Happy accidents: Clare Moriarty’s lessons on leadership

Written by Suzannah Brecknell on 8 May 2018 in Feature
Feature

At the first Civil Service World leadership lecture, Defra permanent secretary Clare Moriarty shared the four principles that inform her leadership style. Suzannah Brecknell reports

Clare Moriarty gives the first CSW Leadership Lecture Credit: CSW

“Leadership is something that is very personal. It’s not a recipe. It is about finding your own way, the right mix of theory and experience all conjured up with reflection.”

With these words, Clare Moriarty, permanent secretary at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, opened the first Civil Service World Leadership Lecture – a series of events at which we will invite leaders from across the public sector to share their experiences and reflections.

At the first event, sponsored by BT, Moriarty shared four principles that guide her thinking about leadership, and the accidents which helped her to identify them. After her lecture she was joined in conversation by Stephen Hall, BT’s commercial director for the public sector, who reflected on his own experiences as a leader through times of major change.

Service

Moriarty’s first principle is that “as a leader, I am in service of other people – I am trying to make it possible for them to do their best work”. She first articulated this principle after spotting, by chance, a small advert for a national newspaper essay competition. At the time, Moriarty had just finished “three years of intense thinking, and a learning curve which was practically vertical in its steepness” at the Department for Constitutional Affairs, which became the Ministry of Justice. 


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Moriarty joined the DCA after 20 years working in and around the health department, and said the move to a completely new department was a boon to her leadership development. "I cannot recommend it too highly – if you want to learn about leadership a really helpful thing you can do is cut yourself off from everything you think you know,” she said. Alongside a busy delivery programme which included the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act and the creation of the Ministry of Justice, Moriarty took advantage of a “fantastic” capability building programme at DCA. “All around me in the directorate there were people doing brilliant things or people getting together across teams think about leadership,” she said of the time.

But at the end of this period, for the first time in her career, she chose not to rush into another demanding job. This gave her time to reflect, and the essay competition provided an impetus to structure her thoughts and – importantly – a deadline to write them down. Her essay “Role models for a new generation” won the competition and began her process of creating design principles, and she set out her “four As” of leadership, which still guide her today. They are: added value (“only do what only you can do”); atmosphere (create the atmosphere you want to see to benefit others); attention (“what you attend to as a leader gets attended to by others, so choose the things you want to attend to and attend to them relentlessly until you find that other people have acquired the reflex to attend to them”); and authenticity (“none of the above works unless it's done with integrity and is consistent with, and from the position of, real values”). All of these four As, she says, feed into the underlying purpose of a leader: to help others do their best work.

Value 

Moriarty developed her second principle – value – while on a leadership development course – so it was more of a timely coincidence than an accident. The speaker discussed values and value conflict, at the time Moriaty’s work at the constitutional department had been “littered with difficult ethical issues and lots of people feeling quite stressed and challenged by the difficulty of operating in that environment”. 

On her return from the course, Moriarty wrote down her own thoughts on values and value conflict, and she still draws on those thoughts today. There is a value conflict at the heart of how the civil service operates, she says. Officials are required by the Civil Service Code “to operate according to a particular set of values”, she explains. “But we are also required to operate in support of politicians who, perfectly rightly, operate to values some of which are exactly the same and some slightly different."

Leaders must ensure they are considering the different values which impact their work, she suggested – not just the core civil service values but also the “fundamental public sector service value that gets us out of bed in the morning” and the “revealed preference values” that show what is actually valued in the organisations they lead.

Connected 

The third accident that shaped Moriarty’s thinking was a much more public one: the collapse of the West Coast Mainline franchise in 2012. “It was an intensely difficult period; I think the three months at the end of 2012 were the most difficult of any period I have ever experienced in my career,” she said. This was in part because it was a “self-inflicted wound” for the Department for Transport, and because it called into question the department’s own perceptions of its strengths.  

It was a period that had a “profound effect on me as a leader”, says Moriarty, who held two director-general posts at the department. “It was such an intense period and it is still relatively recent, so it's quite hard to stand back and think about what was really going on”. But one thing which stands out to her as she reflects on the time responding to this crisis was the importance of people and connections between them.

“It cemented my belief that it is all about the people,” she said. “The sorts of things I found myself worrying about were: how do we strike the right balance between allowing people to grieve properly for what had happened but also getting them to move on? I was thinking about how we build trust within the senior team so that we role model how we wanted others to behave and not a set of behaviours that we didn't want to see in others, and treating the rail industry as people who actually care about the same stuff as us.”

This theme of people and connections was something which BT’s Stephen Hall agreed on when he joined the conversation. Asked about what advice he might give his younger self about leadership, Hall said he’d advise that getting a good team in place to provide support is crucial, because “it’s all about the people”.

Hall also set out “four Cs” that he believes are the mark of good leadership: conviction, confidence, challenge and culture. Leaders, he argued, must have courage of conviction and confidence to lead change when they are taking their organisation in a new direction; they should be able to challenge the status quo, but in “the right way” to ensure they can bring change; and they need to consider the culture they are creating in their organisation. “The role of the leaders is to set the right cultural feel for a place so that your people behave and work together in a way that shows the organisation in the right way,” he said.

Open

Moriarty’s final principle is one that has characterised her time at Defra: being open. This began even before she joined the department, she said. During the recruitment process she asked whether she could run a workshop at the staff panel, rather than presenting on her own vision for the department which is the usual format for this part of a perm sec recruitment process. To start the workshop she asked members of the panel to share one thing they did outside work – resulting in a “fascinating” conversation. “It created energy and it created connections,” says Moriarty. “It allowed people to have conversations in different ways and it is something that I tumbled on by chance, I've used a lot since then.” 

Moriarty says the “open” principle is in some ways her favourite, because it can cover many ways of being open. It might mean being open with colleagues by brining your whole self to work – something that Moriarty works hard to encourage at Defra. “If what people tell me is true, and the word association for Clare Moriarty is now ‘bring yourself to work’, I couldn't happier with that,” she says.

It could mean being approachable, or creating an environment where people feel brave enough to work in the open rather than allowing fear of media reaction to prevent sensible policy discussions. It might mean being open to difference, open to challenge, or to new experiences, Moriarty explains.

“I'd like more accidents like those that have brought me the design principles that guide what I'm trying to do now,” she says. “By definition they were unplanned. If you're not looking, you're not open and ready to receive accidents when they arrive then you’re never going to be able to take advantage of them.” 

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Suzannah Brecknell
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