Lifting the load: Bernadette Thompson shares her leadership insights

Bernadette Thompson, a deputy director in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, shares her thoughts on compassionate leadership and the importance of supporting others as you forge your own career
Bernadette Thompson

By Suzannah Brecknell

16 Sep 2021


At Women Into Leadership conference later this month you'll be taking about lifting others as you climb. Is there anyone who particularly lifted you in your career journey? 
Throughout my career there have been people who have supported me. I will say however that the lack of black women in senior positions is a particular sticking point for me. I recall in my early career; Melanie Johnson in the Legal Aid Agency was the only one that was a role model and made time to support so many Black and Asian colleagues. I must also mention another Melanie who supported me – Dame Melanie Dawes, now CEO of Ofcom, who embodied the concept of sponsorship. I must particularly mention a dear colleague Jas Roopra, a Deputy Director, Diversity & Inclusion, in BEIS who has been absolutely amazing and supportive to me in the past 18 months …. more names to be revealed at the session!

What do you think might stop people from feeling they can lift others up? 
There are several reasons for this: -

  • Imposter syndrome is one of them – thinking you are not good enough to offer anyone anything.
  • Time constraints. 24hours in a day is never enough. We need to get better at acknowledging and celebrating colleagues who “pay it forward” on par with those who deliver what is counted as “the real business objectives”. If we can get this right, more people will make time to support, encourage and lift others.
  • People may also feel overwhelmed with requests for support. Using the civil service as an example – colleagues from some of the most underrepresented groups who are in the SCS get inundated with requests to be mentors, sponsors, speak at events, and so on. Speaking from my own personal experience, I get several requests from people on a weekly basis, I had to develop a waiting list! 
  • And finally, there might be people who just don’t want to make the effort. Where people haven’t experienced barriers to their progression, they can’t see why they should help others as no one helped them. I recall a certain remark from a colleague, ‘If people just workhard they should be fine’. This is a clear failure to recognize that our society is not meritocratic all the time because conscious and unconscious bias creep in.

I don't want to spoil your talk, but can you share one thing you do to lift others? 
I don’t know where to start, but really this is a lifestyle for me. I spend a significant amount of time to support people in any way I can. Some specific examples: - speaking at events, giving one-to-one support, being shadowed, mentoring, providing career advice I could go on. To be honest there is not enough time in the day to support all the people who approach me, I really am just selfless when it comes to this.

Do you think the Covid response and changing work patterns in the last 18 months have changed perceptions around leadership?
Covid has been a wicked problem, but it has helped us to realise the several benefits of flexible working, eliminating waste from some of our processes and becoming “greener” by reducing our unnecessary travel time and becoming more paperless. I think leader had to really understand the true meaning of leadership. Leaders just had to really put people at the heart of everything that was done, because everyone, including themselves as leaders, were impacted, one way or the other. For the first time the “playing field” was levelled: covid affected everyone!

A key theme of the event is compassionate leadership. How common do you think compassionate leadership is in the civil service
I think we really need to get better at this, as do so many other organisations. But as I said before, responding to the challenges of Covid made leaders tune in a bit more to the needs of their teams. We must, however, ensure that we invest in developing our leaders to be compassionate as part of their basic people management. Emotional intelligence is a key ingredient to compassionate leadership. The new Government Curriculum and campus for skills includes a strand focusing on the fundamentals of leading and managing; I am sure Pamela Dow and her team will ensure this very important area is covered.

How could we encourage more compassion? 
We need to encourage leaders to pay attention to their staff by truly listening to them, understanding their challenges and being empathetic. Compassion in other spheres is referred to as kindness. The BBC launched a kindness survey in August this year to find out what makes people kind! The results of this survey will be interesting. But the trials and tribulations of Covid 19 have certainly helped people develop their ability to walk in the shoes of others.

What's the value of events like WiL? What do you hope attendees and speakers will take away from the event? 
These events are incredibly important to help raise aspirations, provide inspiration and hope to the attendees. There is something about being in the company of like-minded women – I call it the sisterhood. As we begin to embrace the hybrid way of working and return work in offices, we need this connection more than ever before. For the attendees, I hope they leave inspired, rejuvenated, and empowered to take up a new challenge. For the speakers, doing good is good for mental health. It’s scientifically proven that people who give back are happier. Helping others gives you an instant feeling of happiness and acknowledging that someone’s life just got better because of you increases your happy hormones.

Bernadette Thompson is Deputy Director Inclusion, Wellbeing and Employee Engagement;Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
She will be speaking at the  Women into Leadership London  conference on 29 September, face-to-face and online. The conference  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. 
Register here for the event



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