https://civilservice.blog.gov.uk/2015/09/17/leading-and-learning/

Leading and learning

Black and white head and shoulders image of Colin Perry
Colin Perry

I'm a director at the Northern Ireland Office. I've worked in five government departments, a private sector company and an arm’s length body. I’ve learned that there's no one style of leadership that's right. It’s about people and situations. I learned that the hard way.

A while ago, I was involved in EU negotiations, leading a team for HM Treasury with the Home Office. I tried to lead by setting out a vision of what could be achieved – because that’s what motivates me. But the key Home Office person wanted to understand how the policy worked from the bottom up. I didn’t recognise that, and we ended up having a very public disagreement in front of member-state delegations. A sobering lesson. I hadn’t considered that what works with me might not work for everyone.

Inspiring

The Civil Service Leadership Statement says: “We will reward innovation and initiative, ensuring we learn from what has not worked as well as what has.”

I remember the late broadcaster John Peel saying, I just want to hear something I haven’t heard before.” I like that attitude of not wanting to rest on what’s happened before and being prepared to try new things. Leadership is about getting people to come with you on that path of discovery. But this means that sometimes things work and sometimes they don’t. If you think that quoting John Peel is a bit lame, how about John F. Kennedy, who said, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”

I worked in the Government Olympic Executive (GOE) on the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. As the Games got closer, the leadership team wanted to have a collective sense of what was going on and make cross-connections. So, I developed a simple three-column table covering the teams, the three things they were working on that week and the three things they were worrying about. This was easy to complete and allowed the senior leadership team to discuss the cross-programme picture at the weekly meeting. We sent the same document to everyone working in GOE, so we had a shared sense of what we were doing and what was important.

People in GOE could get a better sense of what was going on and leadership discussions were more focused. I was rather pleased. A few months later, I moved into DCMS. We had the same issue of how the leadership team could deal with the breadth of activities. I thought I had a ready-made solution. I tried to introduce the idea. It met with widespread scepticism and I had to ditch it after a few weeks, when it became apparent that it wasn’t the right solution in these circumstances.

Chastened, it made me realise that as leaders we shouldn’t be afraid to try new things, that we should have the humility to stop things that aren’t working, and that I shouldn’t just to try to use what has worked before without thinking about the context.

Confident

If you want to be a leader you have to be prepared to lead.

I led a Bill team where there was doubt as to whether we could deliver. I said to my team, we can do this, and here’s how. If you don't believe you can succeed, why should your team? But you can only lead if people are prepared to follow. That needs self-confidence – not always easy. You need to listen, decide and act. And, if you're wrong, admit it and sort it. It's about managing risks. 

Empowering

Building the right team takes a lot of effort. A team can deliver more than any individual can. The Government’s response to the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press was a project with few easy answers. I certainly didn’t feel I had all of them. Those ideas needed testing. The team needed to feel empowered to be creative to provide new ones, challenge me and each other over those ideas and then to deliver them. Against a really difficult backdrop of cross-party discussions, they did just that.

There's no magic formula to leadership. I'm always learning. It takes hard work and commitment from all of us as leaders, almost irrespective of where we are in an organisation. And the coming years are going to offer us all more than enough leadership challenges.

6 comments

  1. A.Volpi

    Thank you for sharing these 'gems' of experience and reflection. I agree that a good leader is someone who is receptive to what is required - without assuming they have a ready-made answer which will 'fit all' - and having the skill and perception to act with decisiveness, when a change of direction is needed.

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  2. Philip Tierney - Grade E (but Grade A Nerd!)

    I am sure many of us in public service are familiar with processes that have originated in other departments or in the private sector being introduced. When problems with the implementation begin to show, instead of researching how those other sectors resolved them, and how succsesful those resolutions were, the solution tends to be along the lines of 'Hit it harder or get a bigger hammer' not 'Maybe this tool isn't right for this job'. Jargon, graphs and fancy diagrams do not make a process rigorous. An example of this is gathering figures to help set targets. Simply using the mean to find the average tells you nothing as the mean is not always the most suitable measure to use. But that is often what happens. And making the suggestion that these figures may not be worth much results in accusations of being difficult or negative, and thus your behaviour is called into question. A good leader listens and has to be willing to concede that those designing and implementing new ideas can be blind to their flaws. Listening to your staff concerns is the nearest thing we have to peer review and if a process has been well thought out and designed it will survive the questions asked of it. On the other hand ignoring concerns can result in a long, drawn out expensive failure. If the 'hard' sciences discouraged criticism of new ideas we would be still be practising Ptolomeic Astrology and treating diseases by trying to balance the Four Humours.

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  3. John Morton

    I enjoyed reading your article on Leading & Learning and it is very refreshing to hear a senior manager saying that he doesn't always get things right. Indeed your paragraph that stated 'it made me realise that as leaders we shouldn’t be afraid to try new things, that we should have the humility to stop things that aren’t working, and that I shouldn’t just to try to use what has worked before without thinking about the context' contains great pearls of wisdom.

    My issue as a manager in HMRC is that I do not get the time to lead as I find that I spend most of my time 'fire fighting'. Please do not mention a time management course as a solution to free up head room. The bottom line is that managers are being asked to do far too much which was apparent when I took part in a recent Font Line Managers Framework focus group that asked the question what do managers do? It is very difficult to free up the time from all the process driven activities and day to day HR management responsibilities to be able to devote your time to what matters being your staff.

    You mentioned a couple of quotes, I like one of Richard Branson's many quotes 'If you look after your staff they'll look after your customer.' My Employer could do worse than follow Richard's philosophy. We need to free up more time for our managers so that they can invest in our staff who in turn will look after our customers.

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  4. Peter Jones

    Thanks for sharing these elements of your experience of leadership. It is refreshing to see a senior manager admit that they got it wrong, but they also learnt from the experience - a valuable lesson for us all that while trying something may not always work, but you will never learn anything if you dont try.

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  5. Martin

    Recent Leadership course I attended included a TED video where the presenter said most leaders concentrate on 'what' and 'how' and spend little time on 'why', yet it's the 'why' that's most important. Recognising this might have stopped you applying the 'what' and 'how' from one scenario to the 'what' and 'how' of another when it wasn't going to work. Concentrating on the 'why' is a difficult thing though, try it and you'll see how quickly you flip back to your old ways of 'what' and 'how'.

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  6. Colin Perry

    Thanks to all for the comments. They humble me. Managing time is always tough and I'm not sure there are easy answers. I try to take a risk based approach to the things I do and the things I choose to leave undone for another day. And I will certainly reflect on the 'why'.

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