Plain failing: Leadership means sharing career disappointments as well as success

Mentorship can accelerate careers, especially when senior staff share their disappointments and setbacks
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By Alexander Evans

12 Apr 2024


Leadership is often about examples – good and bad. The permanent secretary who actively gets to know the security guards, cleaners and catering staff. The deputy director who cascades information well, making sure their teams really know what’s going on. Or the negative example of a director who behaves badly, playing favourites or pulling rank on a junior team in another directorate.

Let me share the story of the “unsuccessful” director general. I won’t name them, but this is someone with a stellar Whitehall career who is frank enough to share their career disappointments, weaknesses and failures. For civil servants seeking career advice, guidance from seniors and peers is often crucial. But so many careers seem effortless: one promotion after another, and reputations carefully nurtured so that nothing could be more natural than their further advancement.

In my experience, this isn’t true. Careers are messy and accidental. Luck plays much more of a part than any of us would like to acknowledge. We all have our lists of personal disappointments. I (spectacularly) messed up my first interview for a Foreign Office director role, and to little surprise failed to nail the job. I have not been shortlisted for jobs where my experience and skills seemed a strong fit, yet been interviewed for others where my bid was a deliberate long shot.

Back to our director general. Here’s someone who, when talking about career planning in the civil service, was open enough to acknowledge their (long) list of misses and near-misses. Against their (brilliant) career there was an extensive list of “could-have-beens”. Their trajectory was marked by plenty of disappointment along the way. And they were willing to share this, to help others navigate amidst uncertainty.

This takes me to career planning. Across the civil service, the strongest asset is people. Public servants drive policy development, the machinery of government and citizen services. And even though management has – I hope – largely improved over the years, what’s often missed in the annual cycle of appraisals, management meetings and feedback is dedicated time for developing the careers of others.

This isn’t just about identifying learning or capability gaps, or identifying top (or poor) performers. It’s about all those who work for us. We know from academic and business evidence that mentoring is a crucial factor in professional success. Those with mentors tend to progress better than those without. And this finding isn’t exclusive to formal mentoring schemes: informal mentoring, coaching and advice is key. And while it’s good that there is growing use of such schemes across the civil service, they don’t reach everyone.

Here openness matters. Can senior leaders in the civil service share – as much as possible – their failures and career disappointments? The scrambled interview, the job that got away, the time they messed up? I realise none of us wants to come across as incompetent, inadequate or unsuccessful. But everyone flags and fails sometimes. We let ourselves down – and our career disappointments may be as much to do with the competition, or sometimes chance, as our own actions.

Investing in career mentoring discussions takes time. For busy managers and officials, these are the conversations that are often dropped or foreshortened. But there’s value in making time for them: your colleagues will (hopefully) draw on them, and it shows goodwill to move beyond managing purely for performance to supporting colleagues properly in their career development.

In the late 1990s I worked for a senior civil servant whose approach to management struck me then as inefficient, if warm. He belonged to the “management by wandering about” cadre. He made time for people. He nurtured careers. He looked after his teams. And he was open in his argument that the cost of spending time doing this was more than made up for in terms of binding teams together and fostering a supportive environment. I now look back on his approach and see the value in his kindness.

Looking at your own practice, how good are you at sharing career disappointments as well as success? Are you kind enough to properly invest time in supporting career development for all your staff, not just the chosen few? The next time you sit down with a colleague or someone who works for you, make time for that career planning discussion. And be up for sharing a personal career failure – and what you learned from it.

Professor Alexander Evans is professor in practice in public policy at the London School of Economics and a former senior civil servant

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