Making peace – a practical example
THIS IS AN EXTRACT FROM THE CHAPTER ON MAKING PEACE IN THE PEOPLE SKILLS REVOLUTION HANDBOOK
When writing the original People Skills Revolution, although I was aware of the peace making negotiations which took place in South Africa and Northern Ireland, I was not aware of anyone acting in a similar fashion in a business environment, then I was presented with the opportunity to speak to a chief executive who I believed had these skills and was working at this stage
I found the conversation I had with him fascinating at many levels so I have decided to include the interview in its entirety in the chapter on making peace because his story essentially tracks the sequence of skill development, which led him to become a peace maker in a business environment.
Bear in mind that prior to the meeting I had sent the CEO the People Skills Revolution so that he was aware what the discussion would be about. I had also taken a copy of the continuum of interpersonal skills with me so that we could refer to it during the interview.
The first question I asked him was ‘does the continuum of interpersonal skills resonate with you?’ to which he replied ‘would a potted history of my career help’? I said it would and this is how the rest of the interview unfolded.
‘I was a Secondary Modern boy who came from a council estate who had been written off at 11. Somehow I realised I had an ability to pass exams with a minimum of homework.
If I have a style, it is that I do not think I am superior to anyone. I was encouraged to get an education and at the time I got a full grant. My parents knew nothing about education and were not in a position to advise me although they did give me a lot of encouragement. They realised I could do something different and allowed me to do that. Not many people went to university at the time.
A lot of people who I grew up with denied their past, but I felt ‘I am what I am and I can feel confident in myself’. I am also quite shy.
At University I studied Economics. It felt easy, there was no one standing in my way and saying I couldn’t do it’
At this point I asked if he family had good interpersonal skills and he said ‘no’
He then continued
‘At 17, I spent five months in hospital and when I left university I decided to apply for an NHS finance traineeship. I did this for a number of reasons, they had a fully funded training scheme, I remembered my time in hospital and I think I felt comfortable in that environment since I was able to talk their language. Also my career has never been just a job to me, I have a passionate belief about trying to make it better. I think we are a very fortunate generation to have the NHS and we tend to take it for granted.
I had 2 life changing events – going to university and when I left the Health Service and went to work for one of the world’s leading professional services organisations.
I took up finance because I am good at numbers but I don’t do numbers for numbers sake. They are not inanimate objects and I ask myself ‘what can I do with the numbers?’.
After a few jobs in the health service, I arrived at a prestigious hospital on the south coast and I ended up a bit disillusioned. I was in charge of the capital programme and although the buildings were falling to bits the money was being spent on flashy bits of kit. There was also some particularly bad behaviour from the consultants. The leader spent his time running around in circles and trying to keep everyone happy.
I was marketable and qualified and decided I wanted to leave. I liked the professional services company, I liked the people and I liked the status of the job. I stayed there 4 years. It was an interesting experience and I think I became more assertive at this point.
I can be shy but I am always honest. I apply assertiveness attached to honesty. I don’t bullshit and I don’t give them the answers they want. I tell people the answer is no and then I then I tell them why’.
I questioned whether it was the experience at the hospital on the south coast which had made him more assertive. He said ‘yes, early on in my career, I saw what was happening and thought about what I would do differently. The other guy did not ‘bite the bullet’.
He then continued
‘leaving the Health Service and joining the private company gave me a whole set of new skills. I became good at empathy. I had a good knowledge base and I could relate well to clients – I could get a lot of information out of them. I didn’t do an influencing skills course as such, but I did a process consulting course which is similar and I found out I was good at it.
When you are shy, it’s a box of tricks and I have always been reflective. Everyone can have their own style of leadership. I think I am subtler, I grow on people.
At the professional services company I took on the job of assessing the viability of hospitals on behalf of the Department of Health for a new purchaser/provider model, which was being introduced. At the time, I was getting married and wanted a greater degree of stability in my life so I decided to join the clients. I became a director of finance in a hospital in Kent. It was a lucky break, which gave me a high profile and I knew how to ‘pass the bar’.
As director of finance I did a lot of project work including managing the application to become a trust. Since it was moving towards a purchaser/provider model there was a lot of negotiation. I learnt that you did not have to win every battle. I knew where the ‘red lines’ were. I knew what I needed to deliver and where I could not give anything up. Short of those ‘red lines’ I was aware that you need to give up things which were peripheral and that these things might not be peripheral for the other person.
In fact I might create a situation where I had to give something up so that I could demonstrate that I was ready to compromise. I used psychology to enable the other person to feel that they were getting something out of it and had achieved a successful negotiation.
I am very fortunate that I can hone in and decide what are the critical things that need to be delivered and show what I can give up. I can cut to the chase very quickly and grasp what is important with minimal briefing. The concept of ‘red lines’ was used in the professional services company and I found this idea very useful. I learnt to get a clear grasp of the priorities in an organisation. I knew what to pull out and synthesise into ‘red lines’ and to know where they were’.
I then showed the CEO, Carl Jung’s Psychological Types, Intuitor, Thinker, Feeler and Sensor model. He felt that although he started off as a Thinker, early on in his career he realised that people were an important part of the process. He is now very conscious of switching styles and how he communicates. He said he was conscious of all elements of his communication approach. He then continued
‘Most people see me as a natural, but there is a lot of psychological thinking behind what they see. When I approach people I do my homework. If you understand what their private concerns are, you know where they are coming from. I have never had a performance development plan in my life but my whole life is a performance development process. I am aware that I think all my skills have happened by accident but when you look back at it, it has all been a conscious decision. The downside of these skills is that sometimes people say that I am difficult to ‘read’. I am not a ‘one trick’ pony – if you have someone who is aggressive and they are consistently aggressive – they are not difficult to ‘read’.
I think the idea that there is a transition between negotiation and conciliation is true. You need to give in things (and I have done it deliberately) in order to be conciliatory. It is not good to win everything. You need to see the value of the longer term relationship.
During my time as director of finance I was doing less finance work and more of other things. I had got bored in finance and wanted to take on other challenges. I angled to be a Chief Executive and applied for a couple of jobs, which I did not get. I was told I was not ‘touchy feely’ enough so made a conscious effort to be a little cuddlier.
I was advised to do another role in another organisation, which was not finance. Taking on a director of operations position, I was conscious that it was a stepping stone to the CEO role. I took this as an opportunity to hone all my people skills.
Then I got parachuted into a trust, which was recovering from a scandal, as chief executive. The previous person had been sidelined and the executive team were appalled by what had happened. It was an incendiary situation where someone said ‘do you realise people hate you?’
It was clear that they thought I was going to ‘slash and burn’ and I was criticised heavily. It took me three months to establish myself into role and to gain the loyalty and trust of the organisation. I achieved this without bringing anyone else in and I used the team I had.
In taking up the role, my strategy was to talk to people to find out where they were coming from. I talked to the consultants and spotted key players who were not necessarily the most senior in the organisation but people who I felt could make a difference. I am good at spotting people you can trust quickly and identifying their strengths. I am also good at spotting peoples’ ‘Achilles heel’.
I am aggressive with the statement ‘always read the signals’ and sometimes of course you will make the wrong call. Unless you are willing to make the wrong call you are not pushing yourself enough. I feel that I am empowering people to fail – I believe that people should act right on the boundary – then they would take more risks.
I will admit I was scared rigid on my first day. You think you know what you are doing but you don’t. I don’t feel the need to know everything but I do need to know someone who does. I am proud of my ability to identify those people. My style is to warm people up – I do not see myself as an ‘impact player’.
Then I moved into an organisation which had been ‘run into the ground’ with a £21m deficit. This was an extremely political environment where they were politically killing each other. I realised I needed friends and people who could help. I needed support and ‘air cover’ particularly if I was doing something different. To create ‘friends’ I always did want I said I would do, established a track record and presented myself as someone they could do business with.
It was here that I realised that if I became too emotionally involved in the organisation that I would lose my perspective. When you fight for everything for the organisation, when it comes to the end, you end up losing.
Stucturally I did not make a load of people redundant, although I did take a personal interest in moving people on. Six months later I had a new team in place and ‘no blood on the carpet’, without it costing any money. As long as you have a game plan and stick to it – that is being decisive – that is true even if people are ‘baying for blood’ which can make it very difficult.
I treat people fairly and give them the benefit of the doubt. I assume they are ok until they prove me otherwise. The worst mistake I made was to give someone too many chances. I spent nine months and a lot effort trying to pull it around. When it did not work I was disappointed when I got abuse instead of thanks. I realised that there was an element of truth in the criticism that they felt that I was stringing them along and that you may be doing people a favour by acting quickly.
At the same time as sorting out the executive team, I introduced objectives and an appraisal system which is the simplest way of doing the job and allowing people to take responsibility’.
At this point I asked him how he approached conciliation with people who were in conflict. He found it difficult to give a specific example because he said he did this everyday and almost did not notice when he was doing it. Then I asked him about his process and he said that earlier in his career there had been so much going on in warring organisations that you had to do something. He started experimenting with different approaches. There had been a lot of trial and error but eventually he found a process which worked.
Coincidentally the structure he had stuck with was the same recommended in the People Skills Revolution which is based on the ACAS (Abritration and Conciliation Service) approach. This involves meeting the two parties individually to identify their issues, developing an agenda and then bringing the two people together to find an effective compromise. This is what he said about his process.
‘When two people are at loggerheads, I get them to expand and explain that neither of them is necessarily wrong and my aim is to help them to achieve a compromise. I get to know the people to find out what makes them tick and find out where it might be possible to do a deal. In doing this I state that it is critical for them to explain the issues, so that the other party understands where they are coming from. Then I work with them in a joint meeting to identify a compromise that they can both sign up to’.
Looking at the continuum of interpersonal skills, I then asked the CEO if the ‘Taking a stand’ stage had any relevance to him. He agreed it did and said
‘Taking a stand is about resisting pressure. There are people without honour wreaking havoc around an organisation – it’s often about dealing with them.
Also when I was parachuted into the organisation to sort out the scandal I was told what to do by the people above me, which I resisted. It was a risk but I also figured ‘I was the only game in town’.
I do have a moralistic side to me. I believe in treating people fairly and treating people how you would like to be treated yourself at all levels. I have a very developed sense of fairness. Taking a stand can be difficult. At one of the hospitals, we were asked to host an ‘Independent Treatment Centre’, which would take work away from the NHS and there was a huge financial bung attached to it. I made myself unpopular by saying it was economic madness and banging on about it at the Department of Health. In the end they did relent, it never happened and I managed to attract additional funds to our organisation.
I surprised myself about how preoccupied I got about it. There is a danger you will lose your edge but there were key principles involved in all of it.
I did have sleepless nights and got wound up about the sheer gargantuan stupidity of it. Taking a stand for what you believe in becomes a way of life. I don’t intervene on everything. I very much ‘keep my powder dry’. There is ‘only so much fuel in the tank’ so you need to use your interventions sparingly. Sometimes you have to ‘get out of your pram’ to have more impact. I am conscious of doing that. I used to think that this was more random and rationalised it. Now I am conscious that I do it deliberately – I know exactly when I am going to lose my temper and this has the greatest impact when I do not do it very often’
I then went on to ask about the making peace stage and we had a brief chat about the agreements which were made in South Africa and Northern Ireland which were documented in the People Skills Revolution. I was fascinated by the CEO’s response to this question.
‘The most important skill of the CEO is not about identifying what is the right thing to do. It is all about timing and spotting when the time is right to act. I learnt this when I worked in the private sector when I was asked the question ‘When is the right time for a large department store chain to have a sale. Do you have it when people have got lots of money or when they are short of it?
Most people think that it is when money is tight but in fact people buy when they have money in their pockets. If you have a sale when you notice that people don’t have money, no one will buy. Having sales is all about timing. So whatever you are selling you have to catch people when they want to buy.
We had some orthopedic surgeons who were very disaffected because their job plans were scuppered. The surgical rotas were not working well and the service itself was not working. They could not continue like that, but you have to create the space and timing to make a meaningful fist of it.
I could have tackled it head on but waited for the time when they said ‘we can’t continue with this’. It took six months for them to get to a place where they were prepared to give something up in order to make it better. At this point anything is better than what currently exists and they came to the negotiating table wanting to do a deal rather insisting on a lot of preconditions.
The critical thing here is spotting the right time. You can often have the right answer at the wrong time.
You can also create the right time too. I can be a bit cynical and send someone who understands what we are doing to go out and stir things up a bit which enables me to ‘keep my own powder dry’. This helps to sew the seeds of getting the timing right. I see this very much as ‘shading the odds’ and bringing the timing together.
In the dispute between the surgeons and the management, he had already tried conciliation and had identified the issues as follows.
The surgeons perceived that they
Felt that the reconfiguration had been done to them
Had no input
Had no power to do their work
Were ‘run ragged’
Were not able to give the best quality of care
Were powerless to do something about it
The management perceived that the
The surgeons don’t take any notice
Surgeons had caused the problems themselves
They were not willing to talk about it
That there was no solution
That they would not come up with any alternatives
It was all their fault.
‘In my role as peace maker it is critical not to be seen as part of the management, I want to have a proper arbitration process and ‘keep my powder dry’.
In order to make peace I got them all in a room and told them that the situation was unacceptable and can’t be allowed to continue and asked them ‘what are you going to do about it?’
They reacted with a degree of shock, the surgeons expected me to tow the management line and to tell them what to do. The management side did not like it because they felt that it was giving into the surgeons.
I empowered them to sort it out for themselves. The two sides got their act together. The consultants visited other places to see what other trusts were doing and came back with a proposal. The management did not like this initially but since the timing was right they understood that they would actually benefit if they accepted the solution and they took it on board’.
Showing him the step-by-step approach to peace making he agreed that this was a similar process to the one he used with the surgeons and the management.
Identify readiness to begin peace
Create a framework for discussions
Develop an environment of trust
Wait for a breakthrough
I would like to thank the CEO described in this interview for his readiness to share his thoughts and experiences for me and for confirming to me that the Continuum of Interpersonal Skills approach is not just a figment of my imagination.
You can learn more about the step-by-step approach to making peace and all the other step-by-step approaches to developing people skills in the People Skills Revolution and the People Skills Revolution Handbook published by Global Professional Publishing
Please note that this information in this blog is copyright and cannot be reproduced in any form without the prior permission of the author Pamela Milne who can be contacted through her website Solutionsunlimited.co.uk.