Forget return to ‘normal times’, BEIS perm sec warns

Sarah Munby flags positive developments that have emerged from government’s response to Covid-19 adversity
The fuel crisis and CO2 shortage are examples of "change, ambiguity and unpredictability", Munby said. Photo: Carter foto/Flickr/public domain

By Jim Dunton

22 Oct 2021

Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy permanent secretary Sarah Munby has said a “return to normal” on the other side of the coronavirus pandemic is wishful thinking that civil service leaders should avoid.

Munby, who took the helm of the business department in July 2020, said she originally imagined the sense of uncertainty she felt in the early months of the pandemic was temporary. But in a blog post, the perm sec said “change, ambiguity and unpredictability” were part of life and the backdrop to leadership.

“Just in the last few months in BEIS, we have been dealing with an unexpected and dramatic spike in global gas prices; fuel queues at the pumps and a shortage of CO2, not to mention the slings and arrows that come your way when you’re about to set out the country’s plan to meet its long term climate ambitions,” she said.

“The truth is there never were ‘normal times’ and there probably never will be.”

Munby said successful leadership was all about learning to roll with the punches, like boxers do, and enjoying the experience as well, if that was possible.

However, she acknowledged that facing ongoing challenge and unpredictability could become wearing and stressful and said she had spent much of the past year thinking about supporting colleagues, bringing out positives and growth.

“One of the real upsides of the pandemic has been that we have all found new ways of communicating with our teams, involving less use of enormous conference rooms and their slightly malfunctioning microphones,” she said. “Neither of which really lend themselves to honest and transparent sharing of information (or indeed emotion, which can be just as important to share).”

Munby said believed the pandemic had also coincided with the end of old-style dictatorial leadership practices in departments.

“When things are stable you can, if you really want to, probably get away with an autocratic style of leadership: set the goal, hand out the plan, ensure tasks are fulfilled,” she said. “But I think that’s now long gone as a smart way to lead in the modern civil service.”

Munby said she felt “incredibly lucky” to have a brilliant and collaborative team at BEIS who enabled her to do her job. She said trusting teams and developing people to navigate “inevitably choppy waters” had to be at the heart of a leader’s role.

“We all need to understand our purpose and goals, but the detail of how we get there will be established in a complex web of interactions across the system, inside and outside the civil service, and in a way that we probably can’t predict at the outset,” she said.

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