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Civil Service

The Civil Service: Team not hierarchy

Posted by: and , Posted on: - Categories: Leadership Statement
Liz Wilson, Department for Transport
Liz Wilson, Department for Transport

I remember well the day I started in the Civil Service. 22, a year out of university and never having worked in an office before. I was surrounded by impossibly senior people who seemed to have an immense amount of knowledge and experience. They made clever comments at the drop of the hat, immediately knew what to do in any situation and they could talk to ministers without getting overawed.

They were the leaders. I couldn’t possibly imagine how that would ever be me. I didn’t have 30 years of experience of welfare policy (I started life in DWP) so what could I add?

That’s not to say I didn’t aspire to be a leader myself. I absolutely wanted to have the confidence, knowledge and experience to be able to perform like that one day. I thought, most likely, it’d be when I was in the Senior Civil Service - when, as if by magic, getting the title of “Deputy Director” would mean I’d have both the ability and the right to be the person who set direction, made difficult calls and dared to speak to the Permanent Secretary or even a Minister.

I was naïve and perhaps suffering from that most common of afflictions, “impostor syndrome.” Thankfully I had some excellent managers and mentors and I quickly learned two things, which perhaps should have been pretty obvious:

1. The Civil Service is a team.

We all have different roles and perspectives, and it is part of our job to bring that at all grades, and

2. Those at the top are human beings too

Most of leaders began their careers in my shoes and had to go through the same development, so they understood me.

So what has that meant for me in my career since that terrifying first day?

First and foremost I’ve stopped focusing on the hierarchy - the top down - and instead started to think about my role in a wider Civil Service team and what I specifically bring. It was in Private Office that I felt this most. I spent a lot of time advising SCS colleagues about my minister, what he wanted and valued. They were more senior and experienced civil servants, but they relied on me and valued my advice and it was clear to me that there was a mutual dependence- perhaps the bedrock of any team.

As I have become more senior I try to take this learning and use it to help my team to deliver the best outcomes we can. My team have clear roles and I want them to work autonomously and own their areas. I also try to be open and clear with my team about my role and the drivers that influence our direction and my expectations. When we’re developing and agreeing work we discuss options and they bring new and different thoughts and perspectives. I really value their input and I believe we come to more rounded conclusions and better products as a result.

Stop thinking about grade

For a moment I'll go back to the hierarchy: I believe that it’s the same for my director and director general colleagues (and even Permanent Secretaries and Ministers!) As I mentioned before, ultimately they are people too and they have been on their own career journeys. Yes, some decisions ultimately rest with them, but since I stopped thinking about their grade and started thinking about our respective roles in a wider team I’ve felt more confident in my engagement with them. I am more aware of what they need from me and why, and I give my perspective, explaining things they may not be aware of. Together we come to a better outcome.

Now, working on HS2 in DfT, I feel comfortable talking to my Director General and Secretary of State about my areas of responsibility. I value their challenge and direction and I know they rely on me for advice on the detail and highlighting the issues they are not close enough to see.

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  1. Comment by Stephen posted on

    Liz seems to be saying that she felt intimidated dealing with senior managers and that his was not merely the nerves we all get in a new job but a problem which persisted. She talks about these leaders as 'impossibly senior' and possessing an 'immense amount of knowledge' which suggests she was dazzled and overawed by their prescense. Her method of dealing with this problem seems to have been to pretend that there is no such thing as grade or hierarchy. This seems like an odd approach as it requires you to constantly deny reality while at the same time remembering, as Liz says, that 'some decisions ultimately rest with them'. Whatever works for you I suppose but I cannot see how such an irrational approach to the problem could be seriously recommended to anyone else.

  2. Comment by Lola posted on

    If the people at the top have been at the bottom then why do they treat people the way that they do? If they were at the bottom once then they ought to know how it feels like. Such a short term memory ...

  3. Comment by h posted on

    A fact to note is that every single one of us working within the CS diverse departments and most importantly all the minions have hugely contributed to the sucess of the SCS who have aspired to where they are now through numerous achieved challenges. Take glea in and be proud that you are the reason they are where they are. Easier said then done, I hear you say. So SCS, Making a difference, lets aspire to this value of the Civil Service , engage with humans and make the CS a better place to work for.

  4. Comment by Karen Carter posted on

    "Those at the top are human too". But what about those of us at the bottom? We appear to have a completely different set of rules to those in a higher grade. Gradism is one of the biggest failings of DWP and one that us minions cannot eradicate alone.

  5. Comment by Julian Harris SNGDisability posted on

    While I appreciate Liz Wilson's efforts this aspie found the words unintelligible. Please can people use shorter sentences and containing one or two points. Please group ideas together and do not use nested sentences.

  6. Comment by Another Dave posted on

    I've worked in the Department for over 20 years, in 11 offices and several detached duty ones, some good jobs, some less so. I've worked in several 'coal face' jobs as Jim calls them, including Social Fund Crisis Loans, which is about as coal face as it gets. I've witnessed many management styles and many pesonalities. With regards to the comments on this article (especially Jim's, who seems to have a one-size-fits-all approach to staffing), I'd personally say that just because someone doesn't initially have the confidence to take leadership, it would be a sad day when we forget our part in developing and encouraging others to step out of their comfort zone and grow into roles. Are we seriously saying that if someone doesn't display immediate management behaviours, they should be written off?

    With regards to calling the article 'Psychobabble' (Jim again) - I think that's your problem right there - the term itself suggests a lack of understanding or empathy towards the mental barriers that some people have to overcome. Being initially nervous about managing people is completely natural and has nothing to do with motivation, or suitability. Personally I would rather have a manager that has demonstrated the ability to adapt, than a narcisist who doesn't 'get' empathy.

    It always surprises me that people use these individual articles to rant about generic problems, or problems that are specific to them. Not every article will mirror your personal experiences - it doesn't make it any less valid. Instead of assuming that you're talking for 'the people', you should assume that your peers are smart enough to decide for themselves.

  7. Comment by Nic Davis posted on

    I think it is such a shame that a colleague shares their views, their experience and then recieves some of the responses above - hardly the way to dispel stereotypes. I spent 11 years 'on the coal' face and then successfully applied to the In -Service Fast Stream scheme. It was nothing to do with who I knew - my assessment was done without any reference to how I applied - and frankly the insinuation that it was, is insulting.

    Yes more needs to be done to make the most of the talent in our work force but there is also opportunity out there. Quite honestly, some of the responses to this article speak more to issues with the indiviuals, not the opportunites open to us.

    Thanks for sharing Liz.

  8. Comment by LORNA BINNIE posted on

    All I can say is the greatest Leaders past and present are humble - it really takes special skill to make everybody feel important! Regardless of grade!
    You know it has been tried and tested in many organisations, value your colleagues, support them, motivate and inspire them.
    You might find they want to bring their whole self into the workplace with the right attitude.
    Passion thats what we need for a great Civil,Service once again!!
    Have a good Day All.

  9. Comment by Mick posted on

    Good to see you all talk a good job, I always found those that talk loudest seemed to get promoted to the level of there incompetence. as it says in the police version of road craft (quiet efficency is the hall mark of the expert), hence I get on with my job, without complaint, to the best of my abillity, seldom do I get from complaints from customers or public.
    There are many senior civil servants that suffer from impostor syndrome, and because they suffer they have to make junior staff suffer.
    You have to earn respect not demand it, a happy workforce responds better to constructive criticism rather than destructive criticism, so Ladies and Gents in high towers of power, talk to your staff, they will let you know the players, who talk a good job and those who do a good job.
    With respect.

  10. Comment by Keyser Solsay posted on

    I was recently the only male and only EO in a break-out session (in my district HEO and above women outnumber men 3:1...Brotherhood have a long way to go still) I pointed out that except for me everybody in that room had achieved their postition by passing the same competency based promotion exercise and would therefore all act in a similar way be it by nature or to tick the right boxes. I said I found it unhealthy having what was tantamount to drogue led behaviour and people who were basically all the same. In my line of work I visit numerous offices and you can sense the collective groan when told....we have a new boss on TDA and she wants to change everything to get her competencies up. I am currently working at the pointy end on a large scale change in working practice and am hampered from the input from above by "Leaders" (they're not managers now) who have sniffed the chance to get a good competency marking.

  11. Comment by Shah posted on

    Interesting article. It is good that the issue of 'impostor syndrome' is being discussed, so the article must be doing something right. The comments have certainly livened up my day.

  12. Comment by Dave posted on

    It seems to be becoming fashionable for leaders to show their vulnerabilities. Fair enough, we're all just human; but if that is the case, why have I never heard a single leader hold their hand up and say that they got something wrong? Whether that's PMR, implementation of IT systems or whatever.

    As to stopping thinking about Grade - Ask the more junior grades what they think about pay or PMR and you will get the same answer from 99.99% from them. Ask leaders about it and they will 100% give the opposite view. The leaders view will tie in with the governments view, and it will change if the governments view changes.

    Until I hear a leader saying that they disagree with government policy, then I'm sorry but I can't accept that they are actually leaders at all. They are followers.

  13. Comment by Anthony posted on

    If ypu now feel comfortable talking to your Secretary of State, tell him the Civil Service needs a pay rise of at least 5% in 2016/17.

  14. Comment by P posted on

    I thought Jim's comments were spot on and very funny! Jim's right, most of us dont know the 'right people' and so never get the chances that people like Liz have had. The workplace isn't a nursery so why do I have to keep putting pretty pictures up on the wall and giving out chocolates to my team if they are good? Yes I actually have to ! We are encouraged to treat people like children and reward them with treats if they acually do the job they are paid for. When I started work some 30 odd years ago, I was the youngest person in the office and had to show some respect to older more experienced colleagues. Staff these days act as though they are doing us a favour by turning up at all. If you do say anything negative to them, they go off sick!.

  15. Comment by Allister posted on

    Hornets nest? I'm sure the blog was not intended to raise ire but to genuinely help aspiring Civil Servants to consider their value in the team and to encourage a boldness in contribution. If there is any justice they will be valued and provide input to the outcome the department or task demands. If some staff feel there is a legacy of people being promoted beyond their capability, constantly relying on 'junior' expertise and covering their incompetence it can be very dis-engaging. Recognition rarely goes to the one who has saved the senior from exposure as less than effective. Civil Service Reform grants us the vision for breaking the cycles of poor performance, changing, seeing constant improvement, championing excellence (and I guess you might have spotted how well I have adopted the corporate language) so hope springs eternal. It was great to read that Liz saw her seniors as such strong role models and that they gave her such incentive and encouragement. Looking back on a career that spans more decades than I care to count those inspiring leaders are definitely the ones to follow however elusive they seem to be.

  16. Comment by CSL posted on

    I suppose Jim was a little blunt in his comments, but I can understand where he is coming from with regards to the term "Impostor Syndrome". It does feel like the latest trendy buzz word. Yes, as other contributors have so sagely pointed out, the term has been around for years, it just seems as though quite a few people on these pages have been peppering their missives with it fairly recently. Perhaps it's something that we have recently acquired from the public sector, like PMR.

  17. Comment by C posted on

    Good article.

  18. Comment by Tim posted on

    I also found this a very honest and open blog from Liz and I wish more leaders were willing to be this personally open. It doesn't show weakness, it shows strength. I can't help feeling that Jim's over-the-top negative reaction might be due to the fact that he doesn't "know the right people"- in other words, he didn't reach the leadership position to which he may have aspired. I don't think I would want to work in an organisation led by someone so hard and unsympathetic as Jim appears to be.

  19. Comment by Paul Bayliss posted on

    Wise words indeed however the reality is that in certain roles within DWP many managers, especially when office's/site's have only three or four staff at the HEO role and perhaps 1 SEO, staff are made to feel inferior because the H's and the S's like to impose that power of position. They only see a value what is coming down from the top and have little or no regard for comments from below and they are expect everyone to do as they are told because that is what they do. They have no fear of the business failing they only have fear thay they aren't following orders and if it does fail its not ther fault but if they had perhaps taken some notice from the shop floor it may not have failed but the reality is for many CS it isn't failiure that concerns them its being seen to challenge. Leadership is about allowing those around to take responsiblity and trusting others to create success, we see far too many errors which then creates a feeling of `what do you want me to do`? No one ever values my opinion

  20. Comment by Caroline posted on

    Sorry, Jim - but I think you were rude and un-sympathic. Everyone gets nervous, intimidated, everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Someone maybe good at one task, but not very good at another - it is a case of finding the right balance.

    • Replies to Caroline>

      Comment by Jim posted on

      Everyone gets nervous.

      I said that.

      I would help if people discussed facts and evidence rather than just reacting emotionally and rushing post about their feelings.

    • Replies to Caroline>

      Comment by Keith Reeder posted on

      Why *should* Jim be sympathetic? He's right about everything he wrote, and he's also right to have pitched the tone of his comments as he did: this blog might be well-intentioned froth, but it's froth nevertheless.

      It says nothing new, and - frankly - the way it justifies SCS' frailties and failings by reminding us that they're human too, is patronising: I don't need to be reminded of SCS' species, thanks - but "being human" has never saved *me* from a rollicking (and historically, some bullying) when I've supposedly dropped the ball.

      At the bottom of the food chain we're accountable, full stop - we don't get an easy ride because we have feet of clay - so why should the SCS?

      There's an unpleasant whiff of "special pleading" about this piece, and as I imply up the page (and now I'll state outright) something's FUNDAMENTALLY wrong if success relies, even the tiniest bit, on having "some excellent managers and mentors" to look after your interests.

      That's a luxury many (most?) of us are actively denied...

  21. Comment by Martin posted on

    I am appalled at the insinuation that the workplace is a nursey. I have this very morning been asked to draw the outline of my hand on a piece of coloured card by my line manager. I have proceeded to complete this task in a very adult way and will continue to do so when told. I wish this was irony and not fact!!!

  22. Comment by DJ_AJB posted on

    As a callow youth of 17 in the 70s, I had to walk past rows of female punch card operators to deliver urgent process requests. Now that was harrowing, would have preferred engaging with SCS to be honest. My inner 'special snowflake' was certainly frazzled!

  23. Comment by Keith Reeder posted on

    "Thankfully I had some excellent managers and mentors"

    Lucky you...

  24. Comment by Jim posted on

    "I've felt nervous starting every job I've ever had, and worried about whether I was up to the responsibility being given."

    'Impostor syndrome' is nonsense. It is psycho-babble pathologizing normal behaviour. If you can't summon up the fortitude to overcome nerves (the sort that every person feels) then you don't belong there and you should leave.

    What you should not do is descend into psycho-babble searching for a metaphorical dummy to comfort your inner 'special snowflake'. In addition, you shouldn't post long blogs about it looking for sympathy from people who will probably never have opportunities like that handed to them.

    Best advice you'll get all year. You're welcome.

    • Replies to Jim>

      Comment by Richthofen posted on

      Agreed 100%.

    • Replies to Jim>

      Comment by B posted on

      Absolutely. I've just read the Blog about only 9% of Fast Streams being 'Working class' (whatever that was/is) and then this blog about well connected people having panic attacks and not forgetting people at the top are human - and think abouit your own team and don't be grade concious. Whilst forgetting it's the people at the bottom, those you overlook whilst looking up at Ministers and those oh so clever SCS with their pithy, witty comments, who you need to remember are human. Those at the coal face you seem to dismiss/ forget. I've learned nothing from this blog, but much from the fast stream blog mentioned previously.

    • Replies to Jim>

      Comment by Ro Brown posted on

      Jim. You are obviously a person of very strong views, and happy to enlighten the rest of us. In my view Liz Wilson's Leadership Statement (which she kindly shared with us) was well written, displayed personal honesty, and was intended to give a positive message. Also I do not think your comments to colleagues about Liz's gender are appropriate in 2016 - I understand there are courses available on CSL!

      • Replies to Ro Brown>

        Comment by Jim posted on

        You're right. Any disagreement with certain blessed groups is not permitted. I forgot.

        I shall immediately redo the training and say 'thou shalt not disagree with women' 200 times while hitting myself with the a printed out and rolled up copy of the Civil Service diversity statement.


  25. Comment by Christina Scott posted on

    Well said Liz. When I started in DfT twenty years ago (ouch!) it took me far too long to recognise what you have summed up very neatly here. A Judicial Review can be lost as a result of poorly filed information. A Minister's reputation can flounder on a weakly researched PQ. A Perm Sec is only as efficient as her diary secretary enables her to be. We're one big organism, which requires all its parts to operate effectively and be accountable for its actions, if it is going to deliver what customers need.

    As for 'imposter syndrome', like others here, I don't agree with Jim. I've felt nervous starting every job I've ever had, and worried about whether I was up to the responsibility being given. That was as true starting this job - Governor of Anguilla (at Director level) - as it was starting writing TOs in International Road Haulage in 1996. But I think that approach is healthy, keeps us humble, and makes us better at our jobs. What I've found always happens is you start by thinking you're acting, then you persuade others that you're doing a great job, and then finally you convince yourself. And then you're ready for the next challenge!

  26. Comment by Anthony Whelan posted on

    Leadership is not a position. Before starting my MBA I thought that it was something that was part of the landscape in a senior role. It's reflected in how we act all the time, giving others the space to be effective is one of the things that I do, I think this is a leadership trait, but I certainly have to work on other areas before other think of me as a leader.

    As for psycho-babble, well we live and work in a diverse society, and those that want to be left behind can do so, Those that want to improve themselves (for personal gain or altruistic reasons) need to reason thorough such theories, as discussed here, and if they see flaws then they can try their own approach, but in a positive constructive way.

  27. Comment by Lynne B posted on

    Really enjoyed reading this, Liz. Good to have the perspective of someone similar to myself, since moving up and being much younger and less experienced can be very daunting!

  28. Comment by Andy Nixon posted on

    In my department we regularly have to deal with external customers on areas of sometimes incredibly complex legislation. It can be hard at times not to feel you are bluffing your way through, but what 25 years of experience has taught me is that, provided you've done your homework thoroughly, you'll find the other side are in just the same position.
    Pretending you know more than you do will only cause problems down the line. Having the confidence to be honest about what you do and don't know can go a long way!

  29. Comment by Jim posted on

    'Imposter syndrome'

    The latest psycho-babble from people who want to turn the workplace into a nursery that coddles the infantile.

    I'm sure it's intimidating to be surrounded by senior people on your first day of work, but most people have to slave away at the coal face never getting close to having real opportunities - because, frankly, they don't know the right people.

    I'll be blunt about this: if you don't think you should be there... then leave. As I said at the top, it's a place of work, not a nursery.

    • Replies to Jim>

      Comment by Richard posted on

      'The latest psycho-babble'? I'm fairly certain this term was coined 30-40 years ago, at least make an effort if you're going to self-gratuitously rant.

      • Replies to Richard>

        Comment by Andrew posted on

        Your objection does not make sense Richard. When the term was coined is irrelevant to latest incarnation of what it describes. Now back to the real world and not the subjective world of cultish and arbitrary pop psychology where most of the Managers tend to live and want us to join them.

    • Replies to Jim>

      Comment by Robert Madge posted on

      I'm afraid Jim's comment is one of the most retrgrade I have read in a long time on a CS blog. Even the military recognises these days that you get more out of recruits by developing their confidence alongside their skills and not just bawling them out for being incompetent or "infantile"

      • Replies to Robert Madge>

        Comment by Jim posted on

        Well, so far we've had "self-gratuitous" (huh?) and now someone claiming that I'm saying people should be "bawled out for not knowing things." I said no such thing.

        What I said was: a workplace isn't a nursery and if YOU don't think you should be there you should leave. Not that people should be subject to bullying or abuse. If you can't muster the fortitude to believe in yourself and your ability to learn, then why should anyone else.

        I wonder if you two fellas would have come racing to the rescue if it was another bloke's picture on the article!

        • Replies to Jim>

          Comment by Richthofen posted on

          I agree with Jim's sentiments. The workplace isn't a nursery but you'd be forgiven for thinking that sometimes - especially in the civil service.

    • Replies to Jim>

      Comment by Adam posted on

      It's not the latest psychobable - the term has been around since 1978

      • Replies to Adam>

        Comment by Jim posted on


        "Impostor syndrome is not a formal mental disorder and does not have a standard definition, "

        Thanks for the link that demonstrates it's psycho-babble - even if it was "coined" in 1978l

  30. Comment by ANu Gupta posted on

    very nice and relevant blog.. thanks for sharing your experince.