At the Women into Leadership conference later this month, you'll be speaking about the need to challenge traditional leadership paths and behaviours. Tell us a bit about your own leadership path – what was your first leadership role?
KS: I started working in the Civil Service in 1990. It was intended as a summer job while I worked out what I wanted to do with my life. I was in the Accounts office in HM Customs and Excise at Heathrow airport. My job was to take cash and cheque deposits, so that people could clear their goods through Customs. Within a few months of my arriving my team leader left to go on to another job and I was given the opportunity to manage and lead the team of five. I have been managing teams ever since.
What have you learnt about leadership since that first early experience?
I’ve had two big learning points. At first, l I thought that as a leader you needed to know all the answers. Now I realise that’s not the case. The team around you has most of the answers and expertise. Your job as the leader is to bring the diverse points of view together and shape them, so that you can get to the right answer together. A lot of the time as leaders we are making judgement calls in tricky situations on the best way forward. Listening to a range of views and asking the right questions is key. This lesson has been emphasised over the past 18 months, as we have been through unprecedented times.
The second big learning point for me is that you can’t be somebody else. You can learn from people, you can observe what you want to be or what you want don’t want to be, but you can’t pretend to be somebody else. It took me quite a long time to be comfortable and find my own leadership style.
It takes quite a lot of confidence to be able to get to that point.
Yes, absolutely and I think you have to build that confidence quite deliberately. Everyone has a different starting point in life and in their career, so confidence levels can vary hugely.
Every opportunity that you put yourself up for, every experience you have, every different team you work with, will leave you a changed person
And do you have advice about how to build that confidence?
With the benefit of hindsight – and enough of it – I have realised I used to be self-limiting. We can probably all fall into the trap sometimes of being very bad at judging risk and often assuming doom and gloom. I used to think “I can’t do that because all these things could go wrong” and not think about the rewards from doing something. Even if things don’t go to plan, you will have learnt from it and take better decisions in future.
Every opportunity that you put yourself up for, every experience you have, every different team you work with, will leave you a changed person. The more you do, the more you test your capabilities, the more confident you will be, and the more resilience and strength you will find within yourself.
So, I’d say don’t wait for other people to give you the opportunity: find the opportunity. Try lots of different things, find out what you are good at, remind yourself of that and build your confidence in that way.
You've worked in quite a wide variety of roles - policy, operational, change delivery. We often talk about differences between departments, but have you observed different cultures of leadership in different professions across the civil service?
Yes I have, partly because the nature of work has changed over since I first started, but partly because as a Civil Service we’ve come to recognise the value of varied technical skills from different professions.
For me leadership skills can be broadly bucketed into four areas. You have to listen and engage; you need clarity of vision; you need to be able to negotiate and influence, and you need to work with and through others.
Different professions use the different skills differently. In policy roles, you need to do more negotiating and influencing, in operational roles you may have to put more emphasis on listening and engaging and setting a clear vision. The skill set is the same, but the degree to which you use them varies in different roles.
Speaking about transformation generally, I've seen you use the phrase about eating an elephant one bite at a time. Do you think we need a similar approach to challenging leadership perceptions? Should we be slow and steady, or push for revolution?
You need both at different times. That’s why we need people with different leadership styles and we need people to know what their leadership style is so they can work to their strengths and at pace in stressful situations.
That’s another thing I’ve learnt over time, actually. I always used to be working to my weakest areas because the feedback we receive is often: ‘Here’s a development area, go away and plug it’. Part of building confidence and developing your leadership style is working out what your strengths are and working to them. For me, for example, it’s about delivering big challenging things with a team.
Some areas or jobs might need a more revolutionary style which is fine. We need both and that’s why, although the range of things we do across the Civil Service is really exciting, you need to recognise where your skills and interests lie as you move across different roles.
Do you think the Covid response and changing work patterns in the last 18 months have changed perceptions around leadership?
I think public perceptions of what the Civil Service does do and can’t do have changed, people are slightly more appreciative now about the range of things that we get involved with.
Looking to our teams, I think what we need to do as leaders hasn’t changed fundamentally but the tools we use and the way we act have had to change. The thing I’m finding most challenging at the moment, is how we listen and engage if unable to go out and meet people. If you don’t have those accidental conversations, those sitting at the edge of the desk conversations, you lose the ability to pick up nuggets of information which help you be a better leader and make better decisions, so I’m having to be much more thoughtful about how I interact with people.
Our hybrid working approach at HM Land Registry is all about collaboration and connecting – rather than specifying a particular number of days we want people to attend an office we’ve held open discussions and asked people to make choices based on the activities they are involved in and where they need to be to conduct their work efficiently. For example, some people may be in an office every day, some a handful of days a month - and the patterns are likely to evolve and change over time.
Finally, what do you see as the value of events like Women into Leadership?
I think two things. Firstly: at the moment we don’t often get opportunities to bump into people, to meet people and network. We don’t get a chance to see and learn from how others behave, how they have carved out their career, overcome challenges and defined success. So that opportunity to meet people and hear others’ stories is really valuable, even if it’s virtually.
Secondly it’s really useful – particularly at the moment when we are all sitting at our kitchen tables hopping from meeting to meeting - to take time out and reflect on your own career. COVID has shown us how easy it is for longer term plans to be overturned in an instant. Opportunities arise and get taken away overnight. The more we have thought about what we want, in advance, the easier it will be to take the right decisions at speed. It’s not about having a detailed plan, but having a strategy, so that we can take the right opportunities when we see them. It’s not all about promotion but may be about having fulfilling work or a better work/life balance – whatever choice that you want to make next.
The annual Women into Leadership conferences are key events for anyone interested in seeing leadership opportunities for women enhanced.
The London 2021 conference will take place on 29 September, face-to-face and online. It will offer inspirational advice and hands-on coaching to explore how female leaders, at any grade, within the Civil Service and wider public sector, can enhance their skills to become the leader they aspire to be.