The half-time pep talk

With three challenges down, and two challenges plus the final to go, it’s time for a bit of reflection and motivation ahead of this week’s next Local Government Challenge in Gloucester.

If you want to catch up on where we are, you can watch:

I’m 3-0 up at half time, but I don’t feel completely satisfied with my performance so far, and want to make the most of the rest of the challenges and do my best. Feeling a little down and despondent after the last challenge (despite a third win), I spoke to Stephen Cooper (the LG Challenge equivalent to one of Alan Sugar’s aides), and between his wise words and my own thoughts, these are the ten things I want to keep in mind, both in the next two challenges, and in the wider world of work:

  1. It’s not meant to be fun

Having enjoyed taking charge and winning the first challenge in Swale, I found the second and third challenges much harder and felt I was struggling to do a good job. With three challenges done, and three wins under my belt, I can say that it’s been hard, it’s been intense, it’s been exhausting, it’s been challenging… but it hasn’t exactly been, well, “nice”. When I relayed these feelings to Stephen, he laughed and said simply that: “it’s meant to be hard – it’s not meant to be fun.” This is a development opportunity, and if it was comfortable and easy, then I wouldn’t be developing much at all.

This applies to my day job just as much as it applies to the challenge. Over the last three years I have done a lot of things that were outside my comfort zone – managing a small team, and then a slightly bigger team, commissioning  multi-million pound services, organising big conferences, giving lectures at a university, and writing controversial reports for the Director of Public Health, to name a few. There were things that phased me and made me anxious when I first started this job that are second nature now. The Local Government Challenge is giving me more difficult experiences – networking with senior people, working hard under pressure, building relationships, navigating the political landscape, giving clear and succinct presentations – and while they don’t feel easy now, they might feel a lot easier when I come to do them again later on in my career. If you’re developing, you feel like you’re stretching yourself and your abilities. It’s not easy, it’s not fun, but necessary if you want to grow and get better, and it’s definitely worthwhile.

  1. Challenge is healthy

There were times, especially in Harrow, when I didn’t necessarily agree with others, and I regretted not speaking up for myself more. Stephen agreed that it’s good to speak up, but he also said that while sometimes challenge can be constructive, sometimes it’s just obstructive. You have to make a judgement on whether speaking up is really going to be helpful or not, and respect that, ultimately, while you can voice your opinion and make your concerns known, there is someone else in charge who makes the final decision, and you need to support them.

I can’t stand it when people are challenging just for the sake of it, or speak just so they can be seen to have spoken, so I was relieved that Stephen agreed that there are both constructive and obstructive challenges and comments. Yet, I still could have been a bit more assertive, especially with partners. “You don’t have to take what everyone says at face value”, Stephen told me. “People don’t like to admit, or might not know, that their approach isn’t the best – you can challenge them a bit more on what they say.”

This is something that I’ve struggled with for a while. I tend to keep quiet unless I have something to say that really adds value. I also tend to be very honest, especially about what’s going well and what’s not going well. I need to remember that other people aren’t always the same, and to make sure that if I do challenge someone or something, it’s constructive, meaningful, and adds value.

  1. Understand the politics

In Local Government, elected Councillors are responsible for making decisions. Councillors come from all sorts of different backgrounds and have different political views. Over the last three years, I’ve had some exposure to working with Councillors, but Coventry has been controlled by the Labour party since 2010, and currently has 39 Labour Councillors and 14 Conservative Councillors. In Councils like Harrow, with 27 Conservative Councillors, 33 Labour Councillors, and quick changes of overall control, the political landscape is very different, and reaching across the political divide becomes even more important.

During our second challenge in the fictional district of Swafford, I failed to score any points for political awareness after our team’s meetings with the Leader weren’t structured enough, and I didn’t recognise that an email about one of the Councillors potentially getting into trouble should have been shared with the Leader. I’m not sure I made up for it in Harrow, and it’s clear that this is a big gap in the way I think and address problems. I need to be more aware of political priorities, and how to sell an idea politically (as well as the other things I would usually consider, like outcomes and value for money).

  1. Use everything you’ve got, and get what you haven’t got

No resource is out of bounds in the Local Government Challenge. Through thoroughly searching Swafford Council’s fake website, we found the budget information we needed to win the task. In Harrow, we emailed people we had met at the stakeholder event to get further information. In Swale, we asked local businesses that we happened to come into contact with about their views on employing offenders. Talking to everyone is a good move – in Harrow, we missed the opportunity to speak to the Chief Executive at lunch time. Although we saw him later on at dinner, it was a vital opportunity that we didn’t take.

In the Local Government Challenge, you find yourself in an organisation you’ve never been to (and maybe never even heard of) before, and having to work in an area you’ve got very limited knowledge or experience of. It’s not possible to have all the answers and to come up with solutions in isolation – but you do need to be able to work out what you need and where to get it. You also need to make the most of every opportunity and speak to as many people as possible. Even a general or casual conversation over dinner can reveal something important that you need to consider for the challenge.

  1. Keep it to yourself

Some of the most useful feedback I got from Stephen is that my face “tells a thousand stories”. I don’t hide what I’m thinking or feeling very well. It’s part of the honesty curse. I am always myself – I don’t put on an act, or play a game. This approach is fine most of the time, but sometimes if I’m not feeling confident or it’s not helpful to let everyone know what I really think, I need to remember not to let my face give it away.

I think this is something I definitely need to remember while I’m giving presentations. For the first challenge in Swale, I managed to give a good presentation, but I looked quite nervous and not very happy (how I was feeling!). In Harrow, when we ran over time, my face started to panic (as did I). If I didn’t have panic-face, the judges may not have realised we went over time, and we might have kept it together… But no. Panic-face came along, and they knew exactly what was happening.

  1. Work / life balance is both possible and important

One of the most enlightening parts of the third Local Government Challenge was having dinner with the Chief Executive and Leader of Harrow Council. Michael Lockwood, the Chief Executive, happened to mention that he runs seven miles every lunch time. He said it helps him to stay healthy and happy, and that if he doesn’t run at lunchtime he finds he’s not in such a good mood in the afternoon.

He’s not the only Chief Executive I know who finds time for a break. In my first week at Coventry City Council, I spent lunchtime playing table tennis against Coventry’s own Chief Executive – Martin Reeves. Martin played table tennis with anyone in the Council who wanted to most Friday lunchtimes, and you could ask him anything. If Martin and Michael can find time for a lunch break when they’re ultra-busy running a Council, I must be able to make time for one too. What I’ve learned is that it is OK, important even, to prioritise break time – it makes you more productive, healthier (especially if you use it to do some sort of physical activity), and sets a good example to others.

  1. Shine where you can

You can’t always be the shining star, or the centre of attention. In the second challenge at fictional Swafford, I ended up answering the phone and running around solving a lot of operational problems instead of doing some of the bigger strategic thinking, and in Harrow, I volunteered to sort out the presentation. I need to stop worrying that I’m not running the whole show, and instead focus on making sure that whatever I’m doing is as good as it can be. It’s good to show that I have a variety of skills and can be a good team player as well as a leader.

  1. Presentation is key

You can have a great idea, or a great plan, but if you can’t present it well you might not win. In Harrow, the judges liked our ideas but our presentation wasn’t as good as the other team. Although we won it, in our feedback session with Stephen he emphasised how important the presentation is, and that many other judges have been swung by an excellent presentation.

This is an important lesson in the Local Government Challenge, but it’s also important generally – communication and presentation are vital if you want someone to buy into your idea. It’s not just about having a great idea (though, obviously, that helps), it’s about the story and being able to sell it well too.

  1. Get used to the camera

I’m still finding it difficult to be observed and filmed constantly. In the Local Government Challenge, there’s always someone watching your every move. It’s easy to worry about where the camera is, or what someone is writing down about you, but I need to channel Si’s advice to me when I first started this journey – I need to be myself, act like I normally would at work, and not overthink it.

  1. Go big or go home

At the same time, I also need to make the most of the opportunity. Now is the time to take risks, try things out and come up with some big ideas. We are dealing with real Councils and we need to propose real, workable solutions, but we’re also outside of our normal workplaces, have 24 hours to complete each challenge, and are encouraged to think creatively and come up with innovative ideas. If I want to really develop my skills and push my limits (and if I want to get through to the final, and ultimately, to win it), I need to go big.


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