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Organisation: Airwave SolutionsSector: CommunicationsTrack record:
Business/HR strategyAirwave, a secure voice and data network purpose built for the emergency services, began life in 2000 after a series of high-profile disasters, culminating in the Clapham rail crash, revealed fatal shortcomings in the ability of Britain’s police, fire and ambulance services to communicate with each other. Reflecting the safety critical situations in which it operates – anything from firearms crime to the London riots - the organisation, which started out as a public finance initiative inside BT (later transferring to O2) has always prioritised “operational excellence”. Historically, that meant maintaining the network in top-class condition and, when customers asked for add-on services, coming up with the best that money can buy. However, when the public sector cuts left budget holders tightening their belts, Airwave’s buy-the-best ethos hit problems. Clients needed to make savings and were looking to Airwave for ideas, but the workforce was stuck in a rut. “Our people had got into the mentality of always offering the gold-plated option,” says Chris Elliot, transformation director. As clients called for something different, the company faced pressures to squeeze more revenues from its network by diversifying into markets including utility smart-metering and CCTV provision. For an engineering-led business, adapting to market change was not easy. To make matters worse, at the same time as it was hiring solutions providers and marketers for the push into service provision, Airwave was embroiled in a major reorganisation and a redundancy programme – ultimately achieved by voluntary means – that soured industrial relations. In the early years, life had revolved around the network. Now, the business, which Macquarie Bank acquired in 2007, was moving into a different gear and long-standing employees were confused about its direction, suspicious of the new roles that were appearing and increasingly disengaged.It was against this backdrop, in 2010, that Elliot, who was already working on the transformation of Airwave’s infrastructure and processes, brought in HR partner Susan Noone to tackle the culture. Mindful that people were in no mood for “cheesy” branded initiatives – a staff survey revealed that only 16 per cent felt morale was high – the programme began unannounced. “We were very conscious that had we gone out with a big launch, we would have been met with a great deal of cynicism,” Noone says. “We saw what we were doing as something that would drive real change, not as a tick in the box.”Key initiativesElliot is a firm believer that change has to have “100 per cent support from the top”, so the obvious place to begin was the boardroom. As a first step, he and Noone instigated quarterly “energise days” to get the heads of functions from across the organisation working together and thinking about their impact as leaders. As part of this, the top team decided to use 360-degree feedback to explore whether their own behaviour was contributing to the company’s problems. Sure enough, the feedback revealed some uncomfortable disconnects between the business that they aspired to build – one that encouraged people to challenge corporate orthodoxy, collaborate and take calculated risks – and the muscular management often on display at board meetings. “People who presented to the management board would quite often say ‘Well, we got out alive’. Some of the challenging… had become a little bit negative,” Elliot says. Around the same time, the board took the unusual step of developing a “directors’ charter”, enshrining four headline principles by which the directors agreed to be governed: “active empathy; team first, self second; challenge in private, agree in public; be more open and interested in each other’s business”. As they worked on improving their relations with each other, the top team mulled another challenge: how to get Airwave’s employees pulling in the same direction. The idea they settled on was to divide the entire workforce into small groups and invite them to breakfast club briefings, each hosted by a board member who would talk about the company’s strategy. The first priority, however, was to clear the air. “We kept things informal and said ‘Let’s have a conversation about what you think is going well and what is going badly’,” says Elliot. To avoid merely creating a talking-shop, Noone devised a process where, at the end of each session, the host director took away the issues that only the board could resolve and offered suggestions on who people should talk to, at the working level, to sort out what remained. As gripes were picked off and dealt with, the transformation team produced “You said. We did” wall posters and coasters, to highlight the issues raised and action taken. Gradually the mood improved, attendance rose from 68 per cent to 85 per cent and the discussions became more focused. “At first people wanted to vent [their frustrations] a bit, whereas now they come to listen to the directors,” Noone says.
Collaboration in context
By mixing engineers with salespeople, marketers and representatives of other functions, the clubs have begun to heal the divisions in the company. In the past, Elliot says, a fairly typical scenario was that “a salesperson might come up with an innovative solution, but the network guy’s response might be ‘That’s going to interfere with what I am doing’.” Now, people are developing more of “an appreciation of the problems that people in other parts of the organisation face”.Airwave’s head of customer communications, Sue Quigley, adds that getting the workforce into the same room as the top team, and encouraging them to ask questions, has made employees feel part of the strategy in a way that they would not have done had the same information arrived as a “faceless cascade”. “It’s real time with the leadership of the business,” she says, which helps people feel “we are all in it together”.Alongside the breakfast clubs, Noone has been focusing on upgrading line managers from “transactional-style” overseers of functions to leaders of people. But how do you get old-school engineers engaging with touchy-feely concepts such as emotional intelligence and empowerment? Her approach has been to bring theory to life. Management action days – MADs – which major on learning by doing, have been central to this. The first focused on the company’s strategy. A second made the case for empowering people to take decisions; actors were hired to act out the sorry consequences for customer relations when employees sit on the fence. Around the main events, smaller groups of managers - “mini-MADs” – worked on their own local action plans. “We had one group of engineering managers who decided that they would empower their field engineers to spend the capital expenditure budget,” Noone says. “Quite often, they found that the suggestions that the field engineers made were very different from what they had assumed was the best solution.” With work on tackling today’s challenges well under way, Airwave turned its attention to nurturing tomorrow’s leaders. There is no shortage of candidates. When it announced a new leadership development programme – the first since splitting from O2 – almost a quarter of the workforce applied. Although an encouraging sign of people’s appetite for development, the competition for places posed a problem. “One of the risks is always that a number of people end up feeling disappointed,” says Elliot. The team handled the situation by making sure that everyone who went through an assessment centre left with written feedback on their performance and the promise of follow-on development. Now other employees, who did not take part, are starting to get interested too. “I’ve had managers coming forward and saying: ‘My people really need development planning; can you help me put something together?’” says Noone. “Those conversations weren’t happening before.” So has the investment paid off? The headlines from Airwave’s latest engagement survey tell a good story, with the percentage of employees agreeing or strongly agreeing that “morale is high” having shifted from a dismal 16 per cent at the start of the programme to 64 per cent. Employees agreeing, or strongly agreeing, that the “directorates [divisions] collaborate effectively” has improved even more – up from 18 per cent to 77 per cent. Just over half of the employees said: “Airwave processes and procedures help me do my job effectively,” compared with 31 per cent previously. But have people really changed how they behave? Or have they just cheered up because leaders are paying them more attention?
Behavioural work in progress
Despite the stellar metrics, which he describes as “fairly incredible”, Elliot does not disguise the fact that there are areas where the programme has fallen short. Embedding the behaviours targeted in the company’s leadership competency framework into “business as usual” is work in progress and there are some gaps between what the organisation practises and what it preaches. Noone supplies an example. At the MADs, the company has been driving home the message that employees should think less about what they do and more about how they do it. Yet once into the appraisal cycle, people discover that, for all the talk, it is what people have achieved – not how they achieved it – that earns the top scores. “We need to make sure that [the what and the how] are aligned and that people are being assessed against the things that we are encouraging them to do,” Noone says.The transformation programme is about to face its stiffest test yet. As the supplier of a private mobile radio service to the 2012 Olympics, the company is taking a summer break from MADs, so that its workforce can concentrate on supporting the Games’ organisers and the emergency services in keeping visitors safe. On the plus side, says Noone, “if the Olympics go well, the momentum for us to build upon will be fantastic”. Looking at the bigger picture, customer satisfaction is rising and, despite the rough operating environment, the business has been hitting its targets. How much of this is down to the transformation initiatives is impossible to judge but, clearly, it is “a positive contributor”, Elliot says. Before the programme, the top team had a long conversation about whether it would be possible to measure its success – or lack of it – externally. In the end, it was gut instinct that persuaded them to bite the bullet. “Intuitively, we know that having a more flexible, more empowered organisation is the right thing to do,” Elliot says. The board took a leap in the dark – which, for a business seeking to rid itself of an aversion to risk-taking, is not a bad way to begin.Learning pointsWhen there’s a change initiative, it is easy for cynicism to get the upper hand. “People say ‘We’ve seen that before’,” or dismiss it as the latest management fad, Elliot says, so staying focused and being consistent is all important – especially when the going gets tough. Another pitfall to guard against is planning too rigorously. Cultural change is, by its very nature, emergent, he says, so it’s important not to become so wedded to a preset plan that flexibility is reduced. Elliot mentions Airwave’s leadership development programme as an example of where adapting paid off. The company originally intended the programme to have two streams: the first to cover candidates in the top two job bands thought likely to make it to director level in the next three years; the second for employees with the potential to take on significant leadership roles over the same timeframe. Once into the selection process, however, the assessors discovered another group of potential leaders: people who were relatively junior, and maybe a bit rough-edged, but sometimes more creative in their thinking, or keener for change, than more seasoned candidates. Rather than reject them because they lacked some of the sought-after attributes, the company created a third stream to bring them on.Looking back, there are things both Elliot and Noone would do differently. Had the leadership work been integrated with Airwave’s regular recruitment practices, succession planning and performance management systems from day one, Elliot thinks the process of culture change would be even further forward today. Similarly, he would do more to make people aware of the financial constraints and market realities confronting the business. “If people are being asked to change, they need to understand the reasons why,” he says.