Using feedback and coaching to get back on track

by Mark and David

The challenge

The Transport for London (TfL) HR team looks after a huge workforce of some 29,000 employees who in turn help deliver over a billion passenger journeys each year. The HR Leadership Team (HRLT) has a huge remit covering employee relations, learning and development and operations across the entire Underground network as well as all surface transport – from cycles and buses to riverboats and trams.

Tricia Wright, HR Director, had built up an experienced and highly talented leadership team of eleven people. She realised, however, that there were a number of blockages preventing this great team performing together at their best. She knew that meeting agendas were becoming too crowded and that the team wasn’t always focusing on the ‘right’ stuff. With some new people coming to the team, it was also important to build even stronger relationships based on mutual trust and understanding and ensure that constructive challenge (of behaviour in meetings and decisions made) became the norm. All this was needed against the backdrop of a major change programme being launched across the whole of HR to transform ways of working, which required a step-change in leadership and teamwork.

Tricia also knew that a bespoke solution was required, tailored to the specific needs of the HRLT and the individuals in it. Having worked with Rambutan beforehand on many other challenges, she knew that’s what she’d get when she asked us for help.

Tricia knew she already had a good team but wanted something that would take them to the next level and deliver the HR change programme as smoothly as possible. This tailored approach, focusing in part on developing high-performing team behaviours exceeded all her expectations.

The solution

In taking on this challenge, David and Mark designed a programme based around Rambutan’s beliefs of what makes a high-performing team:

• 80% is about how people in the team behave

• 10% is about ensuring clarity of teampurpose; what are we here to do and what do we make decisions on?

• the remaining 10% is about team governance and processes, such as meeting agendas, how decisions are recorded and how papers are submitted

One of our first tasks was to help the team create and own their own ‘team charter’ – a set of five behavioural principles which would guide and shape a new way of working together. Two important elements of this charter were the principles of ‘we will make time to listen to each other, to understand and acknowledge everyone’s needs’ and ‘we will always challenge constructively and with positive intent to deliver the best business benefits.’

Based on this charter and our fly-on-the-wall observations of their meetings, we developed a bespoke 180º survey to understand how individuals in the team and the team as a whole, stacked up against these (and other high-performing team) behaviours. Tricia knew that there were a lot of off-the-shelf team assessment tools on the market that might have helped this team, but as she told us at the time: “As a relatively new team, we have a unique set of circumstances. I need a feedback tool which is designed to target the challenges and issues that are specific to us, at this point in our team’s journey.”

Our tailored feedback tool therefore targeted 38 unique behavioural areas where each member of the team gave feedback to all their peers (and assessed themselves), creating individual feedback reports for each team member as well as enabling us to have a complete behavioural picture of the team as a whole.The final, and most important piece in the behavioural jigsaw to create a high-performing team was an intensive programme of one-to-one coaching with David or Mark (six or more sessions) for all members of the team, including Tricia. It was in these sessions that we could really help everyone in the team focus on their own strengths and development areas, based in part on the feedback from their peers. An overall team report also enabled the team to identify group actions they needed to work on.

The result

Following our work with the leadership team, the next employee opinion survey for HR showed that:

• the score for ‘Senior managers where I work communicate openly and honestly with staff’ saw an 8% rise on the previous year (and was 18% higher than the overall TfL average)

• the score for ‘Change is well managed where I work’ saw a 9% rise on the previous year (and was 12% higher than the overall TfL average)

• the score for ‘I trust my senior managers where I work’ saw a 2% rise on the previous year (and was 10% higher than the overall TfL average)

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The team charter

It may have been ‘clunky’ at the start as people got used to it, but these five behavioural principles soon became the accepted way of working for the HRLT. Meetings became much more dynamic and focused, with healthy and positive challenge. The team also took the time to ‘check in’ with each other before each meeting started. Guest presenters at the leadership team meetings also noticed a very different way of working. Many had previously felt intimidated and nervous in front of their senior colleagues, saying it was often a stressful and uncomfortable experience. Once the charter was embedded this all changed and guests at meetings were consistently reporting very positive experiences.

Making a difference to individuals through coaching and feedback
All the team made significant progress on the areas identified by their peers that they needed to work on. We repeated the 180º feedback nine months after the first round to check in on progress. “Coaching and feedback helped me to focus on what I needed to do to help my team be high-performing,” said Tricia. “With challenging coaching from David which rightly took me out of my comfort zone at times, I was able to make significant and observable progress on the less helpful behaviours my team had told me I needed to work on. I now take more time to nurture team relationships and welcome constructive feedback without becoming defensive.”

Building the high-performing team

While focusing on behaviours supported by coaching and the charter, there was also a seismic shift in how the HRLT managed their weekly meetings. We introduced the team to Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats, which helped them focus and align their thinking and prevent discussions going off at tangents. Much more time was devoted to debating strategy and direction and investment was made upfront in developing agendas, planning and managing meeting content appropriately. “Whenever they observed our meetings, they would always draw our attention back to defining ‘the exam question’,” said Tricia. “This incredibly simple technique from Rambutan brought us the clarity of being able to see the wood for the trees, see past the detail and ultimately make better decisions.”

What Tricia said…

“If you’re expecting to buy something off the shelf and have a safe, comfortable ride then Rambutan is not for you. What the Rambutan team give each and every time is bags of energy, challenge, creativity and solutions that hit the mark. Their bespoke feedback tools give a unique insight into what is working well and not so well in any team and their approach to the associated one-to-one coaching is both refreshing and challenging. As a coachee myself, I’ve been pushed (willingly!) out of my comfort zone through their coaching interventions many times and I have improved as a leader as a direct result.”

Tricia Wright, HR Director

If this story has got your juices flowing and you want to know more then give Mark or David a call, they’d love to chat with you.