Build your skills: Sophie Churchill

I’ve loved running the national forest company – but the civil service is a tough environment for small delivery agencies

By Sophie Churchill

07 Jan 2015

This Christmas, I shall be leaving my job as chief executive of the National Forest Company (NFC) – one of the smaller non-departmental public bodies within the Defra network. It has a strong strategy for the next decade, and is on the way to becoming a charitable NDPB and company – a milestone on the road to becoming independent of government. It’s been a very rewarding nine years, but one morning I decided that I shouldn’t still be using the same Ladies in a year’s time. Definitely.

In part that was about being honest about whether I was getting better at what I’m doing, having been in the same world for a while and now of an age when it’s getting harder – though not impossible – to learn and develop. I’m really not sure I am improving at my job, and I hear my (thankfully grown) children encouraging me to take some risks. They are right: competent, middle-aged people don’t regularly feel good clean fear, and therefore we lose the impulse to learn.

So I said to my team that a flower withering in the vase is an insult to all parties, and we got on with a planned succession. I have deliberately not looked at CEO jobs – not because I no longer want to lead, but because I’m hopeful I can learn new things about creating positive change by being with different people and working in different ways. I need to rest and test myself in new landscapes. I want to be a refreshed and rounded leader; one who’s done more than inherit already-successful enterprises and done a decent job of nurturing them.

“It’s hard work to neutralise the contradiction between government’s ostensible business ethos and its need to maintain control”

Whenever I wonder how I will get on, I only have to think of the matter-of-fact way in which the majority of the world’s people make a living without all the props I enjoy (and here, I am tangibly inspired by the women in the drylands of Africa who are supported in their businesses by TREE AID, which I chair).

There are a lot of good things in the world which I’m leaving. NFC’s ministers have mostly been interested and supportive. Our Defra sponsor team manages heavy workloads and the vagaries of the political environment in a unfussy way. The department worked well with us on our Triennial Review, for the good of the forest. There are some great management resources, such as the competency framework, which has made it so much easier to build a performance culture that includes the ‘how’ as well as the ‘what’. Online training and Civil Service World keep you connected, if you are motivated to deploy them.

But the wider climate does not mentor us. Whenever a public inquiry’s recommendations are not enacted, a minister tears up correspondence and puts it in a public bin, or government cannot courageously hold on to the really big issues of our day (climate change is the example par excellence), it depletes me. I have no problem at all with being asked to be an exemplary public servant, but much around is us is less than exemplary.

" of your key skills is to be a buffer between a risk-averse and budget-focused centre, and your team and wider stakeholders"

As a deliverer, it’s hard work (literally) to neutralise the contradiction between government’s ostensible business ethos and its need to maintain control. For the CEO of a small NDPB, one of your key skills is to be a buffer between a risk-averse and budget-focused centre, and your team and wider stakeholders – for whom smiles and confidence are required; and often justified, because of the local value of what we do. This, cumulatively, is tiring.

If we have been successful as part of the Defra network, it is in part because we have sought to be on the front foot, making suggestions as to how we can help deliver policy rather than waiting to be told. We do not whinge or fight every reduction. Our audit reports are clean. We deliver against what we say we will do, and write shorter rather than longer notes when requesting support. We also feel deeply accountable to local stakeholders, and this has paid dividends: it is they who said what a difference we make to their lives, in our Efra Select Committee report and our Triennial Review.

For (only) as long as we are doing it well and happily, being a leader linked with the civil service is worth the challenges. How to do it? Keeping fit matters: I suspect the most effective CEOs are in shape, and enjoy a rounded sense of self (not the same as ego) as a buttress against the timidity and contradictions of the wider environment. I keep in touch with old friends, few of whom are in my world: a good reality check. I try to express some creativity. I volunteer. And l have saved enough money to take away the props for a few months, and be a mildly scared 21-year-old again – graced, of course, by one or two ‘laughter lines’.


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