The power of cross-sector collaboration: WIG’s Dr Neil Bentley-Gockmann speaks to CSW

The chief executive of the Whitehall and Industry Group discusses partnerships between the civil service, industry and civil society, and the importance of having diverse role models
Dr Neil Bentley-Gockmann Photo: Aniseed Photo

By Jessica Bowie

06 Feb 2024


Prior to joining WIG in May last year Dr Neil Bentley-Gockmann spent seven years as chief executive of WorldSkills UK, which works to raise standards in apprenticeships and technical education. Some of his other previous roles include chief operating officer at the CBI, where he spent more than a decade, deputy chair of Stonewall, and chief executive at the LGBT business network OUTstanding. In 2019, Bentley-Gockmann was awarded an OBE for services to diversity and inclusion.

How and where have you previously worked with civil servants?

I’ve engaged with civil servants in a number of different ways during my career. During my time at the CBI, I worked across several policy areas collaborating with civil servants on policy development and representing business views. At WorldSkills UK, I interacted with officials in a very different way – we were creating strong business cases for investment in the work we were doing, as well as making the case for why the work of WorldSkills UK was supporting the development and delivery of government policy on the ground. So I've worked with officials not only on policy development but also looking at ways of making delivery work better.

Unlike some of your predecessors, you’re not an ex-civil servant. What do you bring to the table as CEO of WIG?

WIG is all about bringing the private sector, public sector, and civil society together. I bring understanding of all three. I've worked in the private sector – and extensively with private sector leaders – so I understand their needs and how they articulate things. I've worked with the government, through the CBI and WorldSkills UK, and I've worked as a trustee in charities and higher education as well, so I have a sense of the challenges of what it's like to be part of civil society, working with the government on different agendas.

What does the future hold for WIG?

The board has asked me to think about where we're going in the next 40 years, because WIG is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. This means refreshing our purpose as we plan for the future, with a focus on cross-sector collaboration. No one sector has all the answers in how to tackle big policy challenges. Leaders all talk about the need to collaborate better between the private and public sectors, and civil society. What WIG has been doing for a long time is running programmes of activity. The next stage of development is to create an evidence base for why our work matters and how to do things better. It’s about creating a more strategic intent in terms of not just what we do, but why we're doing it. One example of this is a major piece of work we did with the Blavatnik School of Government – a Collaboration Playbook providing guidance on cross-sector collaboration and case studies of partnerships.

What is your favourite case study of collaboration?

I think the Scottish Net Zero Roadmap collaboration not just because it's important, complex and topical but also because it's difficult. One of the things that we learned by developing the Collaboration Playbook is that you have to sometimes say no to collaboration – it doesn't always work. We need to be careful about making sure we are developing leaders who understand the power of cross-sector collaboration, but also the power of saying no, if they don't think it's going to succeed. WIG can move into that space by helping leaders better understand the art of the possible around working together to solve complex public policy challenges.

What’s your take on AI and whether we are training people for jobs that will not exist in the future?

There's a lot of analysis around AI at the minute and lots of projections around who's going to be displaced by technology. There's always a displacement effect but I still don't think it's that clear which skills are going to be needed and which not. It is important that we embrace skills for the future – not just in AI, but also cybersecurity and all sorts of STEM-led skills – while staying focused on trade skills at the same time. We all live in homes that need plumbers and electricians, and we also need skilled people to build the new homes that are needed. It is about finding a balance between the skills for today and skills for tomorrow.

What has been the most challenging day of your career?

It was when I was at WorldSkills UK, during the first Covid lockdown. I was on a call with our board, during which we realised that our annual skills and careers event at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham – the UK’s largest – would have to be cancelled. And I remember choking up and thinking, well, what are we going to do? All of sudden you are thinking about people, jobs, the whole mission of the charity and the impact on young people as its beneficiaries. It was hard, because you're just sitting there on a call in a room on your own thinking about that. It was certainly a leadership challenge – thinking how do I push on to recover myself but also come up with a solution and pivot the organisation into a digital space, which is what we then did as a team. But that day it was really challenging just to get yourself into the right headspace because it's the kind of organisation where you put both your head and your heart into it.

Your direct predecessor said that the civil service works well with other sectors when there's an existential threat. What do you think?

There was a significant collaboration during the pandemic, and I think what's important to retain from that is actually not just the pressure, but what we learnt from the inside story of creating the vaccine. That was a collaboration between civil servants, the venture capital community and the scientific community. We can't – and we wouldn’t want to – recreate those sorts of tensions. But there are lessons to be learned from that time to improve outcomes.

What are the barriers to achieving better collaboration?

One of the challenges that we see from our leadership programmes, and I think that leaders within the civil service would acknowledge, is around helping leaders at different levels in civil service to have the confidence to collaborate better. Of course there's a risk management issue there around conversations and what information can and can’t be shared. This is at the heart of the question of how to better collaborate. We need to help leaders become confident around sharing risk and having the confidence to say yes – and the confidence to say no – to working together.

What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?

Being awarded an OBE for services to diversity and inclusion was a very proud moment. It took me by complete surprise and it made me feel really proud because it's been a constant thread in my career. I grew up in Belfast in the 1980s and, even though I wasn’t “out”, I was bullied at school. I had a sense of my sexual orientation, but it was not something you talked about at all in the mid-80s, against the backdrop of AIDS. So it was quite a difficult time. But those personal, lived experiences were a big part of what galvanised me to champion EDI [equality, diversity and inclusion].

So when I got the letter from the Cabinet Office one Friday, I opened it and was just in shock. It's being recognised for something that you believe is important, but you don’t necessarily expect to receive that sort of recognition. And then when you do, it's for everybody, all the organisations that have supported me, and all the people that I've worked with.

How important are role models in promoting diversity?

A young woman I worked with at WorldSkills UK said: “You can't be what you can't see.” When I was growing up, and even when I was in the senior echelons of CBI, there were no gay business leaders who were “out”, there was nobody to talk to, there was nobody to look to. It’s really important that role models are visible and active. Policies and practices are enablers, but they only work if you bring the human side to them. When role models tell their own stories in relatable ways you stop seeing the job title and the role, and you see the person and their family, and the issues they've been through. And that, I think, is the most powerful thing that people can do to unlock bias or prejudice. It is also important to step up and actually be a role model because you never know, when you're in a room with people, who's looking to you for leadership and thinking “Can I aspire to be like that?” and “How have they got there?” Unless you tell your story, they'll never know.

What have been some of your key achievements in progressing equality, diversity and inclusion?

I worked for a global IT services company earlier in my career and established their first EMEA [Europe, Middle East and Africa] diversity and inclusion strategy, which was a big thing at the time. When I was deputy head of the CBI I agreed the board strategy for improving gender representation across the organisation and set up a leadership programme in which we required 50/50 gender balance. And at WorldSkills UK we did a huge amount of work to increase the diversity of young people coming into our programmes.

As someone who's devoted so much of their career to D&I, do you find it depressing to see it being weaponised in the culture wars debate?

Part of my story started in the 1980s. And what today we call “woke” we called “PC” then. So in some ways this is history repeating itself.. And what it does actually is galvanise people who believe in the benefits of diverse and inclusive workforces. All employers want the best talent, and you can only attract the best talent if you're open to different kinds of talent and if you create environments where people bring their best productive selves to work. The business case has been proven and what we have to do – and what leaders are already doing across the public and private sectors and civil society – is continue to focus on that. As a leader, you’re constantly trying to improve the performance of your organisation – and part of that is remembering the business case has been proven and that having a diverse workforce and an inclusive culture is the way to success. That’s why WIG is holding its 10th cross-sector D&I conference in March to continue to champion the case for inclusive workplaces.

I read that you and your husband live in a rather unconventional house…

A few years ago my husband and I wanted to move out of London but could not find the right home for us, so we started thinking about trying to build our own house instead. We realised it wasn’t going to work unless we took time out to do it, and so in 2014 I left the CBI and took a career break to find the land we needed. My husband is an architect and designed the house and oversaw the development. What’s unique about the house is that most of it is “invisible”, which is to say it’s below ground level and very energy efficient. It’s an amazing place to live.


HR Leadership
Share this page
Read next