CIPD Podcast 43 - Distributed leadership

Date: 01/06/10 Duration: 00:17:19

In this podcast Claire McCartney, Advisory on Resource and Talent Planning, Stewart Bromley, Head of People Experience at First Direct, Steve Radcliffe, leadership consultant, and Caroline Sharp, Director of HR and Workforce Strategy, Dumfriess and Galloway NHS Board discuss leadership not only from the top down but at all levels in an organisation - 'distributed leadership'.


Philippa Lamb : Welcome to the podcast. We’re going to be taking a look at leadership this month, not only from the top down but at all levels in an organisation, what we’re calling 'distributed leadership'. Leadership isn’t just about having the skills of a chairman or a chief exec, it has been said that we’re all at some point in our lives leaders, whether on a sports field, in an office or even as a parent at home. At work though traditional leaders are at the pinnacle of the hierarchy but new research from the CIPD suggests that leadership doesn’t have to be about an elite few. As part of our flagship, Shaping the Future project we’ve pinpointed distributed leadership as one of the six key factors in achieving sustainable organisational success. For more information visit Claire McCartney, the CIPD’s resourcing and talent planning adviser, told me about the research findings on distributed leadership. 

CM: Shaping the future research is one of our flagship projects at the CIPD, really looking at the enablers of sustainable organisational performance. Distributed leadership was one of our key broader insights coming out related to sustainable organisational performance and it shows where possible if people can create leaders at all levels and empower line managers and employees that this has a positive effect on performance and also engagement levels.

PL: So, what does this mean out on the frontline? Stuart Bromley is head of People Experience at first direct, the banking and mortgage specialists.

SB: The concept is having leadership at all levels and the ability to empower people to make decisions and lead from the front. And I think that’s true whether you’re at the top of the organisation or the bottom of the organisation. 

PL: Steve Radcliffe is a leadership consultant and he buys into the idea that leadership is open to all. 

Steve Radcliffe: Being a leader I believe is something everybody can do and be. Some will need permission, some will need encouragement but it is a way to be in life which can then achieve all sorts of results. 

PL: Clearly when it comes to distributed leadership there are lots of pros, but is there a downside too? Here’s Claire McCartney. 

CM: I mean, I think there are definitely a number of key benefits, there are also some areas to watch as well, but some of the key benefits would be around greater collaboration between the workforce, people feeling more engaged because they’ve got more autonomy or control over what they’re doing. So, I think all those sorts of things are positives. I think some of the things that you need to watch for would be around inconsistencies if you’ve got managers taking on responsibility but if they’re doing it in a different way people could feel actually, is this fair? You might also have managers who are afraid to let go and don’t actually want to empower employees. So, there are sort of pros and cons. 

PL: Dividing leadership across an organisation’s management system raises a question, what exactly is the difference between distributed leadership and plain old-fashioned management? Claire McCartney. 

CM: Clearly, there are differences between leaders and managers and you wouldn’t be able to say that actually a manager or an employee could do the job of a CEO, that’s very different. However, I think what we’re talking about is leadership values, so you can have managers who are operationally managing but have leadership values and that might be keeping an eye to the future, being a bit more strategic. 

PL: So, it’s thinking beyond the immediate task in hand into the kind of wider business objectives of the organisation? 

CM: I think it is, and also if you’re in an organisation which empowers you, you’re also being a bit creative and being able to innovate as well. 

PL: Achieving distributed leadership requires a great deal of effort and vision. At first direct they pride themselves on the atmosphere of autonomy and responsibility which has facilitated a culture of distributed leadership. Here’s Stuart Bromley. 

SB: I think that’s very much based on culture so you’ve got to have a culture which allows people to take that role and feel that they are empowered to make decisions or take risks and for it not to be held against them if anything goes wrong. And our culture is very values based and we recruit on values, we train on values, it’s a very open environment and you wouldn’t know what role level one person was to the next in our environment, there’s no offices, there’s no changes in the desks or anything like that, everyone is in it together and everyone works in a very large open plan office together. I also think it’s to do with communication as well and I don’t mean in this context about communication from your senior people down through the organisation which I guess most people take as communication. If you’re in a truly distributed leadership type model you need communication both upwards and sidewards, so it’s how you facilitate people to communicate across the organisation to then spawn ideas and come up with ideas that they then take forward. 

PL: And how do you do that at first direct? 

SB: So, one example is most companies have suggestion schemes where everyone I’ve seen to date is where anybody can come up with an idea, it goes into a black box and six months later if you’re lucky something might come out of it and then there might be something in it for the person who came up with the idea. That’s pretty much how they work. That’s not how it works in first direct. So, we have an online system which allows people to come up with ideas, it’s completely publicised for everyone to look at those ideas, people then build on those ideas. 

PL: So, it’s like an open forum. 

SB: It’s completely open, everyone contributes to the ideas and people vote on ideas in different ways and therefore logically the stuff that gravitates to the top has the most substance because most people actually committed and made the idea more rounded. We also hold things called magical thinking, we have magicians who have expertise that challenge ideas and add to them and help through the process, but the point is that it’s completely open and you’re allowing people to share their thoughts in a very open way and it’s everyone’s responsibility to take a role in that whole definition of those ideas. So, it’s allowing everybody to take a stake in where the company’s going.
PL: One of the key benefits of distributed leadership is the agility it offers an organisation. Claire McCartney. 

CM: When you’re involved in a great deal of change actually getting employees at all levels and line managers involved in that means that you can deliver that change much more quickly and that you have sort of a shared understanding around the purpose of the organisation you all work in together. 

PL: For the Dumfries and Galloway NHS Board the drive to implement distributed leadership was fuelled by just this, a need to be change ready. But with four and a half thousand employees operating in an area of two and a half thousand square miles in south west Scotland changing the structure of leadership was an ambitious plan but one which they faced head on. Caroline Sharpe is the Director of HR and Workforce Strategy at Dumfries and Galloway NHS Board.

Caroline Sharp: We realised two or three years ago that the traditional model that we had of a very hierarchical leadership and quite complex reporting structures that were both professional and technical and managerial were not working well for us as an organisation in terms of making our teams change able. It’s not necessarily about driving them in a particular direction, it’s about enabling them to be able to be flexible and cope with whatever change comes.

PL: So, there was a lack of agility?

CS: Absolutely. So, we realised that we had to change both form and also the skill base of our managerial teams.

PL: So, what did you put in place instead?

PL: Our starting point was to develop our leadership programme called Delivering Dynamic Improvement, the aim of which was to introduce a much more distributed leadership style into the organisation where we were seeking to empower and enable multiple layers of senior and middle managers in the organisation in order to take and manage decisions appropriately within their own sphere of influence. And also to build networks across professional silos to enable teams to come together in a much more functional and slick way to solve problems. So, I guess describing the shift we were looking for, it was from dependency through a bit of independence and ultimately our goal is for interdependence.
PL: And as you say obviously within very clear sets of procedural boundaries because that’s the sort of business you’re in isn’t it?

CS: Absolutely, and the absolute core of our profession is around the professional and technical boundaries and capabilities that we operate and our staff are incredibly strong and incredibly good in that area.
PL: But that must have made it a very complex discussion deciding what freedom you can give people to become leaders?

CS: The freedom that we needed to give people as leaders was to enable them to make decisions within a clear and simple articulated organisational framework of the vision and outcomes.
PL: And did they take to the idea, did they embrace it or did they find it intimidating?

CS: We have individuals now who are at all different places on that journey because we are still on that journey. We have, through delivering the dynamic improvement process one of the side developments that has happened in parallel, a very significant side development has been that we have undertaken a restructuring of our general management teams. We have rationalised and clarified reporting layers and reporting structures through the organisation. We’re clarified how decisions can be made and supported the different levels within our organisation to enable them to make decisions without having to look for permission.

PL: Encouraging people to take ownership is a very appealing idea but is it necessarily workable in every sort of organisation? Steve Radcliffe has worked in a wide range of work places and he believes that it is.

SR: Over my years I’ve worked in private sector, I’ve worked in public sector, all the big global companies, the small companies, the charities and so on and so on, at base these are human beings living a life, can we help them to be more proactive, more in touch with what they care about, more energised by making the difference? My answer is yes, yes and yes in every instance. 

PL: This isn’t a belief shared by first direct’s Stuart Bromley. 

SB: I think it depends very much on the type of business, for example if your business is incredibly commoditised, you’re acquisition centric, then it is all about fleet of foot and speed of decision-making and execution because you have to run it incredibly lean because your margins are very low. So, in those types of environments taking a more of an everyone can lead type concept probably isn’t it for purpose. So, I don’t buy that it’s fit for everyone, no. 

PL: Who conversely, turning the question on its head, who do you think it is particularly suitable for then?

SB: I think it’s fantastic for the service sector so anyone offering services to customers, end customers, I think it’s absolutely fantastic because you absolutely want your people on the front line that are your shop window, the people that are serving your customers, to do the right thing whatever that means. And we are a heavily regulated industry so obviously there’s things we have to follow but you’re still empowering your people at the front line to do what’s right for the customer. And in those types of environments distributed leadership works very, very well. 

PL: Claire McCartney. 

CM: I think it does depend upon the organisational type and the setting. If you have a culture that is very hierarchical it’s going to be very difficult initially to start empowering people, but I don’t think, I think that it could be an aim for organisations but I think you need to flex the approach depending upon what your, sort of your strategy is, sort of how you need to deliver things, when they need to deliver things very quickly or whether you can take a little bit more time around different things. So, I think it depends on the organisational objectives and the already existing culture.
PL: For many employees the financial crash and subsequent recession called into question the very reliability of leadership. Perhaps that’s why distributed leadership is a model that’s gaining popularity.

CM: Some of our research at the CIPD, we run a quarterly employee outlook and we have some negative responses around lack of trust in senior leaders and people not feeling consulted. So, I think again that could be a response and this is one way of trying to get that trust and also being involved in some of the decision making. 

PL: Yes, and also the issue of lack of trust in senior management has been much discussed in light of the banking crisis. I mean, is this something that would have perhaps lessened the likelihood of that sort of disaster taking place do you think if there were more people within organisations taking responsibility for the key decisions?

CM: I think it’s difficult to say but I think with the distributed leadership approach if there are more people making decisions and...

FS: Or at least questioning. 

CM: Questioning and coming to a consensus, you know, several people then that would help mitigate some sort of risks. 

PL: For Dumfries and Galloway NHS Board the next year is an important period of change enabling distributed leadership across the organisation and helping to shape a successful future. I asked Caroline Sharpe what level of support she expected her team to need during this phase. 

CS: I’m certainly planning that they will need a significant level of support in terms of enabling support. They have the capability, they have the knowledge, like many of us however sometimes they just need the occasional bit of help to make the connections again, to tease out the good idea, to move outside the traditional boundaries. So, the sort of support that we’re now looking forward and building in for the next year is much more based around coaching, both individual coaching and then also coaching support and facilitated support for them to support their teams. 

PL: As you say, the thinking behind this whole move was about agility and the ability to contend with change and clearly all public sector organisations are now looking ahead to an extended period of challenge and change. I’m guessing that you’re hopeful that the measures you’ve put in place will now see you through that difficulty as well because there will be issues around budgets and job cuts and all the other sort of things that everyone is having to contend with. So, it’s not just about the core business of what you do as a health trust is it?

CS: Absolutely not. You’re right, the next three, five, seven years are going to be enormously challenging both financially and also continuingly challenging around the standards and the quality that is rightly expected of our community across Dumfries and Galloway. We’re very proud of the healthcare we provide within Scotland but we all know that there are opportunities for it to be even better and for it to be done in more efficient, more creative, more innovative ways. For us as an organisation we also have challenges around the sustainability of our healthcare in a very long timeframe over the next 25 to 30 years and looking at the infrastructure that we have and the workforce that we have and working out how best we can model that forward in a very long-term horizon. And I think that the thinking and the agility that w are building into the organisation overlaying the absolute passion that we already had within our organisation is setting us in a really strong place. I would not have liked to be going into the next three to five years of challenge that the public sector is facing without having already got on that journey. 

PL: That’s it for this month. To find out more about the topics discussed in today’s podcast go to Next month we’ll be investigating the relationship between HR and organisational development. Join us then. 
You’ve been listening to the CIPD podcast series


Subscribe, download and more

You can stream each episode, download the podcasts to your computer or subscribe to the series free via iTunes.

Trouble listening to podcasts?

If you are having trouble listening to the podcasts, you can access them directly via Soundcloud.