How to lead in a time of crisis with Professor Carolyn Wilkins OBE

How to lead in a time of crisis with Professor Carolyn Wilkins OBE
How to lead in a time of crisis with Professor Carolyn Wilkins OBE
Professor Christopher Pietroni is joined by Carolyn Wilkins, a Professor at the Birmingham Leadership Institute and a well-experienced public sector leader.

Date of recording: 8/12/2022

Speakers: Professor Christopher Pietroni and Professor Carolyn Wilkins

Christopher Pietroni: Hello everyone and welcome to the Leadership Exchanged podcast with me, your host, Christopher Pietroni. This podcast is brought to you by the University of Birmingham, where I am, professor of Leadership Practice and Director of the Birmingham Leadership Institute.

In this podcast, we ask whether we have the right kind of leadership for the challenges that we face or whether perhaps we need to exchange the approaches to leadership that we have around us for something new.

In today’s episode, I’m joined by my colleague, Professor Carolyn Wilkins OBE, who has had a fascinating combination of roles across the public sector as we’ll see, and who most recently before joining the Birmingham Leadership Institute was a specialist adviser to Number 10 Downing Street on health and care integration.

Carolyn, welcome.

Carolyn Wilkins: Hi Christopher.

Christopher Pietroni: Now, Carolyn, one of the things, as I was saying, that I think is really distinctive about your leadership experience is that you have often held roles where you have had to cross boundaries of various kinds. So at one point you were chief executive of Oldham Council and at the same time had the equivalent role in the NHS commissioning group in Oldham. And I think most people would think that working across local government and the NHS would be hard enough. But at the same time you had regional responsibilities across Greater Manchester as a whole for public health, and then during the pandemic, alongside all of that, you took on a national role as a director in Test and Trace. So I just wanted to start by asking you, I think the question that anybody listening would want to ask, which was, you know, what on earth possessed you to take all of that on?

Carolyn Wilkins: So I suppose what possessed me throughout my career really is if something needs doing, so that stepping into the space. So the opportunity to bring health and care together more closely was absolutely something I could see the sense of because you could see the consequences of it, of it not happening. You know, for personally, for family members, but also for community people. And that frustration of thinking you’ve got agreement and then things unravelling outside the meetings. A lot of time and effort being spent on things that weren’t translating into the impact that you were trying to work for. So when the opportunity came up to step into the joint role, so to meet the chief executive authority, but also to be the accountable officer at the Clinical Commissioning Group, I didn’t do it lightly. But it seemed like a really good opportunity to fundamentally change things and to, you know, to meet some of the ambition. And then obviously, then COVID started happening. So a lot of the work then became about that. So having had those relationships and having that integration already of the organisation just made so much possible, actually in the response to COVID. And then I got the call about and the Test and Trace role and I said no several times because there was a lot there was already a lot on. And I had a role in Greater Manchester as the Civil Resilience Lead. So I was running both the population health kind of response across Greater Manchester and connecting with the ten directors of public health but also with the chief officers from the ten local authorities and was part of the Strategic Command Group for Greater Manchester. But our frustrations and anger really with what was happening nationally. You have a moment where you can just sit and just be angry and have a lot of opinions and a lot to say. Or you can take the opportunity offered and step into the space and try and do something about it. I’m just really curious about the motivation. You know, you said something. It seems to be important to you that if there’s a problem that you see and you think you can do something about it that you should. Is that is that how you see it? Yeah. I remember somebody said to me quite early in my career, leadership is about, you know, if you see a fire, you should run towards it and do something about it. But they also had a very clear line, but don’t get burned. And so and I think there is that about that leadership moment when you everybody’s going somebody should do something about that. Somebody should and they should. And then you realise that perhaps they is me. Maybe I should. Or take that opportunity. So I think there is a there is a is a courage thing as well. Because if you take a secondment opportunity, then there are questions about the role that you were doing, you know, so what happens there? So you’ve also got to have conversations with the people you work with because it changes the dynamic for them. You know, this is not a solo act or any of this leadership’s collective, isn’t it?

Christopher Pietroni: How do you, how have you protecting yourself from that? Because, you know, there’s a really there is a downside to that sort of courage. Right. It comes at a personal cost. And how have you managed to sustain itself through that?

Carolyn Wilkins: So I think I’ve always had quite an alive sense of risk, you know. So what’s the worst that could happen here? Personally and professionally about, you know, what could go wrong? Because literally sometimes people would die, you know, or you’re doing something where there isn’t there isn’t a great route. That might be at least unfair, but it’s the least unfair. It’s not a good option. So I think that ability to you can’t see every risk coming, can you? Clearly, that’s what we’ve seen the last few years. You can’t see everything coming even when you think you’ve got a plan for it. But going through that kind of process about, well, what’s the worst that could happen and can I live with that? You know, so but equally what’s the I suppose what’s the counterfactual, you know, if I don’t do this, if this doesn’t happen, then what’s the consequences of that as well? And, you know, not that anybody would know that there was a consequence, but what would I carry? Because I chose not to speak up or step forward. So and I was really vocal, you know, about protective equipment, clothing. You know, there were times when we all felt like we were kind of drug runners. You get a call about a drop in a car park in a neighbouring borough at 3:00 on a Sunday afternoon. And could you get up on that, collect it so that you could get the equipment to care home so that they, you know, staff that were receiving patients with COVID from hospitals had some degree of protection. So, you know, a huge sense of personal responsibility for your own workforce and what you were asking people to do and deep frustration about being ignored. You know, the food parcels, the national distribution of just woefully inadequate food distribution, when we had local infrastructure, not perfect needed developing, but, you know, we knew our communities in a significantly deeper way than any national government could hope to. And we were seen as a stakeholder to be managed rather than a valuable resource as part of the kind of response. So I was really critical. So having been that, you think, well, are you just the noisy person in the room or actually have you got something to contribute?

Christopher Pietroni: It is interesting, Carolyn, it strikes me because there you are you go from being the boss and you’ve had by that stage in your career, you had been the boss of every organisation you’ve been in for over a decade, for long, probably more probable 15 years or something. Right. And then you are, you find yourself in Test and Trace and you’re not actually the boss anymore, right? You’re a hierarchical, you’re a director. But anyway, you’re in this kind of new system. And it sounds, from what you’ve just said, that you’re often getting quite unwelcomed feedback, like it’s not going to work like that, it’s not going to happen. So there you are, you’re not the boss. You don’t have the same status and authority that you previously had. And now here you are trying to get people who you need to, you know, effectively more hierarchically senior than you to change their minds. And that must have been quite a shift for you. And how did you how did you handle that? How did you navigate your way through?

Carolyn Wilkins: Yeah. So it was very different. Very different in some sense because you didn’t have the levers that you could pull. Although let’s not pretend this because you, you know, the most senior person in organisation, that everything happens just because you say so, it’s not quite like that. But recognising that you’re only part of the issue as well. So, you know, even if it didn’t work for certain communities that thing if, well, what if it works for most of the country? So it might still be the policy. Well, is there something then that could be developed for those that, you know, it doesn’t work for and where’s that kind of perspective? So and trying to push for that, well, why are we doing this? You know, what’s the rationale for this? And sometimes the rationale is that’s the political choice that’s been made, you know, and that’s not for you to be told. You know, we just need to make sure that this will happen. So you’re trying to work through well, how does how does it have the best impact then? What can we do with this? So I think there are a few things to me. I suppose I wasn’t employed directly. I was on secondment. So that definitely gives you a degree of freedom, doesn’t it? Because if you’re unpopular, well, then you go back to the job that you, you know, you’re your substantive post. So I suppose that takes a degree of risk out of it. Not it doesn’t de-risk it completely, but it’s important to have enough credibility in that room to be heard. That doesn’t mean you always get your way. And so I was really clear, I think even with the sector, that I would I couldn’t promise to change everything. All I could promise was to do my damnedest really on behalf of the sector in the communities that we represent. And I did, you know, I’m confident I did that and that we got some wins we got. I think in the end, local government funding went up from about 400 million to 2.2 billion directly to contain outright management funding, which we then kind of oversaw the allocation of the self-isolation payments. You know, I’m not saying that was all down to me at all. It was, you know, definitely part of a team effort. But being in those conversations and trying to sort of say, but this is how it is on the ground and this is how things work in reality. And, you know, this is what is possible. And there was a lot of, you know, can local government do this? You know, I believe local government can pretty much do anything. But why should we? You know, and how were we supported with resources and capacity to make it possible, you know, so some of those sorts of challenges and feedback.

Christopher Pietroni: On things that must have been an experience that you’ve had repeatedly over the years and must have been in spades during COVID as a sort of sense of uncertainty about what the right thing to do is or where the information you’re being given kind of is ambiguous, and it’s not clear. And how have you handled those moments when people are looking to you for leadership and your answer and it’s answer, how do you how do you navigate that?

Carolyn Wilkins: So many things out there that you just don’t know the outcome? You make a decision in the moment. And actually, if you’re particularly if you’re in an emergency planning scenario situation and you doing the decision log the best practices, you will say recall why you know, what did you know on which to base the decision that you’ve taken? Because you forget, you know, because events move on and you know what you the decision you made at 1:00 and then events by 3:00 are totally different. Would you have made the same decision then? But at 1:00, this is what you knew. This was what’s available to you. So there’s some of that kind of discipline about that. There’s also what do other people think? You know, what are other people’s views? But that isn’t abdicating the responsibility of them being the decision maker. So, you know, even I’ll take an example on COVID. You know, we knew the lockdown was coming, all of us locally, and that we were going to send staff home. But we also knew that we’ve got essential services that needed to carry on. We also knew that we had quite a significant number of staff that were going to be clinically, extremely vulnerable. So we’re going to have to shield. So it wasn’t just that they were working at home. Could be, you know, could be redeployed. There were some people in essential services who were going to be sent home and so what does that mean for that, particularly, you know, intimate personal care, social workers, domiciliary care workers, refuse collection. You know, any number of kind of essential services. So we had to pause, sending everybody home, even though everybody was desperately frightened, they were worried about their own families. They didn’t want to be physically in buildings. We had to hold the time to try and work out, you know, who was available to us, who could do different jobs, you know, what was the employment implications of all of that? And then and but make those kind of calls so huge pressure and I don’t know whether it was the perfect decision, but based on the information I had, the timing that, you know, when and then trying to explain to people why you’ve made the decision, made the decision, you have some people still really unhappy, angry, frightened about it, but you’re trying to balance individuals and what’s good for them and treating people with respect against what the organisation needs, but also what the organisation responsible for in terms of those wider communities. So I think that’s all you can do, having your own values come into it as well about, you know, can I live with that decision? And actually, if it’s a decision I don’t feel able to take, but it’s needed, then I need not to be here and somebody else needs to come into this space and do it. So you have to reflect on that. I think at key times. Thinking, I really don’t want to do this, but it needs doing, can I find a way of doing it. And if not, then maybe I need to not be here and somebody else that you know, because it’s something that needs to be done.

Christopher Pietroni: You know, in this podcast we’re really interested in whether we have the kind of leadership that we need to meet, the challenges that we face. And I it just sounds from that description like, you know, do we see is that the leadership that we see around us? Do you think that that’s the kind of leadership we need? And if so, have we, have we got it?

Carolyn Wilkins: So I see a lot of that leadership, but I don’t necessarily see a lot of leaders of organisations behaving in that way. So well or the narrative or the story or the presentation, because it’s hard, isn’t it, to divorce, you know, to know what’s really going on behind the scenes. So I think, you know, I’ve been I’ve worked with honestly some amazing people, but that have no profile or, you know, and they’re not doing it for that reason. They’re just doing it. They’re just, you know, tackling really, really difficult issues or even actually just, you know, having fun and doing really interesting things in a kind of collective way, stepping into spaces and making things happen. I think our narrative of leadership, I think it was when I got Chief Exec at like a Rossendale, the headline in the local paper was mum of two, you know, because that was my main qualification for getting the job. So there’s still a lot of that kind of narrative about what and I remember somebody said to me, you know, you can’t be Chief Exec with long hair and you mustn’t wear cardigans. And it’s like, what? How does any of that, impact on my ability to do a job? But that idea of, you know, don’t be emotional or even things like, you know, you’re good at the soft stuff because you’re softly spoken and you’re, you know, you’re not very tall or whatever. So those people’s ideas of leadership that they’re quite keen to sort of put on you, unfortunately, I see a lot of that. I don’t think necessarily people are like that, but I think their presentation of leadership comes across in that kind of way.

Christopher Pietroni: So you’ve lead in a series of crises, you know, local, regional, national, including the pandemic that you’ve talked about other emergencies in Greater Manchester and so we just think about leading in crisis. What’s your learning, having been there, about what makes effective leadership in a in a crisis?

Carolyn Wilkins: So clarity I think is yeah, clarity is crucial making sure that you’ve got the right team around you. You know, you’ve got the right resources. You’ve got the kind of right focus. Absolutely. You know, somebody asked looking for an answer and you haven’t got it. There’s there is no space here for you know, winging it at all. You know, this isn’t it. You know, if you don’t know, then you need to find out or find somebody that does know. I think being very aware of yourself. So somebody that worked in the RAF said to me once, stress is like alcohol. The more you’ve had, the less able you are to judge how much you’ve had. So, you know, you’re in a crisis. You think you’re okay, but it’s day four. And, you know, in local government we don’t have the blue light rota in quite the same way, so we don’t do the, the sort of shifts. So making sure that you are still functioning as you need to be able to function, you know, because you don’t just go home, switch off from these, these things. So, you know, making sure that you’ve got that kind of focus, but you’re also thinking about what’s going to follow. So the decisions for the now but what are the consequences of the decisions in the to be as well so that you’re not just in the immediate that you are taking time to do the reflection as we would say Christopher to get up you know, on the balcony. But absolutely so important to not just be in the heat of it all in the moment and it can be very seductive to be there because there’s so much going on. But if you don’t if you’re not thinking, you know, about what’s coming next. So when I was in Rossendale, there was a major gas explosion underneath an electricity pylon at the end of the M66. So we had I can’t remember now how many thousand. Well, there’s basic electricity out across a lot of the borough, but gas as well. And it was December. So we lost, the council, lost all its electricity. So we couldn’t no lights, no heating, no I.T., no phones, nothing. Couldn’t get the barrier up to get the bin wagons out, you know, so we had to dismantle that and then but that went on for days because if you putting the gas back on, you have to the gas have to go in and flush out every property two weeks before Christmas we came to. You know so this was a longer time not just the day of the explosion and I think we got the electricity back on within sort of 24 hours. So it is making sure that you were planning for some of that and that you could hand over. It’s quite hard to do. I find it quite hard to do, to hand over because you feel like you should be there. It should be you, but it can’t. It can’t be so it has to be the team and the sort of the handover.

Christopher Pietroni: And what about younger people who might not think of themselves as leaders? You know, what would you say to somebody who’s at the early part of their career in public sector or in other sectors, about how to go about exercising and developing their leadership?

Carolyn Wilkins: So a couple of things, really. I have one, I’m not surprised they don’t because we frame the narrative very much as leaders of the future, which I hear is you’re not a leader now, get back in the box. So even framing as that, you know, future leader, just because you’re young doesn’t mean you’re not a leader now. So there is something I think for us actually at an institutional level or course level about how we frame that kind of. So, you know, you don’t have to be older or more progressed in your career to be a leader. I mean, some people never exercise leadership and yet they work in an organisation. But, you know, it’s not saying they don’t do valuable work, but they know they’re not necessarily practicing leadership. So I think the really important thing about recognising that leadership happens in the small things as well as the really big things and, you know, connecting to your own values and your own passions and about the things that you just can’t walk past that, you know, I’m not prepared to walk past that or ignore that I’m going to do something about that. That’s leadership, you know. So helping people, I think, recognise those leadership moments in the practice of leadership and helping build in their confidence that that can then apply to really big. And that thing about, you know, if not you who, you know, don’t just assume that somebody else that’s going to come along and do that because there very well might not be.

Christopher Pietroni: So, one last question, Carolyn. Whose leadership inspires you?

Carolyn Wilkins: So you know, I was really thinking about this and thinking it’s not that. I don’t think there’s some amazing people, but it’s really hard to know. Well, what’s genuine, isn’t there? So I would you know, if you say name somebody, I think, oh, well, Obama looked like he wore it lightly, like he did things because they really mattered to him. But he wasn’t doing it just to be the president. You know, not just that I’m going to do the leadership stuff because I want to be in a position. And so I was reflecting about more about the kind of people that I’ve learned from. Because you sit in rooms, don’t you think I would never want to lead like that. I do not want to be that kind of leader. But you also see people who think, wow, you know, you the way you dealt with that, the way you were in that space, the way you held that, the way you made that happen, or you made that possible. I think that’s where I’ve been kind of deeply impressed. I think the first leader of a local authority that I worked with in a senior position was at Berry Council actually, and he’s now no longer with us sadly, but he had deep, deep values and he was very gentle actually in the space. But people paid attention to him and they wanted to do that. They wanted to work with him. You know, he was just really effective at kind of creating this sense of shared purpose and that everybody’s contribution was valuable. And I just thought that was so kind of was so different from what I’ve seen, I think, to that and to that point, but so kind of impressive. So you know, and the other thing is, you know, you might see somebody and think that’s really bad leadership. You don’t know you don’t know what’s gone on to get them to that point. And you don’t know you don’t know how bad it might have been. You know, this might be very much the least bad option. So I try not to be too judgmental because you think, well, if I was walking in their shoes, you know, where would I where would I get that? But I think that that, you know, deep consideration for others is an important part of it. I suppose I value leadership that chimes with the values that I hold as well. I suppose somebody is working on things that feel important to me, that feels like good leadership. But effective leadership can also be working on things that I don’t agree with, can’t it? So it’s an interesting one, I think.

Christopher Pietroni: Carolyn, thank you so much. It’s been an absolute pleasure to hear your stories and your experiences of leadership and, you know, to have leadership explored both in the sort of nuts and bolts and nitty gritty of how do we make stuff happen on the ground from, you know, waste disposal to care to, you know, bins and all the rest of it, right into, you know, the heart to some of the most important issues that we’re facing as a country, whether that’s the pandemic or whether that’s community cohesion or prosperity, you know, then absolutely thrilling. And, you know, to have leadership explored as curiosity, as compassion, as a humility, as kindness. And then above all, I think that that question that you’ve kept coming back to, you know, which I think is an essential leadership question, which is if not me, who? So thank you very much. And to those listening and watching, thank you for joining us. If you’ve enjoyed the Leadership Exchanged podcast, do please leave us a review and share with others. And if you’d like to hear about future episodes, don’t forget to subscribe.

In this episode, Professor Christopher Pietroni is joined by Carolyn Wilkins OBE, a Professor at Birmingham Leadership Institute and a well-experienced public sector leader. Carolyn holds a wealth of experience across the local government, health and care and the wider public sector landscape. Carolyn has led as the Chief Executive Officer in numerous organisations, such as the Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council and Rossendale Borough Council. Together they discuss the responsibility of speaking up, leading with kindness and humanity, discuss the concept of ’leaders of the future’, and examine what people expect a leader to look and act like.

The Leadership Exchanged podcast asks if the world’s biggest and most complex problems could be solved if the right leadership approach was applied? Do we need to exchange current approaches to leadership for something new? In each episode Leadership expert Professor Christopher Pietroni discusses with guests what kind of leadership is needed if you want to make real, lasting change.

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