On purpose: MoJ perm sec Antonia Romeo's lessons on leadership

In the 2022 CSW Leadership Lecture, Antonia Romeo described the importance of leading with purpose, and creating the conditions for people to thrive
Antonia Romeo delivering CSW's 2022 Leadership Lecture, with CSW editor Suzannah Brecknell and Bain and Company's James Hadley

By Tevye Markson

05 Jul 2022

"I’ve been asked to talk about leadership and how the model is changing and the sort of leadership that we’re going to need over the next five years,” Antonia Romeo said as she began the CSW Leadership Lecture 2022. “But really, I’m going to talk about leading with purpose.”

To lead with purpose, the Ministry of Justice permanent secretary continued, it is necessary to consider the context within which you are leading, so you can adapt to it.

Romeo said the key developments over the past five years – Covid, geopolitical tensions and new technologies – mean that leadership over the next five years will be about bringing in the best talent, creating genuine progression and setting a culture of purpose.

“What all this adds up to is a world that is fundamentally different from the one that we imagined not just before the pandemic two years ago, but even six months ago. And, as the global economy changes at pace, the way we work changes, so do the expectations of the people we lead.”

At the event, sponsored by global management consultancy Bain and Company, Romeo was joined by Bain’s UK managing partner James Hadley, who shared insight from recent research into the future of organisations, and his perspectives on humanising leadership and work.

Creating the right conditions

“At its heart, leadership is about people and creating the conditions for them to thrive,” Romeo said.

Both Romeo and Hadley agreed that one of the biggest challenges for leaders now is the battle for talent. However the good news for departments looking to recruit is that the ethos of the civil service fits squarely with the values and goals of the next generation.

“Generation Z is soon going to surpass millennials as the most populous generation,” Romeo said. “It’s a generation that values salary less than some previous generations, so they’re opting for more interesting and more purposeful work.

"This is great news for the public sector because the focus that we have on delivering interesting, purposeful work is really significant.”

“At its heart, leadership is about people and creating the conditions for people to thrive”

For Romeo, winning this battle will mean not just recruiting far and wide – exemplified by the government’s plans to move 22,000 jobs out of London by 2030 – but also creating the right culture and ensuring that, once in the civil service, “the opportunity [for officials] to develop skills and move is second to none”.

“In my view, leadership over the next five years will be bringing in the best talent, creating genuine progression and opportunities for that talent and setting a culture of purpose,” she said.

“Ultimately, it’s about creating a culture in which colleagues can take pride, a work ethic characterised by the desire to serve the public, and, in everything we do, leading with purpose.”

Nurturing talent

Hadley argued that filling organisations with the right people will be about nurturing talent as well as finding it, in a move away from “talent taking to talent making”.

“Rather than defaulting to ‘quick, call the headhunter’, the default should be to supporting the talent you have to reach full potential,” he said.

Leaders will need to invest more time into understanding their employees as human beings and coaching them, Hadley added.

“This means addressing not just what happens at work, but what happens outside work.

“We need to move from a onesize-fits-all approach … to something that is much more nuanced, flexible and more human,” he said.

The rise of automation is helping to achieve this by allowing organisations to focus on roles that need distinctively human skills, such as problem solving, creativity, and interpersonal connections, Hadley argued.

Alongside the focus on talent making and supporting employees as individuals, Hadley argued that leaders would need to strike a challenging balance between fostering a “greater sense of shared culture and purpose”, while allowing for more and more diversity within each organisation.

“We’re going to have people with different skills, different affinity groups, different locations in the country, and different motivations,” he said. “So while the organisation needs a shared vision and purpose, a monolithic culture isn’t going to work. In a sense, we need to allow for tribes within the tribe, without tribalism.”

Working leaner and smarter

Neither Romeo nor Hadley shied away from a key challenge facing civil service leaders right now – the plan to return to 2016 staffing levels.

Romeo said this will mean the civil service must become leaner and smarter. “The prime minister and the cabinet have been clear that as a workforce, we’ve got to adapt to the new reality and deliver high quality public services at a more affordable cost,” she said.

“It’s going to mean delivering efficiencies and prioritising as well as innovating,” Romeo added.

“You can’t just do that through efficiency savings. We need genuine service delivery transformation so we can operate the same services at a reduced cost.”

To illustrate this, Romeo pointed to an example from the MoJ’s own transformation programme – the online probate service which was launched last year.

“This enables people to apply and pay for probate online which speeds up an emotional process, keeping it straightforward and efficient at a time of real stress,” she said. “So that’s a better service, but it’s also a more efficient way to deliver that service.”

Change is being driven by more than efficiency, of course. Government must also respond to the ways in which technology is “rapidly transforming how we live and work,” Romeo said, pointing to a rapid rise in digital trade alongside an increased dependence on digital technology driven, in part, by the pandemic.

“This has changed the way that people expect public services to be delivered,” she said. Citizens want services which are “just as digital and just as easy” as the apps they use to do their supermarket shopping.

“This means we need to adapt how we deliver services, but also we’ve got to be able to regulate entirely new sectors, some of which we hadn’t even thought of just a few years ago,” she noted. “So we’ve got to be developing skills in government that we didn’t previously need.”

Diversity not a ‘nice to have’

In this context, the innovation which comes from diverse thinking is all the more important. Romeo argued that fostering diversity – from female representation, to ethnic minorities, to geographical location – is vital to creating the right culture across an organisation. “

The civil service has come a long way since the image of white middle class Sir Humphrey in oak-panelled offices”, Romeo said, highlighting the increase in female representation in the senior civil service – from 17% in 1996 to nearly 50% in 2021 – and the increase in ethnic minorities in the civil service – up from 9% in 2010 to 14% in 2021.

“We’re now more representative of the people we serve and we as leaders must continue to do all we can to be as representative of society as possible.”

But she said the figures for both decline the higher up you go and “that is something else we’ve got to focus on”.

“If we really want to draw on the talents of the widest possible range of people, we’ve got to be a model for social mobility and a workplace where merit matters above all else,” she said.

“And to be completely clear, diversity and inclusion is not a ‘nice to have’ for the civil service, it is absolutely crucial. Because if you work for the government, you work for the people, and we’ve got to be more representative of the people that we serve, and more innovative and making decisions in the best interests of the British people."

This article appeared in CSW's summer 2022 issue. Read the summer issue here.

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