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Leadership lessons from Admiral Lord Nelson on employee belonging

The seas have been stormy this year, but we’ve learned to pull together. Belonging is now a business critical metric for all organisations and it must be a shared responsibility, not just something that is left to HR.

23rd Dec 2020
Founder Belonging Space
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The famous statue of Admiral Nelson on Trafalgar Square in London, UK, on blue clear sky
iStock/kyrien

As we move beyond lockdown, with a glimmer of hope brought by the Covid-19 vaccine, my thoughts have turned to Trafalgar Square and Admiral Lord Nelson looking down at the heart of London, which is beginning to bustle again after the eerie quiet of the last few months. It’s quite the metaphor for our times.

The duty of care for belonging and culture – for its smooth running now and preparation for the challenges ahead – is a shared responsibility. It does not only sit on the shoulders of HR.

Lord Nelson once observed that in the pitch of battle it’s not the admiral of the fleet, but the most junior member of the team, high up in the crow’s nest, who has the best view of what’s happening. It’s a message that was as relevant in the 18th century as it is today for HR and leadership teams.

It’s worth remembering, however, that the admiral can’t suddenly build a connection with someone far removed – socially, hierarchically and physically – in the midst of a crisis. Nor can the top leader ride roughshod over other relationships in between. So he radically reformed the Royal Navy to forge trust and strong connections right through, in the everyday habits, with common principles of ethos and communication, so as to link the fleet easily ship-to-ship rather than being isolated in separate worlds.

Systematic sense of belonging and duty of care

Nelson went further. He instituted a systematic sense of belonging that has lasted since then. He set up team brief to share information openly, and established a responsibility of officers to listen and respond to any and all points raised by their crew. This is still a core practice.

He made it a duty of care of leaders to share responsibility for morale, behaviour and upholding the code of the navy. He knew that a strong bond of belonging was one of the most critical strengths of an effective navy.

While the challenges of sea battles and potential mutiny are specific, the purpose of this infrastructure rings loud: to strengthen cooperation and communication at speed, and forge connection between and interdependence across, rather than separate ‘worlds’, on the oceans around the globe.

So what’s the point of this story for HR directors right now? While the admiral initiated the approach, preserving the sense of belonging was a shared responsibility of all naval officers. This particular lesson is critical to our next chapters.

2020 survival

In the initial frenzy of the first few weeks of lockdown from March, and then through subsequent months, the pressure on HR to lead, solve and tackle any and all of the challenges of isolation was immense.

I’ve heard a mix of stories – both good and bad – including one of a CEO who, having all but ignored their HR director for the five years they’d been there, turned to ask, “so, HR – what are you going to do about lockdown then?”

In contrast, there was another CEO at a 250-year-old company that had been impacted immediately and brutally by the pandemic, who froze their own salary and pulled the board with HR together to save a chunk of jobs. From these two anecdotes alone it’s clear that this year brought out the best (and sometimes the worst) in people.

The accomplishments of many of our colleagues were outstanding – achievements in record time, shifting rapidly to remote work, acting quickly to prevent the feared collapse of projects or indeed organisations themselves. Indeed, for many companies there was increased productivity, as HR teams worked hard to guide CEOs and look out for the wellbeing, psychological safety and equity of their people. This was the year that the extraordinary became not just ordinary, but expected.  

Culture hub link

Shared responsibility

As HR directors and teams in so many companies continue to serve people and leaders unfailingly, however, there is already a clear need to address the issue of burnout or lasting damage to their wellbeing. Sadly, what I’ve seen is that too often the burden has been on the HR director to be the hero on their own.

The duty of care for belonging and culture – for its smooth running now and preparation for the challenges ahead – is a shared responsibility. It does not only sit on the shoulders of HR. We cannot simply bunch up all these problems and put them in a basket marked, ‘let HR deal with that’. It’s imperative that nurturing belonging is a collective commitment across the whole leadership team and throughout the organisation.

Why a duty of care for belonging?

Much of the need that exists today is for the same reasons Admiral Lord Nelson introduced it in the 1790s: to avoid wasting energy and time on internal conflict, mutiny, miscommunication, or duplication of effort. It’s to make sure that ‘what we value’ is a shared ethos, not individual interpretation leader to leader, or from home office to home office. It’s there to connect not only within functional teams, but also between and across disciplines and locations and to make it easy for new people to join, and be effective, quickly. It’s about listening and responding when people feel excluded or unjustly treated. We need it to know what’s happening both in the pitch of battle and as we look forward to the moments of calm seas.

Add to this some 21st century reasons: ‘work’ has changed for ever and nowadays ‘going to work’ is less a destination and more a state of mind. Belonging is less in a place (the office is at best a hub for now) and more in the space between us. Leaders need to be ‘part of’ it all, not ‘apart from’, or separate.

How can we make all of that work effectively, and help individuals to feel they belong, wherever they work and however they connect?

Discussion template: reframing belonging for our times

With the frenzy to come in 2021 of recovery and new disruptions, leaders need to take a little time to reframe belonging together. To help get to the bottom of these issues, I recommend a session with a small group initially (eight to ten participants, including the CEO, executive or senior leaders and HR). It can help to use an outside facilitator or each take a turn to lead the discussion, and to take notes. Ask each leader to check in with their team on these points in advance and bring feedback to the discussion.

Here are a few generic prompt questions as a starter-for-ten for your own agenda.

1. Frank reflection on this year, from survey data and your close experience, with questions including:

  • What’s the state of belonging, currently?
  • How well are we joining up within function teams and between the fleet?
  • What are the small things that made a big difference?
  • What are the hardest obstacles or phases?
  • What got in the way/lessons to learn?
  • What are we most proud of?

2. Focus on culture priorities, with questions including:

  • What habits and interactions do we keep and institute from our new practices this year?
  • What’s superfluous or unhelpful?
  • Does any one/group feel excluded?
  • Most pressing people and culture challenges?
  • What’s the simplest way to keep clarity, connection, co-operation in duty of care?

3. Looking beyond the horizon post-Covid-19, with questions including:

  • Where, when and how will ‘work’ happen now?
  • What new roles and challenges do you need to integrate?
  • What risks and opportunities from next chapter?
  • What are the new demands of leaders?
  • What’s the best that could happen from a shared sense of belonging?
  • How will you keep connected on this in the next six weeks, three months, and six months?

It’s essential that you make belonging a shared responsibility and a prime duty of care for all leaders because, right now, belonging may well be one of your greatest assets.

Interested in this topic? Read Four ways to shape a future of work that's right for your people.

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