Dec 08 2018| Leadership
by Phil Eyre Founder
In the third of our interviews with inspirational leaders in the Channel Islands, Phil Eyre, founder of Leaders, spoke to Paul Whitfield.
Who for you represents a model of a great leader?
I could cite several people who have influenced me personally, but thinking about who has had a long-term impact, it would have to be one of my early heroes Ernest Shackleton. I wanted to be an adventurer and explorer in my youth and there are aspects of his remarkable leadership that have never left me.
Shackleton was one of the three major polar explorers and famous for the biggest Trans Antarctic polar expedition. Ironically, the expedition itself failed: the expedition vessel, the Endurance, was locked into ice and was eventually crushed. Shackleton found himself in an impossible situation, he had to adapt and re-think his primary mission and focus on bringing every crew member back alive.
This became a ‘two-year’ journey of epic proportions in the worst possible physical conditions and against threats such as starvation, hypothermia and even mutiny. Yet he succeeded and everyone came home alive. While the expedition itself was a failure, it was a colossal leadership success and a tremendous demonstration of strength of character.
I’ve had two other significant inspirations: When I was a Governor in the Prison Service in the North of England, an area manager for the Home Office had a lasting impact on me. When things went wrong he didn’t react by simply fire-fighting or by immediately throwing additional resources at the issue. Instead, he worked hard to uncover the cause of the problem, and carefully came up with the best solution.
Lastly, I spent a lot of time with one of my grandfathers, his wisdom taught me about staying true to my personal values, especially the importance of being self-aware and treating everyone equally.
What makes a great leader?
I am a great believer in leadership in context, adapting your style according to the situation. Working within government, there are complexities and constraints. It is continually challenging, so it can be necessary, like it was for Shackleton, to adapt and reset the original objectives so that they better reflect the current situation. Great leaders have strength, tenacity and courage.
Great leaders also maintain momentum and clarity of vision. It is really important that you communicate consistently, refreshing and repeating your core objectives so that colleagues throughout your organisation remain positively engaged and focused.
What has been the toughest challenge you have ever faced in a leadership role and how did you overcome it?
After my military career, I was working in London in a marketing role for a successful and driven commercial business. On the surface, success was happening but I realised I needed to work for an organisation that drew on my values more deeply. This led me to join the Home Office and their leadership scheme within the prison service.
As a Prison Governor, I recall being seconded to Leeds to market test the process of establishing a public sector prison against a private sector bid process. This was one of the largest prison operations in the UK, with a community of teachers, doctors, nurses, prison workers, prisoners, families and so on. They had an entrenched, less than productive, culture and my mission was either to make the prison private or lead it through transformation in the public sector. Leading that change successfully cut my teeth and taught me a lot about driving change and efficiency programmes in a significantly demanding environment.
Where I am right now is the most impactful opportunity in terms of transformation. To meet the needs of our community with its changing demographics, whilst ensuring the provision of sustainable public services against a backdrop of increasing public expectation, rising costs and, in some areas, a significant increase in demand, is a unique challenge.
I firmly believe that public services have to understand their identity, focus on the horizon and be responsible in meeting the challenge that lies ahead. The civil service serves government and our community. To perform well, we need to be ready to meet the needs of future generations.
You have described your desire to bring purpose and values to your work; what do you see as the purpose of the States of Guernsey?
I came out of a senior leadership position in the UK criminal justice environment back to Guernsey, and ultimately into the role I’m in today for the opportunity to influence and lead in a holistic way rather than just dealing with one aspect of the community. It is compelling and, in a Guernsey context, we have every opportunity to talk, meet, and change policy for the benefit of our community. Working with both internal government resources and external stakeholders, we really can make it happen and make a difference. This should be simple to achieve, however, all too often it is never easy!
It is easy to become weary of continuously referring to transformation. However, true transformation for our community, in government terms, is delivered through legislation and policy. It goes back to leadership in context: the government should be trying to drive good and betterment in society.
For example, looking after people who are encountering the criminal justice system is not just about Home Affairs running their mandated services well or justice policy alone; it is about the broader aspect of community-wide social policy, taking consideration of education, health and living environments with the aim of fostering better pathways across the spectrum of life, from the cradle to the grave.
Shaping and implementing government policy provides a fantastic opportunity to optimise the worth of every individual. The right policies will focus on the long-term creation of conditions for happy, healthy people rather than focusing on responding to shorter-term problems.
What makes leading change particularly difficult in the States of Guernsey?
The organisation needs different approaches to leadership in different contexts. This is a challenge - a good one - in an organisation with over 5,000 people and a wide variety of roles, styles and values.
For the most part, the most suitable style of leadership is persuasive, clarifying the direction and objectives and consistently communicating in an effort to engage with everyone. However, when needed it might require a more directive style; clear direction delivered in a manner suitable to the operating environment.
When I became Chief Executive, I spent the first 100 days listening to as many people as possible right across the organisation. We have some excellent people, but it was clear that leading culture change in this context would be challenging.
How do you create that change?
Continual liaison is critical, as is responding and adapting to circumstance. We are having success, and we are seeing the culture shift but it’s a long-term project and we are about halfway through.
The next phase of initiatives, set out in my open letter a few weeks ago, will help take us further in this transformation.
It has been said that leadership is lonely; from where do you draw your strongest support?
It can be isolating at times, perhaps more so because of working in an island community. If you were working in public services in the UK, you would go to the county next door to learn or test with your peers. You’d have other large organisations to tap into, but in Guernsey, you can feel isolation.
I rely on my love of rugby and liken personal strength to the sporting analogy of the‘tower of power’ – being strong in your core, strong inside, to take on external challenges. A real bonus with activities like coaching rugby is that not only am I energised and refreshed, but I also get to know what our community thinks and feels. I hear parents, I hear young people; this helps me to connect with and understand the people we are serving.
My family and my home life are paramount; I believe it makes a huge difference if you have strength and enjoyment from home.
However, I also take that family element into work relationships and team building in the office. I try to encourage my team to develop a sense of family based on trust, loyalty, self-awareness and confidence to safely challenge. If you have those family values in a team, it's compelling. Recruiting to behaviours and values helps tremendously with creating that ‘work family’.
You talk about achieving a cultural change, how important is culture to transformation and how have you achieved this cultural shift?
We are seven years into a culture shift and starting the next wave which includes the obvious acceleration of technology and digitalisation. However, people are everything in terms of both success and failure. They are the greatest influence, and it starts with recruiting the right person with the right values and behaviours and not singularly focusing on competence and technical ability. The former can be far harder to establish.
Very early on I decided to establish the right culture and not to try and tackle every one of the multiple cultures you inevitably find in a large organisation. There is little merit in focusing on the negative; driving good performance is more productive than trying to drive out bad performance.
I want my people to experience outstanding colleagues as the norm. Working with someone who lifts you up, not just through their personality but through their attitude to work, makes all the difference. An outstanding colleague with a ‘can-do’ attitude will tackle the final third of a project and get the job done. Within the right culture, such behaviours become contagious. If you are not comfortable with that you will move on, because it’s not the place for you.
What are some of the cultural changes you are seeking to lead? How would someone looking in observe these in, say, two or three years?
Recalibrating the structures of the civil service, which we are aiming to achieve by June 2020, means we have to design and rewrite the system, staying focused on the benefits.
The strategic workforce review which will take two to three years will simplify the organisation’s structure and redesign many of our services and processes. It will drive out inequality and fragmentation and create greater harmony.
Transforming to a matrix structure will help us to improve cross-service working. In addition to strategic advantages, this far better reflects the reality for people in our community; we live ‘whole’ lives, not compartmentalised ones.
Creating an environment of fairness and equality is essential. Establishing and living these values at the top and creating the right structure to reflect that will ensure these values are recognised and adopted by the entire organisation.
I don’t believe in the big bang approach to transformation; a more inclusive and persuasive approach is more effective. Clearly and consistently communicating why the vision is necessary and making sure we all understand it, we know what we have achieved and we are focused on what comes next.
Your decision to announce the civil service redesign through an open letter was a bold move, how important is open and equal communication to leadership success?
It is critical. Every year I get in contact with about 2,000 - 3,000 people, from right across the organisation. We do it in different ways - in theatres and conferences, internal electronic magazines to help everyone understand that we are one organisation. We mix it up, having different people in the room. Nurses, gardeners, office workers, teachers, lawyers, we all work for the same company.
Throughout the year, we consistently communicate through different media, updating on where we are and providing the necessary context - for example, are we at the start, middle or nearing the end of a process of change? Some need a town-hall style of communication, and some need smaller groups, one-to-one or email. So we use a variety of ways.
What does the future of leadership in the States of Guernsey look like and how do you develop future leaders?
Core values – integrity honesty and impartiality - are a prerequisite of people in a public service role.
I want us to professionalise the civil service and this will take new approaches to leadership. We have already started; we are one organisation, we have created professional roles and pathways under finance, HR, technology and so on.… but we can go far wider. We have talented people in this organisation, we need to build them up and bring them through and encourage a whole-company learning ethos where everyone presses for personal and organisational improvement at every level.
Leadership has to adapt going forward, again, it’s leadership in context. We have to understand Artificial Intelligence (AI) and digitalisation, but we shouldn’t miss the fact that with globalisation and the changes to how the West is perceived, we are going to operate in a very different way in the future.
We have also got the 100-year life happening now. People currently in their 20s will live to 100. The 'educate, career, retire' life is not sustainable; we are living actively and healthily for longer, so the impact of our ageing demographic is a massive opportunity to review how we balance the introduction of AI and digitalisation. In doing so, this equally presents a significant opportunity to appraise and optimise where the human dynamic can be used more effectively to add value and productivity. As employers, we have to start that today.
Someone wise said that ‘you can’t eat an elephant in one mouthful’. As I’ve said, I don’t believe in a big bang approach to change. It’s better to state clear objectives and then work it through consistently, step by step; ensuring coordinated activities converge to achieve your vision and goals; that’s what will get you there.
It returns you to the Shackleton moment; you must set yourself the goal, adjust if necessary, work towards it in incremental phases and stay on that path.