By Civil Service World

07 Jul 2015

As first Civil Service Commissioner, Sir David Normington regularly interviews officials and outside candidates hoping to make the leap to the Senior Civil Service. At an "Unlocking the Senior Civil Service" event in Westminster – co-hosted by CSW's parent company Dods and the FDA union – he offered some words of advice for those looking to make the leap

You should be able to see the bigger picture – and learn to let go when it's appropriate 

“Doing this successfully is, in many ways, the key to making a successful transition to the senior civil service. There comes a point in everyone’s progression up the promotional ladder where you cannot know or do everything yourself and when you are truly reliant on others’ expertise and performance. What the most successful senior civil servants recognise is that your added value is in stepping back and seeing the broader picture. 

"This means setting what you’re responsible for in the context of the wider political and policy environment, and being able to present that bigger strategic picture to your staff, to stakeholders, to ministers. This is very often where senior leaders go wrong, particularly when they’re new. But actually it happens at all levels at all times – it can be scary to have to take responsibility for things which you no longer know yourself. It’s genuinely difficult to know when to stand back and when to intervene...

“It will sometimes be necessary for even the most senior leaders to find out for themselves, to go out to the frontline, and really engage and talk to the staff who actually know what they’re doing [...] Even as permanent secretary at the Home Office I needed to be regularly seeing for myself and talking to those who were running day-to-day operations. Without that, policy-making gets detached from the reality."

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You have to take your teams with you – even when it’s tough

“All job descriptions these days talk about engaging people and it’s almost a truism that an effective leader must be able to engage with and motivate staff and inspire them. It’s usually easier to do this at more junior level, where the team or operation is likely to be smaller. As juniors you’re often able to get your team in one place, and interact with them every day or every week. 

“As you get into the senior civil service you’re likely to find yourself, perhaps for the first time, with staff numbers too large to see on a regular basis, perhaps in several locations, even sometimes overseas. But the need to communicate, to create a sense of direction, to get feedback and involvement  from those frontline staff does not go away just because they’re in lots of different places and you can’t see them on a regular basis. 

“There are at least three things you need to do in those circumstances. One is to have a team who you can rely on to help with two-way communications. Teams are important at every level, but they get more important as you get more senior. A second is to use a wider range of communications to amplify your messages to the widest group of staff. And a third is never to let the pressure of day-to-day business cut you off from face-to-face communications.  

"I know that it gets more difficult as you get more senior, but there is no alternative to it – other things will have to give. You have to be out there sometimes as a senior leader engaging with people...

“It would also be a mistake to see leadership in today’s civil service only in terms of managing and engaging groups of your own staff. We’re often trying to get things done through people we do not manage – through contractors, through arms-length bodies, through other public service bodies […] It’s relatively rare in government for senior leadership to only be about the direct management of your own staff."

You'll need a record of tangible results – and you can't fake it

“When I am interviewing anyone for a senior job, whether they’re from inside or outside, I want to know what he or she has actually done. It can be very foxing in the civil service, because there are lots of people who call themselves directors, and it’s very difficult to know whether a director is somebody very junior or somebody extremely senior. Until you get into what they’ve actually done and delivered, you can’t tell.

“I want to know when people are getting to senior level that they’ve taken responsibility for a project or for measurable outcomes and have stayed long enough in the job to see things through and produce results. I like to ask about the tough decisions they’ve taken or the barriers they’ve overcome. 

"Even at the most senior levels you still come across people in interviews who seem to have led a charmed life – flitting from job to job – never staying long enough to be held responsible for anything. And it is possible sometimes to get senior and be in that position – but if I have my way those people don’t get the job. 

“At senior level you will be found out if you are not grounded in real experience. You may be the one alone who is responsible for the advice to the minister. You may carry the ultimate responsibility for delivering the results. You may have to explain to the select committee. You will be better prepared for this if on the way to the senior role, you have got your hands dirty - you’ve overcome real challenges, you’ve seen through a difficult decision or a delivery challenge.”

Don't treat values as an optional extra

“The civil service competency framework puts the civil service's values of integrity, honesty, impartiality and objectivity at its heart. And civil servants take these values for granted. They nod and say 'That’s very nice' and they move on…

“Integrity is putting the service to the public above your personal interest. Honesty is about always being truthful and open in the way you carry out your responsibility. Objectivity is about basing decisions on rigorous analysis of the evidence and facts. And then there is impartiality, which is about acting on the merits of the case, not on personal whim or personal prejudice. It’s also about serving successive governments with equal energy and commitment.

"These values are for all civil servants, but as a leader you have a particular responsibility to set the standards of behaviour and conduct which you expect all colleagues and all the people you deal with to follow. Your staff will be looking to you for consistency in the behaviours you demonstrate and authenticity that you do what you say you will do. 

“You can’t operate successfully at senior level in most walks of life without values. That is what wins you respect. That is what ultimately gives you the credibility to lead others. You can do all the other things well, but without values you won’t have that respect and credibility to get you and your staff through when the going gets tough."

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