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Collective leadership – making it happen

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Matthew Rycroft, Permanent Secretary, Department for International Development, flanked by Kate Josephs and David Hallam at a leadership discussion event
Matthew Rycroft, Permanent Secretary, Department for International Development, flanked by David Hallam and Kate Josephs

At one of the events of Civil Service Live 2018, we joined a table of directors discussing how we cultivate a learning culture – learning from successes as well as missteps; creating the conditions for our teams to take balanced risks, to ‘fail fast and learn’.

What happened was a recognition that on that table we had a huge amount of experience to share – delivering in crisis situations in the Middle East; responding to provider failure in UK public services; or leading through the aftermath of the Grenfell tragedy. Thirty minutes wasn’t long enough – we needed something regular, where we could: 

  • share and harness our collective experience, curiosity and commitment
  • build networks beyond departmental silos
  • create space for purposeful reflection

Network event

In March this year, we teamed up with the Civil Service Leadership Academy and One Team Gov to organise a directors’ network event for directors from all government departments. We stepped forward to run the ‘event’ and set the theme of strengthening collective leadership in times of change and uncertainty. It was risky, but at least we would have something to learn from! 

We spent time designing an event with Nour Sidawi and Jason Brewster from One Team Gov that we hoped would break the mould. 

Would anyone actually turn up! We needn’t have worried, over 30 directors from a wide variety of departments joined us, along with two Permanent Secretaries and three inspiring speakers.

The theme of ‘Leading through change and uncertainty’ really struck a chord. It’s a subject that we all cared about. People shared their personal experiences and learning in leadership during times of pressure, challenge and change. 

The discussions didn’t develop entirely as we expected. Conversation took a reflective and personal turn – participants were open, honest and vulnerable, showing a willingness to share. 

What we learned

So, while we didn’t end up able to distil our combined experience into a handy checklist of ‘hints and tips’, what we learned, and what we’re sharing, is more meaningful and gives us a clear sense of where to take the network going forward:

    • We are often quick to make assumptions about our peers

    We spent time understanding each other’s journeys and realised the diversity of experiences in the room and began to see the insight a broader peer group could bring to our individual challenges.  We also reflected – with brilliant input and challenge from Tracie Joliff, Director of Inclusion at the NHS - that if we want to enable people to flourish, irrespective of who they are, we need to challenge ourselves to behave in a way that is totally congruent with this.

    • Without exception, we care a lot

    We care about doing a good job, making a difference, and supporting our teams. There is a power in this, but also a cost in terms of emotional labour, emphasising the importance of looking after ourselves as well as our teams.   

    • We are only human

    We are trying things ourselves and navigating new and uncertain contexts and complex systems. We don’t have all the answers – trying to ‘go it alone’, in this context, makes little sense.

    • As we consider both our current context and the future challenges our country will face – especially those that cut across departmental boundaries – we need Civil Service leaders who value and model collaboration, openness, inclusivity, respect for one another and – dare we say it – kindness. 
    • There is no ‘handbook’  

    We will learn by trying, experimenting, sometimes getting it wrong, pushing ourselves into areas we are not comfortable, taking the time to reflect and learn, and supporting each other.  Directors who came to our first event suggested a further session, focused on providing that space and a network to work with as we practice. 

    • We heard about the importance of values again and again

    In times of uncertainty, we always have our values, individually and as a team. Those values provide a foundation when all around is unclear.  And, conversely, we risk delivering bad change when we are unclear about our value set. The bravery lies in sharing yourself and starting that conversation – it is often the catalyst to unlocking other conversations.

    • We learned a lot from delivering the event, which was outside the comfort zone for at least one of us

    At the start, all we had was determination and a rather grand vision - creating a learning “movement” for directors across government. But that was a good platform, and fantastic people stepped forward to deliver, perhaps inspired by a belief that we really meant what we were trying to do.

    Next milestone

    This event was a milestone for us and we are already planning our next Directors Network Collective Leadership event on 17 July. This will focus on 'How to be yourself and thrive in a high-risk, uncertain world'.  All directors across Whitehall are invited – details are here.

    We will share how we designed the event to help others create the space to do the same. Huge thanks to the Civil Service Leadership Academy, One Team Gov and all the directors for making it such a success.

    The support and help we need is in and comes through networks that allow us to be vulnerable and ask for help. If you are a director and would like to join the network, e-mail:

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