money and Method, or, to put it another way, Finance with Function and Form.
So, what am I thinking about?
As a Director who is primarily focused on people, my priority is to continue to put Leaders, Managers and Teams first. They will make the difference to our future.
As I think about our upcoming needs, there are two forms of leadership that stand out for me: Henry V at Agincourt (the Shakespeare version that is) and Shackleton. Those who know me won’t be surprised to hear me say ‘at times like this, our leaders all need to be more Shackleton’. He was a fantastic motivator of men (yes, it was all men in this case!) and he understood in his heart what was needed to keep morale high and which ‘demons’ needed to be managed - in his case, fear, idleness, ennui and dissidence. These demons take different forms in different teams. Let me explain how it worked with his crew:
In January 1915, the race to the South Pole was on. Shackleton and his crew on Endurance got trapped in the ice ultimately forcing them to abandon ship, camp on the ice, and then make a seven-day dash to the Antarctic mainland, keeping well away from any shipping lanes. They were stranded until Shackleton and a team sought rescue in August. Not one of his 28 men died.
There is so much to learn from this about building morale and sustaining motivation, but the main takeaway is: focus on the future, the new mark.
And so, with an attempt to be more Shackleton, here’s my advice on what leaders might do at difficult times:
- Focus positively on the future and what you will achieve. The past has gone and focusing on it isn’t helpful
- Talk things up, not down, by being optimistic
- Celebrate and take joy where you can
- Keep those who might disrupt and undo things close to you (Shackleton made them share a tent with him… I wonder if that’s where the phrase came from)
- Show unshakable faith in what you and your lieutenants are doing
- Don’t lie about the challenges faced, and keep people engaged by talking about the issue in a way that looks forward not back. Set them challenging but achievable goals
- Treat people with respect and kindness, acknowledging their contribution and giving them responsibility
- Listen to your people well and get to know them personally
I think we all need to do a bit of this but we need to be authentic, everything has to be framed by a great deal of judgement and thought.
Today and beyond, we need the thinkers and the planners to plan, we need the technicians to make things happen, and boy oh boy do we need the scientists to sort out the virus.
We can’t all do everything, but whilst we focus on our own roles, we can also be there for our colleagues and teams.
As Leaders, Shackleton is in us all, because we all know that good personal leadership and clear focus works.
In the words of Sir Raymond Priestly on the subject of morale and the building of hope:
“For scientific discovery give me Scott; for speed and efficiency of travel give me Amundsen; but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”