Image of Alison Craig on the Head2Head

Head2Head with Alison Craig

Following a successful career at John Lewis, Alison, an Ashridge Accredited Executive Coach, founded Alison Craig Coaching in 2013.

Alison spoke with Jennifer Gaster about her leadership essentials coaching programme and why leadership development of our people managers is so important now.

You can read, listen to or watch their conversation below.

Jen: Hi, I’m Jen Gaster from HR Heads, and today I am really excited to welcome Alison Craig to join me for a bite-sized session around leadership development. Alison, welcome.

Alison: Thank you.

Jen: Alison was my coach when I went through my coaching qualification and she’s generally been a bit of a guiding light for me whenever I’ve got people issues or whenever I need help and support in that leadership space. I’m really grateful for you taking the time today and I know you specifically want to talk to us about leadership development.

I think the last year has been, you know, the word is unprecedented, isn’t it? But it’s been incredible and very difficult in so many ways.

Why do you think it’s really important now, to focus on developing our people managers?

Alison: I think it’s really important to acknowledge how hard it has been for People Managers over the past year, I think personally and professionally it has been really tough. Managers have been going through all of this themselves with their own concerns, their own practical difficulties, as well as needing to support their team through that.

In fact, this change was completely enforced, we had no choice over it and every time we thought we knew what was coming next, the goalposts moved.

So it’s been incredibly difficult and partly because every single person has gone through it slightly differently, they’ve had a different experience and again, we couldn’t control that.

So, I think the timing is right to support managers with their leadership skills, not only because they’ve been through a really tough time, but because actually, that’s not going away. Going forwards, we are still going to have trickiness to face and we know that even in the best of times, line managers their skills, their leadership are critical to creating the climate that we need in organisations, a climate where people feel fully engaged, and where they’re able to perform at their best.

We need that from a business perspective, but we also need it just from that human level.

I think in the past, we actually have often led by osmosis. So when everybody was in the same location, as line managers, we relied on them picking up information from other people or maybe overhearing us say something to somebody else and that worked pretty well, quite a lot of the time for many of our team.

Obviously, over the last year, that’s been hugely exposed as not necessarily the best way to go forwards because people are working remotely. We’ve had to be much more intentional about our leadership, really giving a lot more thought to how we interact with our team, how we check in on them, so we can no longer rely on seeing Jamie in the office and thinking they don’t look quite right today, we have to actually intentionally check in regularly with people, we have to make sure that they are clear on where we’re heading and to check what questions they have, what concerns they have, how confident are they about that.

Then we’ve got the issue around everybody will have had a different experience across the whole of this pandemic. So, some people were furloughed, some people were at risk of redundancy, even if they’ve ended up staying. There are so many different issues to take into account in terms of how people are feeling and it’s our job as line managers to pull everyone back together.

Even if they’re in different locations, to make sure that we don’t have silo working to make sure we’re inclusive, to make sure we get that diversity of thinking that we really should invite across our teams to get the best solutions, the best decisions, the best outcomes going forward.

I think more than ever, it’s so important that we support our line managers with how to get the best not only out of themselves, but out of their team, and also out of all of the people around them to how they interact with peers.

At all levels, how they’re approaching it, not to get hung up about it, because there’s probably a lot of things they’re doing really well, but to be given the space and the support to look at that and to think about right, how can I get it even better? What do I want to hang on to, but how could I get it even better?

Jen: There’s a couple of things there that you’ve said that really resonate with me. So we’ve got four brand new Associates who have joined our business right now, and you know, everyone, not just new joiners, put their game face on ready for a Zoom call or a Team’s call or whatever, because it’s scheduled.

So, you’re right, you miss that Jamie in the office just having a bit of a low moment. Because actually everyone gets almost ready and good to go and actually, the opportunity then to really temperature check is lost.

That’s something that managers need to find a way to do without having it all really prescriptively set out. There is lots there that resonates.

Alison: At the moment people will have been worried about their jobs. So they are staying in jobs because they know they want employment, but actually, we don’t want people just to stay because they’re worried they wouldn’t have a job. We want people to stay because they are fully engaged.

So that temperature check, being able to know whether people are truly engaged and onboard is incredibly important.

I also think that there’s this opportunity now for managers to think about what they want it to be like going forwards. I’ve had some business owners say to me, I don’t want to go back to how we were before, I want things to be different in the team, I’ve noticed that some of the team are owning things more, there’s more autonomy there and I don’t want to lose that.

Jen: And that’s really capturing that that diversity of thinking that you refer to because given the freedom to sort of just step out of the box that maybe they occupied. I think that’s just invaluable if we can really learn how to capture it.

Alison: And keep going with it, don’t go backwards now.

Jen: So to get all of this into play, I know that you have put together a leadership essentials programme. So who would ideally that be for and how will it benefit them specifically?

Alison: In terms of who it’s for, it’s anybody who’s a line manager, so they’ve got a team, whether that’s only one person or 80 people, it doesn’t matter, but they do need to be a line manager and need to have a team, the whole point of it is to help them feel as confident and effective in the people management side of their role as they do in the technical side.

A lot of managers that we work with say to me, I’m kind of self-taught, I had a great manager and I liked this that they did, but actually don’t really know what to do with that bit. I don’t have loads of tools in my toolkit.

It could be that they’ve been a line manager for a long time, but never had any kind of support or training or coaching around looking at how effective what they’re doing is where it could be they’ve been promoted because the brilliant at the day job. So the technical piece is fabulous; and yet, they’ve had no support around how they can tweak their style to get the best out of every individual. Because we know, that’s what it’s about, isn’t it, if we’re going to have this inclusive environment, we need to be able to tap into each of the individuals that are in our team.

Jen: It’s that second scenario that I see time and time again as a recruiter, as to the reason someone’s leaving, because they feel like they’re in a boat with all this responsibility for driving it and they have no support in how to do that. And I think people are really time poor doing the day job and are measured on the day job, that often that leadership piece that team leadership piece, is thought of as secondary. Yet if you can get that right, it should, you know, it should enable it should facilitate such a better way of working.

Alison: Yes, and because, there’s such a massive risk isn’t there if the line manager ends up doing it all themselves, or taking it all on themselves, because they don’t really know how to get people on board or to get the best out of each of their team, there are huge risks to the business if they fall over, or if they win the lottery and leave.

So actually, we’ve got to get this right, we’ve got to drive our businesses and organisations forward through our people and that’s where this comes in.

The whole benefit from my perspective of this programme is helping managers know how to get the best out of other people, as well as themselves. It’s an opportunity for them to stop and think about what’s going well, what could be better, and what to actually do about that.

Often I think managers know it’s not quite right. We’re going to watch how to identify any difference in that behaviour, what do they do instead?  That’s what we help them with.

I have got more than 30 years of experience in leading teams and have worked with hundreds and hundreds of managers over the last 20 years training really brilliant managers.

Jen: Your background is John Lewis isn’t it?

Alison: It is and I have been lucky in terms of who I have been able to work with.

The idea with the programme is to share some of that best practice in theory, but absolutely to get each person on the programme to think about how they can apply that in their situation.

It’s very practical for me, that’s so important that people go away know what they’re going to do with this best practice and theory. Otherwise, it’s a waste of time.

Jen: So how will it work? How will they come to you and get that sense of practical advice and guidance to step away with?

Alison: Yeah, good question.

The programme runs over six months, there are 10, half-day sessions, which are online via Zoom, but fully interactive. We replicate being in the room as much as possible, but without the expense or the time spent travelling.

Generally speaking, there’s so much in the programme, people say to me that it’s exactly what they want, and more, which is lovely to hear because a lot of research went into it.

We share best practice and theory, before moving into how you can apply this. We also take time to talk together about how this works, so attendees have the opportunity to come back to me within the session and say – “it wouldn’t” or “I don’t know how I would do that” – which enables me to support them and ask them to think about this or that and say “what you could do is this”.

And that’s what I mean by it being really practical. Before every session, they reflect on how they’ve got on, what are their successes, what are their challenges, so that we can discuss these and move forward if they’ve struggled.

Jen: So it’s real life scenarios, I’m stuck with this – how do I resolve it?

Alison: Absolutely, and each person gets a one-to-one 30-minute coaching session with me at the beginning of the programme to establish what are their personal objectives of the programme, and how will they make sure they get return on investment from coming along to it over the six months.

It can be run in house, so, if a company has got enough people to fill it – at least six people – we can run it in house purely for that company.

But, what I’m really excited about is the open programme, because for the first time, we feel able to give access, if you like to people either who want to put themselves forward, so, a manager out there who would love to get support themselves and fund it themselves, or organisations where maybe they’ve only got one or two people who need it and this will allow and they can still access it more. Yeah, I’m really excited about that, because it’s not often you can get that sort of support.

Jen: I think it’s that shared learning environment for me, having been on courses with you, it’s just a brilliant way to see a different perspective. Sometimes you don’t get that when you’re doing an in-house course.

Alison: I agree and it’s a great networking opportunity as well, for you and your business.

Jen: So what do people need to do if they either want to find out more – and I will just reference something at the end that we’ve got in planned for May – but specifically about your leadership effectiveness course? How do they contact you?

Alison: People should feel free to contact me whichever way they feel most comfortable with. So if they’d rather email, that’s fine. If they want a message on LinkedIn, that’s fine. If they want to pick up the phone to me, that’s absolutely fine.

I’m really happy to chat with anybody who just thinks it might be of interest, either for them themselves, or for one of their team. There’s a flyer, which is totally up front in terms of costing and the broad content, but again, I can give more detail about the content if that’s what people need.

I think the main thing is just kind of get in touch with whichever way suits you best and I’ll happily help.

Jen: Great, and I alluded to an event, you’ve really kindly agreed to be our guest expert speaker at our HR forum, which we’re going to host in May, that will be on Thursday, the 27th of May at 11 o’clock.

Alison will give us a little bit more insight into leadership challenges for our people management capability.

And, as always, we’ll have a question and answers session at the end of that, where Alison can give some practical and pragmatic tips around current scenarios and real-life situations.