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THE THIRD ENVELOPE

I was with one of our partners last Friday, a former senior manager in a local authority.  He told me the story of ‘The Three Letters’, which although apparently well-known, I’d never heard before… 

A new manager is going through induction with her predecessor. The outgoing manager shares some very simple advice. “There are three letters on your desk. The first time things get tough: open that first envelope. The second time you’re in trouble, reach for the second one. Only use the third when you’re in real trouble”.

The new member of staff starts off well, but eventually, some problems arise. She remembers the three letters. She heads back to her desk and opens the first envelope – which reads…”Blame Your Predecessor!”

A great idea – he’s no longer around anyway. Her bosses accept the excuse, and she’s back on track. But inevitably, new problems emerge and when they start to get out of hand, she goes back to her desk and begins reading the second letter. That advises:  “Blame The Staff!”

She’s initially reluctant, but soon ends up telling senior management that she doesn’t have the right resources. Again, they agree to help her and she hires new employees. This gives her a bit of time because she has a team to bring up to speed.

But the root causes for a lot of her problems are never really addressed, and sure enough, the pressures of the job become overwhelming. She goes to her desk again. She opens the third and final envelope. This time it says… “Start Drafting Three Letters”!

Obviously, the moral of this story is that you eventually run out of scapegoats.  For most managers (and any employee in fact), we can’t avoid that accountability.

However, there is a point about timing, too.

Many of our clients are relatively new into their roles or organisations.   Most of them have been tasked with making changes in very difficult, financially constrained environments.  They’ll likely have to make crucial decisions on priorities, services, and resources.

Change for our clients – in local authorities, health partnerships, RSLs, universities – has to be considered, well-informed and well-planned. But it has to be done prettyquickly too.

While few of them want to use any of their letters (and none wants to open the third), the very best of them know this:

Letters 1 & 2 have a use by date on them.  Blaming others for a lack of change after a year won’t work.

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