Leadership is action not position.

This quote hung on the wall of our office when I started my first real job back in 1995.

It hit home for me and has stuck with me ever since. I mentioned in Your People are Your Business that it is critical for you to get to know your People. In that post I focused on what they could tell you, but as a leader I believe it is also very important for you to find out what they can do for you, and through that, what you can do for them.

What do I mean by this? I read once that as a manager it is your job to find the next leaders; that is your legacy. Often it is easy to do this because these future leaders will send you signals. But you have to know where to look, and the process of looking begins, quite simply, by getting to know your People.

I’ve done something different with this post.  I thought I’d ask Karla - one of our most visible leaders- what she thought I was doing back when I was spending so much time walking the floors and chatting with People just after I joined HomeServe.  It will be a simple format.  I’ll ask the question and Karla will give her unedited view.  I’ll then try to fill in the blanks on what I was trying to accomplish.

HOW DID IT FEEL WHEN YOU HEARD ABOUT THE FCA INVESTIGATION?  Karla - I hadn’t been there long when the trouble was unearthed. I still remember us all collected together to be given the news of the (what was then) FSA investigation and the sales cessation. I don’t remember feeling sad or angry. If I’m honest, I don’t think I felt anything at all. I guess that was the biggest statement of how things were back then. People started leaving the company really quickly and as the chaos unravelled around us we had news of a new Marketing Director joining the company. Someone showed me a picture of him a few months before he joined us, he didn’t look like someone who was going to save our business – but then I guess he'd fit right in.

Greg - I’m not sure I would have joined if I knew just how bad things were; the location didn’t really make any sense for me and I was a banker not an insurance guy.  However, the UK CEO at the time, Jonathan King, had a good plan and it was a personal connection to him and what he wanted to do that convinced me to join. I’d seen Bank of America destroy something that I loved with mbna and then I jumped right out of that mess and into another strange situation at RBS. The thing that I hated about both of those roles was I’d lost the ability to influence both the culture and the Customer experience; I was managing numbers in a spreadsheet because at the end of the day that was what was important in those companies. Jonathan said I could come and help lead a cultural revolution based around the Customer and that is what won me over. When Jonathan left, his replacement, and my boss, Martin did not miss a beat when it came to culture. In fact he joined in and took it up a notch.

WHEN DID YOU FEEL A CHANGE?  Karla - So I don’t really remember my first interactions with Greg Reed. He was just there. Our previous Marketing Directors had run, eyes to the floor, avoiding all conversation with any of us. Greg just popped up every now and then to see what we were doing. He became the night stalker who came out of his office after hours to chat to those who were working a little late and share a biscuit with them if he found any on his travels. What I didn’t realise then, was Greg was spending time getting to know those who were doing the things they were told against those who were doing the right thing. Staying after hours was not a medal to be worn but getting through everything that was expected of you and a little bit more really was.

Greg – Karla gives me too much credit. I really just wanted to understand what people did and why they did it. It was, and is, easy to spot the people who want to do more, who want to lead. They tell you if you just ask what they are doing and why. You don’t have to be clever as people love to talk about themselves given the chance. I like to find those people who want to make a difference, the people with a bit of personal pride. They always find a way to do more.  Karla is not shy. I learned a lot about her and the rest of the team. I knew right away that I’d made a good choice.

WHEN DID YOU KNOW THINGS WERE GOING TO BE DIFFERENT?  Karla - Whilst trying to launch a new initiative, Greg asked a few of us to form a task team to work out how we got the rest of the business on board. With the backing of our managers, this was an additional bit of work to do on top of our normal working day. Interestingly, it didn’t feel like it. Greg had managed to identify the people who would passionately deliver the project not because they were asked to, because they wanted to. Despite the changes in the business over the last 5 years, every single person on that project group are still working for the company.

Greg - This was the first really big thing we’d done since the near-death experience with the regulator. I learned a lot from an ex-US Marine General we had as CEO at mbna Europe.  Whenever we had an issue he would form what he called a ‘Tiger Team’ of the best and the brightest and this seemed like a good time to form a Tiger Team at HomeServe. I remember asking the People in the team to show up at my office everyday at 8:45 am which is just before most shifts started.  The picture with this article is the actual Tiger Team meeting in my office back in 2013 with Karla as the Grim Reaper. Each day we had the best discussions and the project was a bit of an adventure. I got to know personally a group of People who I would normally not work closely with. Internal Comms was part of HR at the time and I needed their help. The person assigned by the HR Director would not come at 8:45. I’d have cut him some slack if he had children to get to school but it was just him. I think Karla must have forgotten about him as about a year later we asked him to leave the company. He essentially fired himself but didn’t know it.

WHAT MADE YOU SURE THE NEW CULTURE WAS REAL?  Karla - Not long after the delivery of the project, Greg asked me if I would take a promotion to the Customer Loyalty team. I was a little shocked and lot more than terrified. Greg had given me great advice and pushed me in the right direction when I strayed off course so I knew he had my back. I also knew he was under the spot light himself to turn this ship around so he couldn’t be doing it just to blow smoke up my backside. Greg told me to go ahead and he would support me. I left my comfortable operations background behind for a real challenge in caring for our Customers. It wasn’t hard to get into the space, but it was hard to be in that position so soon on our journey. I learned so much, met some great contacts and spent some valuable time with other Heads and Directors of the business but I missed operations and I was struggling to be the credible, commercial expert the role required. I say that with complete comfort in my heart because Greg had created a safe environment for us to challenge ourselves in. We talked a lot about it.

Greg - Taking talented People and putting them into roles where they don’t have a lot of experience can be really exciting. If they have a good manager and an experienced team then often that outside view from someone new who cares can be game-changing. I’ve seen this work either beautifully or not at all. When it doesn’t work, it isn’t normally because of the person in the new role, it is more likely either their manager or their team. I had to move Karla out of the Customer Loyalty role as she was not getting the right support in the role for whatever reason. I remember talking to Karla about how she was struggling. It was obvious that was news to her, which is not a great situation and I regret telling her like that. I also remember someone saying to me they thought I should know that People were saying Karla got the job because she had worked on some of my pet projects. I told them to tell anyone who would listen that People who put their hands up are rewarded.

WHAT DID YOU LEARN? Karla - I moved into a position as a Head of the Marketing Operations team, particularly managing the Creative Studio which is integral to the Marketing function. It is fast paced, chaotic and when I arrived, a little dysfunctional. Right in my sweet spot. I have been able to pick apart quality issues, implement new processes, bring out new skills to support the business and above all, develop a team of individuals who themselves are now being promoted into new and exciting positions. That credibility I mentioned earlier is now mine in abundance and I have never felt like I am adding more value than I am right now, in this position, in this organisation with the mentor I have to support me.

Greg - This move is a great example of not being afraid to make a change even if it means a bit of disruption. You need people who trust you for it to work. The person Karla replaced is one of our most talented managers, but it was just time for a move and now they are both thriving. You can’t be afraid to move People even if you know the move will cause disruption. You have to ignore the short term pain to get everyone into a position where they can be their best.

HOW DID ALL THIS HAPPEN? - Karla - This was not an accident. Greg saw the fire in my eyes, listened to my ideas, identified my drive and allowed me to flourish. More than anything, he allowed me to fail. He allowed me to fail and knew that I would learn and grow more from those failings than from my successes. I am now proud to mentor some of the new and raw talent in the Marketing team and can only hope that I can be as much of an enabler as my mentor was to me. Whilst you are looking to fill your vacancies with the most experienced people you can find, don’t forget those who may not have the experience but will go the extra mile to gain it – they are the people who will carry you further than anyone else in the long run.

Greg - I had a moron of a manager once who actually said that you should do some things with People “then they will think we care.” I remember firing back that maybe we should actually just care.  And caring isn’t all about being nice, it’s about really getting to know People and understanding what they care about. I know my attempts to have 1-2-1s with hundreds of People is an extreme example but, hey, an awkward walk around just chatting to People occasionally works too.  My boss Martin is a master at just walking the floor to see what People have to say.  You find out what they think is important, then you try to make it happen for them. And if you light the fire, they will do the rest.

Bottom line is this. Real leadership is messy and hard work. You have to get involved, knee-deep involved, to really know your People. Leadership is action not position