Introduction from Richard Heaton
Welcome back to the Race Champion Blog. In this series of posts I am introducing inspirational people who are working hard to make a positive difference to our Civil Service.
Here is a reflective post from Paul Morrison at the Home Office. Paul very frankly clocks the factors that he thinks give him a head start by lending him “perceived credibility”. He then asks readers to reflect on some of the assumptions that can count against people. It’s a plea for diversity of thought, as well as a recognition of our cultural and personal bias.
And I would like to echo Paul’s request to think hard about applying for (or encouraging others to apply for) Future Leaders Scheme and Senior Leaders Scheme when they open next month.
Diversity and our future leaders
I have been thinking about diversity and how people move into increasingly senior levels of our organisations, and I wanted to share some of the things I have learnt about what it takes to be an effective leader. I hope people reading this blog take something from it. But to manage expectations upfront, this is not a universal blueprint for what it takes to be a good leader. There isn’t such a thing.
I think one of the most important qualities of leadership is recognising skills and talent that are different from my own. I don’t want to be surrounded by mini versions of me, because that is not where there will be innovation and growth. Indeed, the single most important lesson I have learnt is that recognising diverse skills as a strength allows me to create teams that will be far greater than the sum of their parts, because with diversity of thought comes new ideas and challenges.
I am proud to be a public servant, of the hard work that has led to my successes, and of the efforts I have made to learn from my failures.
But I think it is important to recognise I am saying that as a white, middle-class, middle-aged, university educated, straight man from a Christian heritage, without a disability. I live in, and am from, the South East of England. I speak with a Received Pronunciation accent. I am not ashamed of any of these things. They represent where I am from, who I am, and what I am.
I must acknowledge that, because I have all those characteristics, I fit an image that people often associate with leaders in our organisation and society more generally. That means I know I start with a perceived credibility, not because of my abilities, but the fact that I fit a stereotype. I believe that has played a part in my successes and, more generally, is the reason people like me are overrepresented at senior levels.
It is easy to agree that this is not acceptable. It isn’t. It is also easy to agree we need to do something about it. We do. It is harder to settle on what and how.
I have in the past been hugely supportive of the programmes to develop the talent of underrepresented groups, and I still am. But if that is all we do then I am confident we will fail. Put bluntly, I am increasingly convinced that inclusion will not be achieved by programmes to make people more like me, and that we need a much greater focus on making people like me shift our thinking and change our behaviours.
What has led me to this conclusion is listening to colleagues from groups who are underrepresented at more senior levels. From the female colleagues, experts in their field, having men parachuted in above them and having their skills and experience downplayed and their jobs explained back to them. The black colleague describing herself as the seen-but-not-heard participant at a meeting because assumptions are made about the value she might add to the conversation. The female colleague who wears a headscarf and feels a pressure to deal with the many stereotypes that cling to it, stereotypes that rarely tend to be about being a future leader in the Civil Service.
And it isn’t limited to the statutory protected characteristics. It applies to those with a quieter, more reflective demeanour, who can be dismissed as, ‘lacking impact’.
Once this was pointed out to me, I saw it everywhere. I saw it endlessly in the behaviour of others, as a group and individually. Most importantly, I saw it in myself. I realised I was doing and saying the things described because the systems and the culture made it easy for me to get my way – to be the most ‘important’ person in the room and kid myself it was all about my own virtues, rather than partly about the advantages I started with.
Our responsibility as leaders is that we cast a long shadow. We need to think about how we use that influence. If we manifest the behaviours that stop inclusion or complicitly accept them if they affect us, change will not happen. So, my desire is for us not to shy away from these issues, however difficult it is to talk about them. To allow and encourage discussions about them; to really listen to what is being said, but most importantly, be willing to act differently. I have started trying to do that, but know I still have a way to go.
As the Future Leaders Scheme application process opens on 19 August, I really hope to see future leaders emerging who possess the skills, perspectives and characteristics that are missing from the Senior Civil Service. I will be looking for people who will be able to lead in a way that really brings out the diverse talent, skills and perspective of the people who work for the Civil Service, in a way that is even more successful than I and my peers have managed.
If you are thinking of the Future Leaders Scheme, don’t let a stereotype of what a leader is cloud your judgement about whether you should push yourself forward. As I said, there is no universal blueprint, it could and should be you who is the future, so go for it!