Friday, 11 March 2011

The Importance Of Breakfast

When I was writing about my highlights of last year I mentioned that the breakfasts I had were a particular highlight. While you can’t help but agree with nutritionists that the meal itself is a valuable part of the day, I was actually referring to the breakfast meetings that I held with staff over the year. These meetings ended up shaping a huge part of my year and have started an annual trend that I intend to continue. To give you an idea of what a significant part they played here’s a photo of my office wall, which is covered in the drawings the staff did in preparation for the breakfast meetings. 

Earlier last year, the breakfast meetings didn’t require any kind of artwork at all. In the earlier incarnation of these breakfast meetings, every Tuesday morning I would get up extra early knowing that at 8.30 I was meeting a random selection of 10 or so staff. Those meetings were interesting in that we had a mix of staff – so it might be a support worker with a joiner and an accountant, and we’d get together and I’d listen to their concerns. Being honest, they were only partially successful. Some were positive, some were negative; some turned up, some didn’t; some revealed things that we could work on, some were like pulling teeth! On top of that although I don’t exactly get up late, the extra pressure to be in early made it all the more taxing.

So we took a Summer break, had a think about the format and completely changed them around. This time I had the meetings in teams, with no managers, just the workers. The rationale was that the organisation had been through a huge change and each different team had been affected in different ways. So what I asked the various teams to do before the meetings, was to draw me one picture that showed what it was like to be in Trafford Housing Trust, in that team, at that point in time. Over the course of a seven week period I threw my diary out of the window and met with 26 teams who presented and explained their pictures to me.

The result was those pictures you can see on the wall – and almost down to the last one they were fantastic. As a manager I was interested in the outcome of the picture and what it would show me needed to be done, but what I hadn’t appreciated was the sense of teamwork that would be built by asking a group of people to draw a picture. There were some incredibly detailed and clever pictures which had obviously taken a lot of thought – not only about what the issues were, but in how to present them. I’ll give you an example.

This one came from our Voids team – so all the plumbers, electrician and builders. They were doing this at the time of the Chilean miners rescue and in comparing themselves to the miners they were saying that they felt they had been by-passed by all of these things that had happened to the organisation. They were aware of them, but that somehow their experience of them had been at one step removed. Fortunately, their new manager, Stuart, was doing a fantastic job of pulling them up to “safety”. You can probably see how useful this picture is as an overview to give an instant impression about how the team felt and to show us what needed to be done.

I really had no idea that people would go for the idea as much as they did. I came away with a feeling that I knew the places in the organisation that were absolutely motoring and the are the ones that needed help. It was immediately before a strategy session with the board, so I got an overall sense of how prepared we were for the next step as an organisation. Some quite detailed points came out of the pictures that we’ve got to address before we start doing them again. After all, if we’re going to ask staff to tell us something, we need to be responsive to what they say. If they’re going to be open then we have to respond to that, and I guess that means some more early mornings and the occasional missed breakfast.

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