values - NHS values.png

Values. We all have them, whether you have thought them through or they just sit in your unconscious. One comms team have been working theirs out.

by Andrew Kirby

I’m writing this in response to this blog by my colleague, the multi-award-winning communicator, blogger and all round good egg Jude Tipper. In the blog she discusses how knowing your values, the things you stand for, can make you a better communicator. She closes with a challenge. She throws down the gauntlet to fellow professionals. She’s shown us hers (her values are “integrity, empathy and kindness”) and now it’s our turn to show ours.

She frames it as our “homework”.

The word homework instantly brings three things to mind (Jude talks about three being the “magic number” in her blog): the current lockdown situation in which a lot of us are working from home; the 1997 Daft Punk album, and excuses. Dredging up reasons for not doing something you’re supposed to. Only one of this trio is in any way appealing.

In a way, that last paragraph was an excuse. It was filler. Waffle. A reason not to go ahead and get on with my task. Because, actually, defining your values is much harder than you’d think, and it takes much longer than you’d think. And it comes with problems. Once you’ve done this, once you’ve publicly professed what your values are… if you then monumentally break one of them, you’ll beat yourself up ‘til you find a way of making peace with it. Or your colleagues will call you out on it (and they should).

But that’s the best reason for doing this homework in the first place. By doing this, you are nailing your colours to the mast.

You are being true to yourself and others (if that doesn’t sound too much like Jerry Springer).

Before I make a start on my values (look at me, stalling again: this really is hard) I’d like to talk about something which arguably isn’t a value but which also forms a critical part of my set up. That’s my need to have a purpose – both in my day-to-day life and in my work.

Purposefulness: I must be doing meaningful work for an organisation I admire. I want to add value, not in terms of the bottom-line but in terms of being useful. To my colleagues, to my line managers, to the people I manage. To the wider team. To the wider organisation. To front-line health service professionals. To people who may use the products and services we provide at NHS Digital.

In order for my day to be worthwhile, I set myself a target of achieving (at least) one good thing, be this helping a colleague to achieve a good outcome, producing a great piece of work myself, solving a problem, championing somebody else. Being of use. I have a very public sector mindset, I think.

Jude says: “Values certainly matter to public sector communicators; it’s most likely why we choose to work for social good. Is it even how we subconsciously chose our organisations and why, despite the cutbacks and the struggles, we choose to stay?”

More: in his excellent book Ten Words (check it out – it’s an illuminating read), Jeremy Waite carries the following quote from Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish born steel magnate and philanthropist: “Do not make riches, but usefulness, your first aim; and let your chief pride be that your daily occupation is in the line of progress and development; that your work, in whatever capacity it may be, is useful work, honestly conducted, and as such ennobling to your life.”

This desire for a purpose aligns with my values: the things I live by, stand by, and am (hopefully) known for. So, finally, here’s my colours nailed to the mast:

Enthusiasm: I will bring a positive attitude and a positive energy to the table. I will put my hand up for things (though not everything). I’ll champion other people in the team. I’ll champion an idea. I’ll come up with an idea. I’ll challenge the normal way of doing things.

I’ll be enthusiastically curious. As well as achieving at least one good outcome a day, I want to learn something new every day. It’s why I’ve set myself the challenge of learning to plait my daughter’s hair by the end of lockdown (I can only do bunches at the moment). It’s why I surround myself with such a brilliant collection of individuals – specialists – in the comms team at NHS Digital. It’s why I sign up for courses. It’s why I signed up to become deputy profession lead here. I’ve been on a true journey – a learning odyssey if that doesn’t sound too daft – since I joined this organisation and I want others to be able to experience the same excellent experience I’ve had. I’ve grown as a person and as a communicator, and also as a leader.

There’s another side to my curiosity too – I’m curious about people, not just stuff. I want to know about them; what makes them tick and what ticks them off. I think this quality may come from me being an author. I construct and develop characters in the stories I tell and this kind of flows into real life – I naturally try and get under someone’s skin in order to have a better relationship with them, in order to find out how best to help them, and in order to discover how best to connect on any number of levels.

This speaks directly to one of Jude’s key traits, her empathy. Jude says: “I try to always have empathy with people, even if I dislike them. It makes me think of the ghost in Dickens’ Christmas Carol: “Come in and know me better, man”.”

Jude says: “Curiosity is a beautiful thing; it’s something children are born with but then it almost shrinks as we age, as we conform to norms or lose our nerve. We stop asking impertinent questions. That said, there’s an art to being a curious person without it straying into just nosiness or being darn right annoying…”

Generosity: I want others to have the benefit of my experience and to guide them on technical skills (particularly storytelling). I want to motivate and encourage people. Empower them. Help them to find their own drivers, their own values. By far the most pleasure I have taken in anything I have done at NHS Digital is watching someone I directly line manage go on to shine. I take immense pride in that. She will go on to be a leader in her own right in the comms team. I just know it.

I want to give my time to people. I want to listen – really listen. And understand.

Authenticity: I must be true to myself. Be genuine. I must work hard. Add value. Be positive. Offer help. Lead. Play well with others. Have fun. That’s who I am. I don’t think you can neatly separate work values and life values. I don’t have a work ‘persona’ (though I am capable of wearing many hats at work). When you do that’s when you lose authenticity, and we all know that matters.

As Jude says, knowing your values – taking the time to articulate what’s at the heart of who you are and what’s under your skin – matters in the workplace. By believing, living and proudly wearing your colours you can go some way to ensuring that your career progresses in the right way.

It is my ambition to become a leader in the comms team at NHS Digital. Doing this exercise – distilling all my thoughts around my right way of doing things – will provide me with a something to hold on to as I develop. My values will set out what type of leader I already am and will become as I continue through my career. They will also be the things that dictate how I lead, and, ultimately, how successful I am.  

NHS Digital has provided me with opportunities to learn, to work with purpose, and to lead. These are the things which get me out of bed in a morning. And they are where my values – enthusiasm, generosity and authenticity – can shine through.

By preserving these things, by remaining true to them, I can continue to progress, and I can continue to love the job almost as much as I love Daft Punk’s Homework.

Andrew Kirby is deputy communications lead at NHS Digital. You can say hello on Twitter at @andrew_kirby1

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Image via Tyne and Wear Archives and Museum

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