What does good Whitehall leadership look like in 2018?

Written by Kit Collingwood-Richardson on 18 January 2018 in Opinion
Opinion
Turbulent times require great leaders – but what does that mean for a modern civil service? Kit Collingwood-Richardson reflects on what she’s learned about leadership from the One Team Government movement

At One Team Government meetings leadership comes up constantly as an area in need of reform. Credit: Adobe Stock

The UK – and the wider global societal climate – is in a state of rapid flux. New technology means the way we interact with each other, with government and with private companies is constantly evolving. The global political picture is volatile and risky, and the ageing population is changing many aspects of how we live, from the affordability of healthcare to the state of the housing market.

These are unique times. For the civil service, which must respond to all the challenges above while remaining stable and responsive, they call for a new, different way of leading. But how should we ring the changes from what has gone before?

Last summer some friends and I co-founded One Team Government, a global community of public servants and our allies who are seeking to improve government services and reform the way we work. Since then we’ve been running events and having conversations spanning every grade and department in central government, where people are telling us how they really feel the civil service is performing, and how we can improve.

In the course of these conversations, leadership comes up constantly as an area we need to reform. Clear themes have begun to emerge about what good leadership look like now – both from current and future leaders. This article summarises the most frequently occurring themes, and invites feedback from public servants and interest groups. Many of these themes run against our current accepted wisdom of how to lead. The importance of giving an impression of stability cedes to the acknowledgement that we must learn to thrive in times of change. The obsession with “delivery” cedes to having the wisdom to stop doing things. And power yields to the ability to build influence.

“Networked leaders naturally disrupt the less helpful aspects of hierarchies, pushing work to where it most makes sense, rather than the next grade up or down”

Adapting to change

In times of great change we need leaders with far more flexible approaches than those that have gone before. Specifically, feedback we’ve taken centres on good leaders who adapt their ways of working to the circumstances and are willing to let go of the status quo; who are as focused on what to stop doing as what they need to continue; and who are role models for an open culture, sharing knowledge whenever possible and inviting feedback. These leaders embrace failure as a learning opportunity, and proactively share their experience. Alongside this they naturally experiment with their work, using iterative techniques to get better, and willingly taking on measured risk to prove or disprove their ideas. These leaders thrive in times of high uncertainty, and don’t try to give the impression of certainty where none exists.

Being a networked leader

There has been a general trend in many of our conversations about the links between good leadership and the desire to work in less hierarchical, more networked ways. These leaders take a market view of their work, understanding what government is best placed to do and what it isn’t. They can succeed where they have influence but no power – such as with other departments or sectors. They naturally disrupt the less helpful aspects of hierarchies, pushing work to where it most makes sense, rather than the next grade up or down, and also use their network to build their own resilience, actively leaning on others.

Networked leaders take a wide initial perspective to their work, learning from across departments, sectors and countries, and see this as an intrinsic part of their role. They may be active on social media, maintaining good relationships via them to other areas and sectors.

Building great teams

The civil service consistently underplays the importance of cohesive and trusting teams. We need to become far better practiced in how to build strong teams, acknowledging that making high-performing teams is not about what the team is doing, but creating a healthy culture. Our feedback on this from the One Team Government community is that good leaders know that diverse and inclusive teams perform better, and make specific efforts to ensure their teams represent wider society.

They actively invite challenging and disruptive voices into the team, welcoming diversity of viewpoint. Strong leaders want their juniors to outperform them and create compulsively curious teams, where learning is not an add-on but part of the everyday. Finally, they practice vulnerability with their teams, not feeling the need to be “the boss” or have all the answers.

Connecting to the citizen

The shift in government to increasingly digital ways of working has created a desire for more intrinsic links between policy and service delivery, and more direct contact with citizens. We’ve heard across government that leaders who do this well feel themselves intrinsically connected to service delivery, regardless of their role, and approach their work with compassion. They undertake research to understand the impact of their ideas on citizens and change their advice or approach based on user feedback. As well as spending regular time in operational centres, they actively listen to operational insights, and use technology to improve service delivery and take citizen feedback.

Being more authentic

There is increasing trust in a style of leadership that does not strive to maintain distance between grades – and this is associated with authenticity. Of course, it is very hard to describe authenticity, but broadly speaking it means people presenting more of themselves at work, which can include being more open about their sexuality, gender expression, disability or any minority experience, and seeing this is as a key way of building more inclusive teams. It can also mean using less corporate language, particularly when delivering difficult messages, and/or being comfortable using emotive language. Finally it means role modelling approachability in any way they see fit. Authentic leaders will tend to interact with a wider span of grades, particularly if they are very senior, and are perceived as being equally “themselves” with their own peer group as with others.

The rub

It is relatively straightforward to take and theme feedback like this, and extraordinarily hard to implement it. This is partly because it’s easy to avoid things that cause us discomfort, such as challenging our own behaviour; partly because we’re more rewarded for examining the “what” of our jobs than the “how”, which is where most leadership traits fall; and partly because it’s hard to describe the symptoms of either changing or stagnating leadership.

So how do we track our course to better leadership? What are the symptoms of it, and, more importantly, how do we know when we’re not doing it? In the One Team Government community we’re thinking about these questions and we’d like your feedback. You can contact us at contact@oneteamgov.uk, @OneTeamGov on Twitter or me personally via @kitterati.

Author Display Name
Kit Collingwood-Richardson
About the author

Kit Collingwood-Richardson is deputy director, data, Universal Credit, in the Department for Work and Pensions, and co-founder of the One Team Government movement

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