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Lia Nicholson: Changing perceptions

Lia Nicholson: Changing perceptions

Leadership and changemaking from inside the civil service

Image above: The Antigua and Barbuda Parliament

Queen’s Young Leader, Lia Nicholson tells Leading Change how she is making change from a civil service office in Antigua and Barbuda.

What do you think of when someone says the word “government” or “civil service”? For many people these words conjure up images of endless forms, documentation and desks, or impenetrable and obstructive institutions.

Not for Lia Nicholson. “It’s a little unusual,” says Lia, “but what attracts me to the civil service is I enjoy working within the institutional framework.”

Lia works on climate change in the Department of the Environment at the Government of Antigua and Barbuda. Among other things, her job is about changing perceptions. So, for example instead of streams being seen as “somewhere where your kitchen sink water goes”, they are perceived as a “green space, a recreational area”.

Thinking of the civil service, she says, “You don’t want institutions to be the way we usually think of them where it’s archaic, it’s super-hierarchical – all of these negative connotations – bureaucratic.”

And, since becoming a Queen’s Young Leader, Lia has found the tools to change those perceptions, and begun to think differently about the whole concept of leadership.

Leadership styles

“I’ve grown a lot in ability. Self-confidence for me has been an important one,” says Lia. “You have people who are like born leaders, and born with that ability to speak confidently and feel confident in providing direction.”

However, as Lia points out, that there many other leadership styles and these can be developed. “So thinking of leadership more as something to work on,” she explains, “rather than people are born with it or they’re not.”

Learning about Goleman’s six leadership styles – coercive, authoritative and visionary, affiliative, democratic, pace-setting and coaching – has made Lia more conscious of her own.

“I can now recognise certain styles that I may gravitate towards more. All of them are useful, and none of them are bad, but some of them had different repercussions.”

She found that she had previously gravitated towards a pace-setting style of leadership, but is now trying to do more coaching and handing over.

“Recognising that isn’t instantaneous,” she says. “It’s an aha moment, but it takes a lot of practice to make it usual.”

But how has she applied this to working in the civil service?

“In an institutional context, you’re working with many different dynamics,” she explains. “For institutions where you get experts in and that’s part of your work programme, it’s really important to be communicating clearly.”

Getting the right leadership style is helping Lia to engage more, to communicate more clearly with stakeholders, partners, colleagues and consultants.

Engaging stakeholders

But before you can lead and communicate with people, you need to engage them.

Lia and her colleagues had been trying to engage different stakeholders through workshops but some of the feedback they were getting was not great – “they’re long”, “they’re too technical”, “they’re not engaging enough!”

So Lia adapted some of the techniques she’d learnt on the Change by Design module of the Leading Change course.

“You can go and talk about how important it is until you’re blue in the face,” says Lia, “but just simple things you can do really help change perceptions and approach.”

Lia talks to two women in a green space

Engaging stakeholders and the community

Lia and her team wanted to help stakeholders, community members and others to see their perspective. But to do that, they needed to experience their services from the other side. She asked herself, “How do we take that idea of turning things on their heads?”

One way was getting staff members to play the role of a visitor to the department or a community member to get a different view on what the service was like.

Creating a buzz

Another example of how Lia’s altering the perspective is in the way her department has begun to attract new staff.

“We were having challenges finding good talent to hire,” she explains. “We wanted to ensure that we get people to do the work who are well qualified, but also who are from the region.”

However, Lia and her team were confronted by that ongoing problem. Many people have negative perceptions of what working for government or the civil service might be like.

Lia got some useful ideas from one of her advisory mentors on the Queen’s Young Leaders Programme.

“Like, first of all, ensuring that your image of an organisation is something that people want to work with,” she says. “If you focus your effort on that, it will solve your problems of trying to go out and recruit people because you’ll be approached all the time.”

Lia and colleagues at Green Climate Fund conference in South Korea

Gail Imhoff-Gordon from the Ministry of Finance, Diann Black-Layne Director of the Department of Environment, and Lia, at the Green Climate Fund Board Meeting in Songdo, South Korea.

Lia then approached the communications officer who she worked with to put together “a nice, short, succinct write-up of our mission so people can get a better sense of what we’re about.”

This has not only helped to create more of a buzz about what the organisation is doing, but also to keep existing partnerships infused with excitement.

Reflecting on her work and what she’s learnt, Lia says, “I work in a very different area than many of the other Queen’s Young Leaders. But applying some of the things I’ve learnt to an institutional context has been refreshing.”

Lia talks through policy with a community stakeholder

“You can go and talk about how important it is until you’re blue in the face. But just simple things you can do really help change perceptions and approach.”

Lia Nicholson