HR Leadership Team Development Case Study

Written on the 28 February 2011 by Jacqueline Wiltshire, HR Director, Ealing Council


In 2006 an Audit Commission report painted a gloomy picture of the HR function at Ealing Council. The troubled department was failing to provide a good HR service to the organisation and bringing little added value.

The team was feeling demotivated, overworked and unproductive following an intense period of restructuring. With so much on their plates, team members had lost sight of the big picture. A series of rapid changes in leadership, with five HR directors in almost as many years, had also lowered morale. The structure of the senior HR team meant that the five key senior leaders, each responsible for a vital HR function, worked in isolation.

To improve the service, the senior HR team needed to be re-energised and prepared for further change. Recognising this, Hilary Jeanes, the interim HR director at the time, appointed Paul Fairhurst and some of his colleagues from the Institute for Employment Studies to conduct a bespoke strengths-focused coaching scheme for the HR leadership team. The aim was to support the senior leaders through this difficult time, rebuild their confidence and help develop them as managers and inspirational leaders.

The project

The six-month programme started in May 2007 and took a two-pronged approach. The five HR heads each received six two-hour coaching sessions, while regular workshops took place to help them work better as a team. The focus of the individual sessions was on helping the leaders understand the tasks and behaviours they were most skilled at. Using Strengthscope a psychometric tool developed by the Strengths Partnership, they mapped out areas where they were strongest, a process that has helped them to improve their performance.

The coaching sessions were held off-site to encourage the leaders to open up and to distance them from their hectic jobs. As well as helping participants to identify their strengths, Paul Fairhurst and other expert coaches assisted them in tackling key challenges.

Feedback on the coaching sessions has been overwhelmingly positive; the leaders now feel more confident about their abilities. As my colleague David Veale, head of HR consultancy, said: ‘The programme gave me a clear understanding of my strengths and the activities I enjoy doing at work, as well as those I find more challenging. It helped me step back from difficult situations and view them more objectively. I feel much more confident, and as a team we are less stressed, less reactive and more focused on outcomes.’

When I joined the team in August 2007 I underwent the same strengths assessment, followed by a half-day session with my senior colleagues and the coaches, to make sure I was integrated with the team.
But this has only been half the story. It was apparent at the start that members of the senior team were so busy and overloaded that they barely knew each other. The workshops brought all the leaders together, which helped them to foster stronger, more collaborative working relationships. They quickly started supporting each other, using their individual capabilities.

Already, the HR team has been receiving positive feedback from managers in the organisation. We’re in the process of increasing the size of the department and reorganising our HR function to become more strategic, in light of the CIPD report Fit for Business: Transforming HR in the Public Sector. There are many changes happening, such as the creation of a shared service centre. But rather than seeing any of this as a threat or a problem, team members are galvanised behind the changes and making them happen. Four have been appointed to strategic roles in my new core HR department and one now has a more senior role with Surrey County Council.

The coaching programme has been the catalyst for our transformation, and helped us reach our full potential.

Lessons learnt

  •  Ignoring weaknesses turns them into problems. Focus on your strengths, and make sure you know the strengths of those around you.
  •  Overworked, exhausted staff need thinking space, but a re-energised team can have the determination to tackle bigger challenges ahead with enthusiasm.
  •  Change is a constant, but preparing people for it, rather than inflicting it upon them, is well worth the investment.

Published as ‘How HR made a difference at work’ in People Management, 24 July 2008

Author:Jacqueline Wiltshire, HR Director, Ealing Council