Stephi Brett-Lee is head of internal communications at the Department for Work and Pensions and the youngest deputy director in the department. In the first of a new series profiling up-and-coming leaders across government, Beckie Smith caught up with her to discuss what leadership means in today’s civil service
Photo:Tom Hampson/Public Sector Communicatiopns Conference 2018
When Stephi Brett-Lee interviewed for her first public sector job at the Department for Work and Pensions, it was from a cupboard in a tiny guesthouse in Vietnam. She was coming to the end of a year travelling the world for her honeymoon, and the cupboard was the one place where the wifi worked well enough to Skype.
If interrupting the upward spiral of a five-year career in private sector communications and community affairs to travel the world was a risky move, the risk paid off. “I don’t talk about it as a career break,” Brett-Lee reflects. Instead, it set the stage for the next phase of her career. It taught her to be unfazed by the unexpected: “having to deal with situations like earthquakes and different types of environments meant I grew in resilience,” she says.
This resilience set her up to work in the one of the largest departments in government, where she is responsible for communicating with some 85,000 colleagues across 600 sites. “In all types of communications, everyone has an opinion because it’s something everyone is doing all the time,” she says. “It’s not something only I can do. It’s not like I have a finance degree that means I’m the only person who can do this.
“I love that, because it means you get to have lots of interesting debate and challenge, but it also means you have to have resilience. It’s not about hard fact [determining] which way you should go; it’s about intuition and gut and instinct.” She has to be able to trust her instincts, and to convince senior managers to trust them too.
Brett-Lee’s resilience and intuition have served her well; in January, less than two years after she joined DWP as head of engagement communications and professional standards, she was appointed the department’s deputy director and head of internal communications. The promotion made her one of only a handful of people to make the Senior Civil Service before 30, and she was recently named one of Management Today’s 35 Women Under 35.
Brett-Lee is speaking after addressing a room of communications experts at the Public Sector Communications Conference, run by CSW’s publisher Dods, where she has been telling delegates the question that frames how she approaches her work: “What do I want people to think of me?”
She answers: “I’d like people to think I’m credible; I’d like them to think I’m useful; and I’d like people to trust my advice.” It is the ideas she puts forward at meetings, and having the confidence to argue her point when she needs to, that determine whether these criteria are met. For a communications professional, she says, being useful and credible is all about knowing the business and knowing the customer.
She has just presented delegates with a familiar dilemma: that her job is to be a sort of multi-purpose expert; a fount of knowledge on virtually every policy and operational area the department handles. She admits it’s a tall order, but points to a lesson she learned early on – that the best way to get under the skin of an organisation is to spend time on the ground.
Her career began on the Sainsbury’s marketing and communications graduate scheme, where she spent her first six months on the shop floor, working alongside sales staff and serving customers. She quickly realised these colleagues had some of the best ideas about running the company that management, so far removed from the coal face, could learn from.
With no connections to ask before coming into the civil service, Brett-Lee had few preconceptions about what it would be like to work at DWP. Though there were critical differences – DWP has no direct competitors, for example, so work with other departments is highly collaborative – she also noticed a lot of similarities with her experience at the supermarket chain.
“We’re an extremely layered organisation and the people you’re talking to are not just sitting waiting for your email; they’re actually talking to customers and doing their job,” she says. “That’s very similar to Sainsbury’s; people sitting on a checkout aren’t sitting there waiting to hear from you.”
At DWP, Brett-Lee has made it her business to get to know the people she sees as her customers: her colleagues. She spends a lot of her time travelling to DWP sites across the country to understand exactly how each part of her sprawling department works, sitting alongside colleagues in call centres and job centres.
This experience has given her ideas credence when presenting them to senior managers. “People’s ears prick up when you’re able to say, ‘Well, when I was in Derby last week…’,” she explains.
It has also underlined what she sees as a key tenet of her leadership approach – having empathy with her colleagues. This is what sets internal communications apart from other comms disciplines, she says: “If they’re upset or unhappy about something, I feel that because they’re my customer.”
Even outside of her chosen discipline, Brett-Lee says empathy is becoming an increasingly valuable currency in the civil service. “We’re moving away from a style of leadership that’s very authoritarian. I don’t think the civil service wants that any more,” she says.
“A good leader should always listen to what their team thinks and not dictate what they think should happen, especially the more senior you get and the further you get from your end user.”
She describes her leadership style – something she refers to frequently, and reminds her team of often – as “high challenge, high support, fast paced”. “I’m my team’s biggest cheerleader out there, but potentially a critic [within the team]. I’m really open about what my values are and where we’re going,” she says. She’s keen not to fall into the trap that many communications teams fall into – failing to communicate with each other.
For Brett-Lee, those leadership values are not a nebulous concept, but something she has spent time distilling into four core principles. “Integrity, empowerment, fun and winning” are the benchmarks she uses to make sure she’s living up to the standards she sets herself. Integrity, for example, means being ready to challenge leaders in any organisation when she doesn’t think they’re taking the right course; empowerment means she is ready to relinquish some responsibilities to others, as well as building her team up with encouragement and feedback.
We’re moving away from a style of leadership that’s very authoritarian. I don’t think the civil service wants that any more
Investing time into coming up with an easy to articulate set of values is something Brett-Lee would recommend to any leader. It has strengthened her resolve when making tough decisions and helped her retain her authenticity.
This deliberative approach has helped her forge an impressive career, and is one of the reasons she is so comfortable navigating through such a vast and complex department, even when she is frequently the youngest person in the room.
There was a time in her career being the youngest person in meetings with senior managers would have been intimidating, but Brett-Lee says she “let that go a long time ago”.
“I spoke to a mentor once who reminded me that if you’ve got good ideas and you’re doing a good job, why would anyone care? They care what you have to say.”
For more information on Dods Public Sector Communications conference series see: http://publicsectorcomms.dods.co.uk