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‘Presence’ in public sector leadership – Susan Coull

‘Presence’ in Public Sector Leadership: a personal account of a recent shadowing experience

by Susan Coull

Having presence as a leader sends important signals to others.  Presence is the state or fact of existing, occurring or being present (Oxford Dictionary).  It is being in the here and now regardless of what’s going on around you and listening in a focused way which gives the other person the gift of being heard.  This is not easy because, as Judy Ringer notes, “we can listen faster than people talk, our minds can wander”. As leaders in the public sector, we increasingly experience the challenges of managing competing priorities; do we focus the person in front of us, in that moment?  In leadership roles the requirement to listen goes beyond a simple need to hear and assimilate information.  When we listen carefully to others, “…we can actually help them express themselves… It’s as if they recognise they are really being listened to and can relax and simply speak” (Julia Starr).  This is something I was fortunate to experience recently as I took up the opportunity to shadow Police Scotland’s Detective Chief Constable (DCC), Rose Fitzpatrick.

I was a little anxious about meeting the DCC in view of the senior professional role she holds and the competing priorities she is required to manage on a daily basis, so I focussed on the numerous leadership questions I had prepared for the visit.  However, I soon realised I had no need to feel anxious.  From my arrival, I received a warm welcome and experienced genuine care and attention throughout the whole day.

I was privileged to have been invited by the DCC to celebrate the Scottish Policing Excellence Awards.  The event was high profile, attended by serving police officers, their families and many senior personnel.  It was a busy occasion and one of those experiences where you don’t know anyone in the room.  That may have been daunting had it not been for the DCC’s presence towards me.

Susan Coull interviews DCC Rose Fitzpatrick

During our conversations, Rose took time to ask me several thought-provoking questions about my own leadership journey.  I have studied behaviour for a number of years using Carl Jung’s theory of Psychological Type (Insights Discovery) and, having a preference for Sunshine Yellow, usually love to talk about myself as a result of my expressive and extrovert nature!  I did however find myself a little surprised to have the DCC’s interest focussed on me. My experience of working in the NHS and with people in senior positions is that they usually speak more than I do – an insight worthy of more exploration.  This wasn’t the case during my shadowing experience.  I happily shared information about my own career in the public sector, experiences I have spoken about before. Yet, there was something about the manner in which these questions were asked – calm, considered and relaxed – that raised new awareness for me in reflective practice.

The DCC also shared her thoughts with me on authenticity, leadership, culture and change.  She created a medium for trust and openness in a very short time which in turn resulted in a very positive and inspiring experience for me.

I highly recommend leadership shadowing to anyone and express thanks and appreciation to Nicola Shepherd, Chief Inspector, Rose Fitzpatrick, DCC Police Scotland and the Women in Public Sector Leadership Network (WiPSL) for the opportunity appearing on the Knowledge hub.

I hope you will also consider the questions I have been left with, which I shall ask myself when I engage in communication with others:

  1. How present am I for this conversation?

  2. Is my intention to make a conscious effort to really listen?

  3. What difference did focussing more of my attention to listening make to the outcome?

___ Susan Coull works as Service Manager with NHS National Services Scotland and is also a freelance coach specialising in behaviour change, management & leadership development.




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