When you're implementing change, getting buy-in from the workforce is essential. Brian McNamee, change and communications manager at National Grid, talked to Helen Wilcox, about how coaching, training and learning fit into his role in leading transformation programmes.

How did you end up in your current role?

I joined British Gas Corporation in 1976 and have worked for all of the successor companies such as TranscoBG, Transco, National Grid Transco.

I started out as apprentice craftsman and worked my way through various operational roles, finally becoming a senior manager in 2002 when I began to lead business change and manage programmes. I got into this role by an evolutionary and developmental process and it has had the very positive effect of giving me great variety in my various job roles as well as helping me to gain a breadth of expertise in a number of disciplines.

How does training fit into your role?

Training is an essential piece of programme management. The consequences of not doing training can be to damage the reputation of the company. Terminal 5 at Heathrow is a good example of this. It is a great piece of engineering, with excellent, practical and effective safety systems, close to a zero tolerance approach to personal injuries, but the implementation appeared to have been messed up because of poor or insufficient training. As a result, the company's, and I’d even say the country's, reputation suffered.

I think the way to plan change is to work with people. You need to have a view of where you want to get to, and how to get there, but you need the people to help you work out the way to get there.

When asking people to make changes, you have to consider how people feel about them. You have to allow people to feel reluctant and suspicious - change management is about how to progress to them being supportive and committed. That means asking a lot of pertinent questions, listening hard to the responses, reshaping what you planned to do and feeding that back.

Mentoring and coaching and providing general support also help change their mindset to one of being prepared to give it a try. You need to get people to tell you about what they value about what they are doing now, and how they feel about the changes and what their related concerns are. You must also value the people whose views are voiced with great passion. If they are not consulted about the changes, they will not feel involved and they will build strong resistance to the proposals. Once people are committed, you can move on to training.

Creating positive change mindsets is particularly necessary in National Grid, as it is an engineering based company embarking on a global transformation programme. Most people in the business are what I’d called hard-wired. They have great process and technical skills, as they have to be results focused, but they often do not fully appreciate the people dimension of change highly enough as a consequence when planning change.

These views I put forward about change are just not my views: The PROSCI survey in 2007 of 400 global blue-chips found that the key factors in all good programmes are communication, engagement, having a compelling case and managing the pace of change.

Would your sort of role suit a learning and development manager?

Learning and development managers are generally open-minded and value the available benefits of effective training, run inductions, and are good at communication - those are real, good foundations for programme management.

What would be an example of the sort of programme you work on?

One recent programme was to update our IS systems and processes in order to meet the new conditions introduced in the Traffic Management Act (TMA). The act is about making sure traffic can flow better on the streets of the UK. Utility companies have to have a licence to carry out highway based works and have to make sure that they don't disrupt the traffic flow unnecessarily. The penalties for not meeting the conditions go into multi millions of pounds for an organisation of our size.

The new TMA means, for instance, a certain number (usually around 10 for a small job) electronic notices have to be issued - for permission to open the highway, how long it will be open, and so on. By way of an example, if there is an emergency gas leak, as well as achieving our main priority to safeguard life and property, we have to issue a notice to the Highways Agency within two hours. Therefore these notices have to be timely and accurate. The field force - the gas engineers - sends these notices from laptops.

To implement a new system to meet the conditions of the new TMA involved over £10 million of IT spend for us. The IS challenge was that the workers are experts in dealing with gas leaks and digging up roads, but were not used to using laptops to send electronic notices to tight time schedules. They were not necessarily used to focusing on data quality and did not necessarily appreciate the consequences of not getting it right.

Working out where the accountabilities lay in the process was essential to achieving high performance and so we did a lot of preparation to convince the workers of their accountability to issue accurate electronic notices. As part of this approach we held a lot of awareness briefings, so that all of our people were ready and open to learning the new systems when the systems training started. Training on the new systems was then a major part of that change - for the teams out on the roads - and the back office staff.

Does National Grid run its own training?

Our business model is to outsource training. We have internal learning strategists but use outside training capability. We try to retain some of our contractor capacity to keep the expertise especially high. It's one thing to write material, it's another to deliver it. Our training varies from training office based clerks through to the field force, so you need trainers that can effectively create and deliver both.

We also have a network of our own train the trainer people. That helps sustainability of knowledge, and develops a level of expertise in training among our subject matter experts and team leaders. These trainers have to have very good facilitation skills to ensure that the learning transfer takes place, so we put them through learning facilitation courses.

What form does training take?

We try to make training participative. Learning should be fun.

In the train the trainer courses, we leave lots of breaks for networking, and we try to keep the group overnight, so that we can ask how it is going in a more relaxed environment. We often invite back people onto courses where they have been participants on the previous course - regarding major change, their personal stories of initial resistance to being supportive of the new ways of working always helps reduce any resistance from the group.

After the training, we open an intranet site where our team can see previous Q and As and also ask new questions. Our team commits to a fixed period of time to get answers to questions, which helps build trust.

We also concentrate on experiential learning. I believe that for highly effective training for busy people, it has to be relevant to their job role. I believe in using work experiences as your learning zone, as well as the classroom.

Companies often pull out training support once the programme implementation has been met. But there is a lot of learning available post implementation and there is always a need to help individual’s immediate progression up the competency curve. Technology training is no exception. Learning outside the classroom needs to be included after formal training. There needs to be regular reviews of what has been learnt and where we are in the transfer process of taking ownership.

A lot of learning can also come from collaboration. In our line of business, we have to renew our regulatory conditions every five years, which always means another finance based regulatory challenge is introduced. Therefore we have to continually come up with new ways of working. It's a journey of collaboration. We have to have an open culture and a coaching style of approach for collaboration to succeed.

Who do you admire?

I'm a big fan of Stephen Covey, whose seven habits of highly effective individuals model says you are on a journey from independence through dependence and on to interdependence. When you are independent you can feel more in control but in our environment you are only effective in collaboration. The right behaviour is a desire to create win-win solutions to multiple and complex challenges.

Other tips?

One of my previous directors used to be a learning and development manager. He had the mindset that you train for technical skills only and use the workplace as your learning environment for everything else.

I've adopted that approach, and I now use it with people who work for me. Every six weeks, or so, I ask them to tell me about their best successes and hardest challenges in that period. We use these as case studies and dissect them which enables us to gain insights and gives us both the maximum learning. It becomes more and more effective with practice and is always worth the time commitment. Some people take a while to open up to that approach and you have to tailor the depth of the conversation to the capabilities of the person in the beginning.

What it means is that we are continually looking at how to do the job better. Doing that is an inherently motivational experience and one that I call being 'designed to succeed'. I give them ownership and ask questions, challenge thinking and probe into what they are doing in order that they get the feel good of the enhanced achievement.

Similarly, in a big change programme, we analyse every single day of training. We ask daily 'how did it go? What did we learn?'

That means we are not just going through the motions of training. We are asking the question, 'Can we do everything better', all of the time. It's a lot of work but most people love it and it's very energising.

Brian's career path

Joined British Gas Corporation in 1976 and worked for all of the successor companies such as TranscoBG, Transco, National Grid Transco.

  • Gas transformation business change & communications manager;
  • NRSWA/TMA business programme manager;
  • New corporate identity project manager for UK regulated and non-regulated businesses;
  • Lead emergency & metering operations manager;
  • South of England and Wales operations manager for emergency & meter services;
  • Replacement brand manager;
  • South of England LDZ operations manager;
  • Variety of roles as a senior and junior manager all the way down to being an
    apprentice distribution craftsman.