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Leadership across sectors - when the similarities outweigh the differences – guest blog from Erik Bonino

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The Whitehall & Industry Group is an independent charity whose purpose is to develop learning opportunities between sectors. To celebrate its 30th anniversary last year, WIG set up its first Insight Days programme, in which senior leaders – including Permanent Secretaries and Chief Executives/Chairmen – spent a day in each other’s organisations. Earlier this year, WIG arranged an Insight Day for Erik Bonino, Chairman of Shell UK, and Sir Derek Jones KCB, Permanent Secretary, Welsh Government. In a guest blog, Erik reflects on the experience.

Headshot of Erik Bonino, Chairman of Shell UK
Erik Bonino, Chairman of Shell UK

When I first heard about the Whitehall & Industry Group (WIG) Insight Days programme, I thought it was a fascinating opportunity. I have taken part in job exchanges with industry peers before but have never crossed from the private into the public sector. I was curious to see at first hand how the Senior Civil Service works. I went in with an open mind and no real idea of what to expect.

My time in Cardiff turned out to be a voyage of discovery. I thoroughly enjoyed it and gained a far greater appreciation of how government is run.

The first major revelation of the day was the high degree of commonality between large, matrixed organisations, whatever the sector. Both have the complexity of needing to work as individual teams but also as a collective on issues that cut across organisational boundaries. The leadership challenges are the same, too, such as strategy, managing people, dealing with multiple stakeholders and crisis management. Everything is about balancing priorities. I was struck by how much the similarities outweighed the differences. This common ground made the exchange relevant and a useful learning experience.

The senior civil servants that I met have the same professionalism, skills, behaviours and mindsets as my team at Shell. They have just as much responsibility and accountability across the same broad range of areas – IT solutions, managing change, managing performance, setting a clear vision that can mobilise people around a common purpose,  and putting in place tactics to drive a specific outcome, which in Derek’s case is attracting industry to Wales. Derek and his team have to make a convincing value proposition. We have to do exactly the same to attract investment to our ventures.

Derek also has to build and maintain a large number of diverse relationships, as it’s impossible to predict which ones will be fruitful and when. We have to do the same with potential investors, keeping relationships active. I was particularly interested in Derek’s crisis management system and chain of command. We both have crisis response centres and the way they are organised and run is an exact parallel.

When Derek visited Shell, we tried as much as possible to put him into my world, so he was thrown into real events and real meetings. There is always a dilemma between wanting to achieve a ‘day in the life’ and making sure the day is an interesting one, without it being unrealistic or staged. I think we got that just about right on both our Insight Days. It was an authentic experience and I hope Derek took as much away from his time at Shell as I did from mine with the Welsh Government.

I learnt a lot during my day. The programme was certainly of benefit to me as a leader. The biggest surprise was our common agendas and issues, and how they led us to focus on finding affinity and comparing experiences, instead of concentrating on the differences between us. There is real value in that.

Senior leaders in the Civil Service looking for more information, or interested in taking part in the WIG Insight Days programme, should contact Fiona Petit at

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