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Case study: Organisational transformation in the public sector – a shift from a solid and traditional to an agile and empowering culture

In this short case study by Annette Hennessy and Jane Allen, the transformation story of Merseyside Probation Trust and that of Annette herself are published for the first time. In her time as CEO, Annette managed to drive significant change and transform the organisation towards a more collaborative and empowering way of leadership and culture.

When Annette arrived in 2012 as CEO of Merseyside Probation Trust, the organisation had already successfully achieved Probation Trust status under a national compulsory process. At the time of leaving in January 2016 the work had been partially privatised, and the staff divided between the public and private sector. By this time, she had become the CEO of the new organisation.

Her arrival followed a previous CEO who had been in post for a long time, and who had created a considerable reputation locally and nationally. She used the first few months to take the time and the opportunity, to speak to senior managers and others, about what their views and perspectives were of the organisation. 

“Based on my observation and in listening to others, it was an organisation that had a culture, based on strong central control, and a long history of a mainly male senior leadership. The organisation had also been divided into a number of different groupings, leading to a variety of loyalties – it didn’t appear to have a unified sense of itself, and its overall purpose. For my style of leadership, there was a real challenge, based on power and gender” Annette says and continues:

“The transformation I hoped to see stemmed from an early vision for the organisation. I wanted to change the narrative for offenders, for staff, and for the organisation, to one whereby at every level it became known for its leadership and influence in Merseyside, about rehabilitation and its work with offenders. I wanted to see the organisation together as one, allow more senior managers and others to develop, and deal with some complex and entrenched difficulties.

I wanted to change the narrative for offenders, for staff, and for the organisation, to one whereby at every level it became known for its leadership and influence in Merseyside, about rehabilitation and its work with offenders”

Annette quickly realised that she had a tricky leadership task on her table. The previous culture was a traditional ‘top down’ one. Some senior managers who were expected to keep order, were controlling and resistant to collaboration, and whilst not necessarily intentional, this created a culture of dependency and compliance. The change that Annette was determined to lead, would have to involve:

  • the culture moving from fragmented to united, from central control to distributed leadership, and from an internal focus, to one that was open to external influence and ideas
  • changing the perception of leadership from knowing the answers, to one of exploring and discovering solutions with others
  • managing a time of intense political scrutiny, and significant organisational upheaval
  •  keeping the organisation stable, with good performance, and delivering a great front-line service
  • meeting the personal leadership challenge of dealing with significant uncertainty, unknown territory, fixed mindsets, and the loneliness and self- doubt as a CEO

What helped Annette to transform the organisation?

Annette took the time to discover what the perspective of others was, showing both interest and respect for their views. She saw the Board and the Chair as allies, and as a critical part of the team, and felt strongly that working in partnership with them would be a crucial factor in the process: “I developed a strong relationship with the Board Chair and the Board, we were a team, they had a clear view about how the organisation had to change, and I was able to take them into my confidence with the internal challenges, we had regular visible meetings“.

Senior managers whose leadership style was very different, and who had been disempowered, were supported to develop and become ‘role models’ for an alternative style of distributed leadership. Annette encouraged the senior team and others to find solutions to everyday matters autonomously, and only come to her if they couldn’t resolve those matters otherwise. She also encouraged the senior team to work collaboratively on the critical issues of the organisation. “My style was intentionally and instinctively one of distributed leadership – some important things were agreed with me, and/or the Board, but a lot of the decision making was done at the level of the senior team, middle managers, and teams“, she says

One of Annette’s first tasks was to hold a conference for the whole organisation, mostly curated by the staff and managers, and held at a famous local Racecourse. Organising the conference in this specific location was an intentional choice as Merseyside, specifically Liverpool, has a very strong proud history and reputation. This venue not only brought all the staff together as one, but it also reminded them of the important place Liverpool and Merseyside had in the world.

“I wanted to open up their thinking to look ‘out’ and to see themselves as leaders in rehabilitation, in working with offenders, and to be proud of their work and reputation. I invited external resources and support to develop innovation and credibility. We invited a globally renowned academic in the field of rehabilitation, to help us set up a collaborative way of working as an organisation with offenders. When we were going through the process of being privatised, we invited the local university to research how we were managing the transition – a live piece of action research”, Annette notes.

Counter intuitively Annette asked for more scrutiny and support for example in developing an approach to working with diversity, because she and the senior leadership team wanted to be seen to challenge themselves, even in times of great change: “One of my proudest achievements was inviting the ‘lived experience’ organisation User Voice [1] to work in partnership with the organisation, alongside me as the CEO, the senior team, and all of the staff to develop how we delivered rehabilitation. This was work I never lost sight of, I championed it and used my position to give it real agency – this meant showing up, always responding to their invites, being present and chairing the joint council with User Voice, senior managers and front-line staff“.

Annette connected strongly with the purpose of the organisation. This wasn’t difficult for her, because in the early stage of her career, she was a front-line probation officer, which meant she had an enduring belief in an individual’s capacity for growth and change. “feel strongly about what offenders have to offer – they are not society’s deficits but assets in any healthy society, and we are all work in progress.”, she explains. 

This deep-rooted connection to values and the value of the people receiving the service, gave her the passion and determination to speak authentically, and keep focus on what the true value of the work was. Annette point out that “A bold vision has to be driven through people, and relationships matter, with leaders themselves working hard on their own development, developing collaborative relationships, and mutual power.’

“A bold vision has to be driven through people, and relationships matter”

The journey had its joys and its challenges, never forgetting the importance of true connection with other people. Annette recalls: “We had a great deal of fun in the team and within the organisation, anyone who knows the Liverpool spirit will know their great pride in their history and heritage, and the sense of humour. I think it gave them, and me, great delight in teasing me and introducing me to Merseyside. 

Most important was that I realised I had to have the humility and capacity to be open to change and challenge myself. If I wanted others to show courage, collaboration, and openness, I had to show that I was willing, and able to do that too. There were days when it was very daunting, and only by having the courage to ask for help, to see other perspectives and to trust others, was I able to come back the next day!”

Annette notes that having a coach during this process was very valuable, as it supported her development and offered a safe harbour when she felt vulnerable along the way. She received coaching from Amara’s Jane Allen, with whom she was already familiar with from a previous role. The benefits and the support provided through coaching for were in a significant role for Annette: The 1 to 1 coaching support for me over the years was so important, when often I was vulnerable, and my own leadership was under the microscope. The added value was that Jane had years of organisational consultancy experience, which gave me access to resources and expertise far beyond the 1-1 coaching.  Working under new private sector owners was challenging. Apart from the 1-1, and working on strategies with Jane, I also had the comfort of knowing that other senior managers in the organisation were also receiving coaching, so it wasn’t just me being supported.”

Jane brings in her perspective by pointing out that the outcome that mattered to her was to support Annette in her challenge with the shift from a solid, traditional, organisation to a culture that was more agile, collaborative, democratic and engaged throughout a period of significant change. From a previous engagement, Jane already knew the strengths and the problems in the area. There were one or two senior managers who had significant potential yet were disempowered under the old culture. 

“Annette orchestrated a number of transitions safely, changing the old culture, and in a way that didn’t destabilise it. Merseyside always stands out nationally, as it has a history and reputation that is very different and colourful. There was already a story of capability, so she wasn’t starting from scratch. She had good relationships with important stakeholders locally and nationally, and with other CEOs”, Jane explains.

Jane’s role in support wasn’t ‘hands on’ in the organisation. She was available as support to the CEO, and as an extensive source of other valuable resources to support organisational development.  Annette recognised and accepted help from the outside, and her leadership worked in partnership with internal leaders, and didn’t take over or provide solutions. This created a powerful message to the organisation, very different from the old one whereby outsiders were not easily trusted, and often resisted.

What were the outcomes of this transformation?

Internally, a significant shift in attitudes could be seen regarding the work with offenders, as they began to be seen as partners in their own rehabilitation. They contributed to the way the service was delivered, and the organisation shared its resources with them. Wherever there were external PR events, their representatives were there, for example when the new owners took over, at conferences, or in training events. There were less barriers and the work had become more collaborative. Annette gives an example of one service user (offender), who said that he never expected to be sitting round a table with the Chief Executive. “What I had underestimated before was the impact of where I put my attention”, Annette says. “Such little changes in my behaviour signified something far bigger to him and were so important for him.”

Other significant change was that managers at all levels, started taking more responsibility for finding solutions, instead of waiting to be told what to do. In general, performance and morale were maintained in spite of significant challenges and changes. “It felt like the organisation was moving to a position of mutual power and mutual responsibility”, Annette recalls. 

Externally the narrative about the organisation and the work changed substantially, the staff knew that the CEO and the managers were proud of them, which in turn allowed them to become really proud of their own work, of their own innovation and their creativity. A natural consequence of this was that their confidence in their own work and impact increased. In the wider system, the staff members were invited to ‘showcase’ their work, and external partners wanted to work with them. It enhanced the way that rehabilitation and offenders were perceived, and meant much greater collaboration and effectiveness, across many difficult issues in the area. 

While looking back to her time in Merseyside and the collaboration with Jane, Annette is confident that this journey has left a deep mark on her: “Looking back now I see that it was an important time for my own development. There were some very difficult challenges for me personally and professionally, and there were days I felt overwhelmed, exposed, and vulnerable. I realise now that these times shaped me and my leadership, and with the space and support from coaching I began to see those times as periods of huge growth. By being willing to be seen as uncertain, as vulnerable, to ask for help, and to work in conjunction with others, it increased not only my own impact, but the ability of others to have an impact”.

Reflecting back to the transformation journey and the results achieved, Annette and Jane agree that Annette success was enabled by:

  • Giving trust to other cautiously and wisely 
  • Keeping sight of the vision
  • Making alliances, talking, and listening to other’s concerns
  • Asking the senior team to meet separately, and only bring to her what they couldn’t resolve
  • Tweaking the structures that already existed.
  • Having set up the conference to unify the organisation in her first few months as a CEO.
  • Having the courage of her convictions in spite of a lot of senior manager resistance and advising caution.
  • Never pretending to know the answers, but inviting people to join her and work with her, and the majority did 

If you wish to practise and develop your leadership like Annette did, you can get free access to her precise “Throwing you cap over the wall: Timely action in the system”, HERE. As Annette explains: “I publicly committed to working towards a different and more genuine engagement with the individuals in the criminal justice system. As the saying goes ‘I threw my cap over the wall’ and then I had to follow it”. The practise is part of the Street Smart Awareness and inquiry-in-action – book.

Amara webinar: Organic leadership and organisational transformation in the public sector

We will share thoughts and experiences about organisational transformation in the public sector, especially focusing on what it requires from the leaders. As our speakers we are happy to have Mette Aagaard, Director of Development in Slagelse Municipality in Denmark and Annette Hennessy, a former CEO of Merseyside Probation Trust UK.

[1] N.B. User’s Voice is a voluntary organisation building the structures that allow collaboration between the people using services, those with ‘lived experience, and the people working in the criminal justice system, to create a more effective system and service. It gives a voice to the people in the criminal justice system.  https://www.uservoice.org