Through great mentoring and some serious dedication, Cath Hickman has scaled the mountain of leadership success.
Cath explains why, with her busy job in local government, she needed a leadership course that was strategic, flexible, and highly supportive all at once.
I work within Northamptonshire Youth Offending Service (NYOS), which provides services to children and young people who have committed or are at risk of committing offences, as well as to their families, to the victims of their offences, and to the courts and the wider community.
A social worker by profession, I have been fortunate enough to manage staff and services in most areas of NYOS, from direct work with clients to policy, practice and performance development.
Embarking on a learning journey
As I work in local government, it was important to find a highly cost effective route to obtaining the qualification, and therefore I began a level 5 leadership and management qualification with an exclusively online provider. I worked through several of the modules and achieved both the award and the certificate.
I was struggling, however, as without any clear deadlines, and without any sense of a learning relationship with the provider, I lacked motivation and my busy job provided me with any and all excuses for not getting on with it. Additionally, whilst I was able to go through the motions of studying for and submitting work of a sufficient quality, I had no external challenge to my practice.
Recognising that if I was to progress, I really needed to buckle down, I found Nigel Girling and the National Centre for Strategic Leadership (part of the Babington Group). Nigel provided both the much-needed breath of fresh air and the appropriate impetus to make me think and work.
He invited me to join a group of level 6 diploma candidates at a local forestry company, very much a for-profit organisation, albeit a highly ethical one. Through this work and the one-to-one support that Nigel provided, I was able to express and explore the significantly more strategic elements of my work.
Navigating organisational change
My role at that time was as Development and Training Manager, and it is fair to say that sometimes the public sector lags behind the cutting edge of management practice. Nigel helped me truly understand that it was more important to apply the right approach at the right time, managing change and development in an agile manner, than to stick to any amount of formal project management practice.
Working on change projects means striving to work positively with all staff in whatever capacity they are employed. As a statutory service hosted by a county council, NYOS was designed as a hierarchy, and some of the agencies from which are staff are seconded are even more formal and hierarchical. As a result, some colleagues were a long way from being comfortable with the inverted or sideways structural charts I was trying to use. My role involved working to bring about a massive culture shift for practitioners, but even more so for managers.
Nigel’s far-from-stuffy approach to theory enabled me to use a wide range of ideas and strategies in the real world I inhabit.
Fresh perspectives through mentor support
Nigel’s far-from-stuffy approach to theory enabled me to use a wide range of ideas and strategies in the real world I inhabit. The group sessions were particularly interesting for me as someone working in a local government context; seeing how other types of organisation are able to respond to drivers was very helpful.
It also gave me the opportunity to test out how ideas sounded to a completely new audience, making full use of the helpful feedback while also contributing ideas about the development of colleagues’ projects in an entirely different field.
As a mentor, Nigel challenged me to look at the world and myself differently, whilst acknowledging the realities of circumstances that were, for the time being, fixed. Although not avoiding the need to change in some ways, he was particularly insightful about the ways I could use what is simply true of me to greater effect.
Having previously ‘acted up’ into a more senior role for a period of time to cover the absence of a colleague, I was aware that the minimum level qualification required to progress was a Level 5 diploma. Nigel helped me to recognise that, whatever my job title, I was already practising well above level 5, so we agreed suitable changes to the work I was undertaking for the diploma.
Last February, following a colleague’s retirement, I commenced a second period of secondment into a more senior role: that of Interim Area Manager – Operations. This means I now have countywide responsibility for all Operations Managers across the service, including for the development and training role, allowing me to continue to be involved in the development work that is my greatest passion.
I am now the (very proud) possessor of a CMI Level 7 Diploma in Strategic Management and Leadership.
It gets better. There has since been a decision to fill the role on a permanent basis and I have been appointed to the post, so I will soon be in a position to drop the ‘Interim’ – and I wouldn’t have got that without the diploma, Nigel, and a lot of hard work.
It’s fair to say I haven’t followed a traditional route to the qualification, and I don’t think I followed a single, straightforward programme at any point – but following a narrow path is only ever going to lead to thin learning.
I have had a vivid, broad and exciting journey, filled with decisions and discussions, ideas and theories, despair and determination, which was already well worth it before I got the permanent job.
What I would recommend – and highly – is the blended approach to learning provided by Babington to support CMI qualifications – and Nigel himself, who is worth his weight in anything, suitable or unsuitable! Given the opportunity, I would gladly work with him, and with Babington, again.