‘It is important that leaders are visible, approachable, and prioritise the wellbeing of their colleagues’: Defra perm sec Tamara Finkelstein's 2020 leadership lessons

2020 was a year unlike any other, with the coronavirus pandemic upending the work of government and changing how we live our daily lives. Senior figures from across the civil service tell us how the unprecedented 12 months affected them, and look ahead to 2021
Defra perm sec Tamara Finkelstein Photo Baldo Sciacca

By Civil Service World

18 Dec 2020

What are you proudest of your department achieving in 2020?

This year has been unprecedented for everyone. I have been immensely proud of the way Defra has risen to the challenges resulting from the coronavirus epidemic, whilst preparing for our exit from the EU. When Covid-19 led to immediate challenges in getting supplies of food into shops, Defra worked with supermarkets and the whole food supply chain to get supplies back on the shelves. Alongside this we ensured food boxes were delivered to vulnerable people and set up schemes to support sectors like seafood and dairy that were particularly affected. Defra’s people shifted to working mainly from home, and yet worked tirelessly, supporting each other every day. In 2020 we took three major bills through Parliament, with the Agriculture and Fisheries Acts now in place and Environment Bill well on its way. This landmark legislation will transform how we reward farmers and landowners, and our fishing industry, whilst improving sustainability. The amazing work of Defra colleagues has also made progress internationally, building alliances on protecting nature and adapting to climate change. I am so proud of Defra colleagues, who remain focused on the immediate whilst keeping our long-term goals in sight.

What was the hardest part of being a leader in 2020?

2020 has been a tough year in so many ways for everyone; including for us at Defra. To me, leadership is about empowering individuals and teams to reach their potential. In order to achieve this, it is important that leaders are visible, approachable, and prioritise the wellbeing of their colleagues. However, as we work from home to help stop the spread of coronavirus, ensuring that people feel empowered to discuss their wellbeing has been challenging. Seeing our colleagues through a screen may seem more intimate as we peer into their homes, yet staying truly connected online requires a much more conscious effort than office working – because those quick office catch-ups do not naturally materialise. As such, at Defra we have introduced a range of initiatives to empower our colleagues to stay connected and prioritise mental health, such as regular all-staff calls and coffee roulette. I am passionate about enabling everyone to be part of multiple communities – their team, networks, book clubs, cocktail making groups and the like – and we have tried to keep this up during this challenging period. I have thoroughly enjoyed my tea breaks on screen with our myriad community heads, my ‘Communiteas’.

What are the main challenges facing the organisation in the coming year?

As 2021 dawns, and we continue to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, the UK will emerge from the transition period, supporting our sectors to manage significant change. The welcome challenge is the opportunity to build back greener and take the opportunities outside the EU to makes the changes to support our environment. We will make progress in our new approach to rewarding farmers and land managers to improve the environment, in building flood defences to protect against the impact of climate change, to plant trees and restore our peatland to capture carbon. We need to meet the international challenge too – at the international climate change conference the UK is hosting in Glasgow and the partner conference in China to set biodiversity targets – where we need to influence the world to tackle risks to climate and nature together. At Defra we need to take on this work while managing our personal resilience and remaining a fantastic place to work, where we support each other and enjoy the diversity of our colleagues.

People will have to be more creative about celebrating this year. How will you make the festive period on Zoom special?

I have celebrated some major Jewish festivals on Zoom this year. In April the festival of Passover was during peak lockdown. I made little food packages of all the festive foods and left them at the bottom of the garden path for friends and family to collect.  We then met on Zoom where screen sharing was great for quizzes. We also found that the ability to mute your guests when you wanted their attention was a bonus! In Defra there are great plans for Zoom lunches with Christmas jumpers, we have had a great photo competition with Defra themes of animals and landscapes, and our all Defra Christmas quiz is on the last night of Chanukah so I will be subjecting everyone to my family singing and lighting the candles on screen – sadly cannot give everyone a doughnut though this year.

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