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60-second leadership interview: Hilary Neathey, Food Standards Agency

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Hilary Neathey
Hilary Neathey

The Food Standards Agency recently introduced the Management Stars awards programme, which recognises good leadership and uses the headline Leadership Statement behaviours (Inspiring, Confident, Empowering) as categories. Our interviewee, Hilary Neathey, a former Food Policy Team Leader, scooped an award for being an inspiring leader, as well as a nomination for her work to empower her team.

When we asked Hilary why she thought she got her star, she modestly credited her team, their goodwill and how she had tried to follow the example of previous managers. The nomination from her team tells a different story, including praise for the way she made time for team development and support, even when she was under high work pressure.

What does your team do really well?

My team delivers against a broad portfolio of work, which is often quite reactive in nature. This means that we are constantly prioritising to make sure that nothing falls into a black hole. In that kind of environment it can be hard to remain positive and keep an eye on the bigger picture, but I’m grateful for my team’s great can-do attitude and sense of fun. They are always offering to help each other and understand when work needs to be redistributed to ease the pressure on others. I think some of this comes from us being quite a mature team (we’ve worked together for a number of years), but I think it’s also to do with their appreciation of where their work fits into the wider picture, how it needs to be pitched and why it matters. We’ve got a really positive dynamic in terms of sharing and communicating which is really effective, although sometimes it means we get a bit loud!

What's the biggest lesson you've learned from your team so far?

As a leader, my job is to provide a foundation for the general direction of the team and to give an idea of the bigger strategic picture. This gives them the context so that they are able to plan their work and take effective action. It also frees me up to do what I need to do and it means that my team can become ambassadors for change themselves - whether that means new ways of working, or advocates for continuous improvement. By giving them the space and responsibility, they get a better idea of why we do what we do, as well as ideas on how we could do it better.

Which point of the Leadership Statement do you think your team finds most challenging and why?

“We will value and model professional excellence and expertise”. This is really important for the FSA, as it is responsible for food safety and food hygiene across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Therefore, as mainly policy deliverers in Wales, we need to consider FSA policy and how it contributes to relevant Welsh Government strategies. The devolved context is an extra dimension that requires us to be able to develop relationships with devolved policy colleagues so that we fully understand the political landscape and of course the needs of our stakeholders.

What has your team done to meet this challenge?

We’ve been taking action to fine-tune our political antennae - it’s such an important prerequisite for our work. To do this, we’ve been fostering close liaisons with opposite numbers in the Welsh Government as well as with FSA policy and operations officials and  colleagues in Defra, so that their perspectives feed into our policy analysis. We’ve been doing a lot of informal shadowing, to spend real work time in these places so that we fully understand the daily pressures and needs of our colleagues, and we make sure that that experience is represented in our work. We had a really good opportunity recently where one of my team sat in the minister’s private office so that we could see their work in action and make some useful contacts. Opportunities like this ensure we’ve got a good culture of learning and development.

How else have your team improved your leadership skills in the last year?

I think through having the space to grow independently I’ve observed them demonstrate positive leadership behaviours. I make sure that I invest my time as effectively as possible in their development, but also try to leave them to get on with their goals with my support. I’ve never been a micromanager but try to make sure that they know I’m available to give them support when they need it. This gives them the scope to lead and overcome their own challenges and I make sure that they get due credit for that. This has been especially pertinent as FSA Wales has been undergoing a restructure over the last 12 months. Inevitably, this has led to quite a lot of uncertainty and I’ve made sure I am available to offer support for anyone that needs it.

What's the question you'd most like to have been asked, and why?

It is, "Who has inspired me to be where I am now?"

When I took over responsibility for my current team in 2010, my line manager recommended that I might benefit from the support of a mentor outside the FSA. My new role was a really big challenge for me, and he recognised that I could do with developing my self-confidence for it. My mentor was incredibly helpful. We had a deal where I could go to him with anything to talk through and use him as aH sounding board. I try to encourage this kind of support in my own team and encourage others to take advantage of any opportunities. I found it really helpful and would like to see mentoring and coaching taken up more in the Civil Service.

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