By Clare Dobson

29 May 2024

Promotion can feel like an exclusive club for civil servants in the early stages of their career. Here's how to move forward


Earlier in my career, in the days when I was managing three small children at home, at work I was struggling to get promoted to grade 6. Feedback from interviews was often opaque, contradictory, and hard to process. Promotion felt like an exclusive club. I was about to give up when a senior colleague showed me what I had been missing, for which I am eternally grateful.  

Since then, having also made lots of grade 6 appointments, I have tried to pass on the learning – and the karma. So, here are my key tips in writing. They are based mainly on grade 6 policy roles in a department such as the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero. Essentially, it’s all about LEADING.

L = Leadership, in multiple directions, is the dominant behaviour

You need to be able to describe how you deliver through others, set direction for the team, and upwardly manage directors or deputy directors, stakeholder groups or ministers. The deputy director will be looking for someone who can deputise for them in their absence, and someone who can support the leadership of the wider policy area or directorate. One way to raise your profile as a leader is to work on a people plan or departmental project where you might be able to operate at a higher level, perhaps by acting on behalf of the senior leadership team or the directorate as a whole. 

You will also need to have an awareness of your own leadership style and be able to describe it to others. What three words would you use to describe your leadership style and why? 

E = Experience, specifically management experience or aptitude to manage larger teams, needs to be demonstrated 

Grade 6 roles often involve managing several grade 7 led teams and delivering through others, so experience or aptitude for a greater span of line management is important. This can be a catch-22 situation for those looking for promotion, as large management roles at grade 7 are relatively limited in policy departments such as DESNZ. 

However, if you interpret management in its broadest sense, you can demonstrate this aptitude by drawing on times when, at grade 7 you have been required to deliver through "virtual" teams where there is no line management relationship but where you are leading delivery of a product or policy that has several contributors working collaboratively to achieve an outcome. An example might be delivering a government response working with other departments or industry stakeholders; developing a policy where analysts, lawyers and policy professionals all need to input; or launching a publication where policy, ministerial and communications teams come together.  

A = Approach. If you are a "people person" you need to get comfortable with describing how you work with others.  

I include this as it was one of my stumbling blocks. When asked to describe how I set up effective working relationships or built teams, my inclination was always to say, "well, I just do it", as it felt strange to dissect it. It took me a while to realise that a prospective manager wants to know how the stranger they are interviewing would work with their team, how they would make connections, how they would encourage, motivate and persuade. Effective direction setting is as much about team commitment and buy-in to the goal as it is about the strategic content or the importance of the policy.  
If you find this difficult, try using visualisation to observe yourself in a work situation such as a team workshop where you need buy-in, or a difficult meeting with a stakeholder. What are the softer skills that you are using to gain credibility and support, inspire or persuade? 

D = Delivery, including managing pace, pressure and change, is vital 

At grade 6 you may be called upon to manage unpredictable and evolving situations or to respond to new priorities. This might involve finding resourcing solutions to unexpected demands, stepping up the intensity of the team’s work, reshaping/reprioritising/rescheduling work packages or creating entirely new policy from scratch. So it’s vital to be able to provide strong evidence of delivery at pace or under pressure and/or where you have responded to change or uncertainty.  

"What risks – to government, your department or wider society – did your efforts mitigate or avoid? What might have gone wrong if you hadn’t been involved?"

One way of doing this is to consider your experience from the perspective of the risk. What risks – to government, your department or wider society – did your efforts mitigate or avoid? What might have gone wrong if you hadn’t been involved? Remember also that taking a decision to stop a piece of work or to not pursue an option is a valid course of action that you can can reference. 

I = Important that your behaviour examples include strategic links, selected actions, issues at stake and strong impact. 

The four most common areas for improvement in presentation of behaviours are: 

  • Strategic framing – the example should be anchored in a governmental priority, goal or risk so that even an assessor unfamiliar with the policy can understand it and appreciate its importance. 
  • Actions selection – the example does not need to include a chronological retelling of actions. Instead, group actions under themes. Be sure to identify the things that you did that made the difference. 
  • Issues/trade-offs exposure – be sure to give a flavour of the issues at stake. Avoid statements that are high level with no content, such as: "I used evidence to back up my argument." What evidence, what argument? 
  • Impact strengthening – see career headlines tip below, as often these provide material for the impact statement. 

N = Newspaper – find your own "career headlines"! 

Consider you are writing a newspaper about your career – what would the headlines say? This is a useful exercise as it supports a positive mindset and helps you articulate the key impacts of your role. It’s important to step "above" your achievement and link the headline to a strategic objective or driver, or a real-world outcome.  
For example, did you deliver on a key ministerial priority? Did you establish a way of working or a blueprint for change that others now follow? Did you save money or avoid costs? Did you avoid a key risk to government? If your achievement was at an early stage in the policy development cycle, what happened next and how does that validate what you did? 

G = Go for it... and practise, practise, practise!

Learn your behaviour examples or career stories inside out. Get some practice at mock interview or talk them through with a friend or family member. It’s important that what you say flows and sounds authentic. Avoid reading out text in an interview, even if it is online. If you know your material well, you will sound engaging and you will remain in the headspace for tackling the follow up questions effectively. Good luck!  

Clare Dobson is director of The Policy Key. She is a former senior civil servant with over 20 years’ experience of policymaking. 


HR Leadership
Share this page