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Civil Service

This blog post was published under the 2015-2024 Conservative Administration

Developing talented people with a disability to create more diverse leadership

In March I had the privilege of attending the launch of DELTA (Disability Empowers Leadership Talent). This is a programme specifically designed for participants with a disability who win a place on the Future Leaders Scheme and, more recently, the Senior Leaders Scheme and High Potential Development Scheme.

Programmes like DELTA are important as they help to grow our leaders of the future and create more diverse leadership teams, in which different skills are valued. It is tailored to meet the needs of each cohort. It will also help individuals increase their visibility and build personal networks.

The application window for this year’s Future Leaders Scheme (FLS) and Senior Leaders Schemes (SLS) opened on 19 August, with a closing date of 20 September. I would encourage applications from disabled colleagues in the eligible grades and with the potential to accelerate their careers. Rather than explain why, I would like to introduce Stuart Armstrong and Jenni Mitchell, current participants in the Future Leaders Scheme and the DELTA programme. 

Stuart’s story

I am the Head of Chemical Safety Policy in the Food Standards Agency and a participant on the Future Leaders Scheme and the new DELTA programme, which is open to FLS participants with a disability. I have a medical condition which means I am unable to walk very far and use a wheelchair to get around.

I applied for the FLS and DELTA to improve my leadership capabilities and increase my personal resilience. I was particularly keen to meet other peers with disabilities to share experiences, discuss how to overcome career challenges and grow my networks.

From the outset I have been really impressed by the FLS and DELTA programme and what I have learned and continue to learn from both formal learning activities; modules and coaching and from my peers. We were asked to consider the workplace of the future, which has been really valuable in terms of stimulating my own thinking of what this could look like for me and my teams. Other sessions covering why anyone should be led by me have been challenging and made me think about my leadership style.

I have also been impressed by the calibre, variety and enthusiasm of my peers in my FLS cohort and DELTA programme. We have two WhatsApp groups and regularly exchange views, advice and thoughts on a range of topics from workplace adjustments, job applications through to a wide range of work projects. It’s really great to be able to tap into such a range of expertise and support. We also have social time together, including a picnic in central London, which showed the health and wellbeing benefits of simply getting out of the office!

My visits to Ashridge Business School to complete formal learning activities have been an enriching experience, with the support team extremely proactive and helpful in meeting my accessibility needs. 

If you are thinking of applying for FLS/SLS, my key messages are:

  • Invest the time in the application process and really think about where you are as a leader, how the scheme can help and how you might use the learning.
  • Speak to people on the scheme to get their impressions, thoughts and support. Most departments will have people on the FLS, so seek them out.
  • Don’t assume there is a single stereotypical fit for the FLS. I have been pleased by the diversity of participants - a really varied group.     
  • If you have a disability, think about the challenges and opportunities it raises and talk about these during your application. It is part of your story as a leader.
  • If you get on the FLS and have a disability, do take up the opportunity to join DELTA. I have found meeting other participants with a disability from outside my specific FLS cohort group to be really useful.
  • FLS and DELTA are great programmes, but the key success factor is what you are prepared to bring to them: the greater your investment, the greater the likely return.
  • If you are unsuccessful, don’t give up. It took me more than one attempt to get on the scheme and I learned something positive about myself each time. 

Very best wishes for your application.

Jenni’s story

Portrait image of Jenni Mitchell
Jenni Mitchell

I was diagnosed with dyslexia in my early 30s. This initiated a period of self-exploration, looking at how I could enhance my strengths and minimise my weaknesses. It also led me to learning about autism, with preliminary tests indicating that there was a 90% chance I have this too.

 I applied for FLS because I realised it would allow me to continue to self-improve. I am currently in the early stages of the programme.

I also applied for FLS DELTA, a separate course, set up for FLS candidates with a disability. It has connected me to a strong network of like-minded people. All of us have an absolute passion to truly fulfil the vision of making the Civil Service a brilliant place to work for everyone, including those of us who are disabled. We have had discussions about various projects and I am excited about collaborating with them.

 One of the main benefits has been hearing from colleagues with a disability who have made it to the Senior Civil Service. Listening to their stories has given me more confidence to believe in my own ability to progress.

My career has not always run smoothly. I was once informed I had been blocked from development opportunities because the leadership team I was working for at the time were ‘not ready for neuro-diverse leadership’.

I now use my experience to act as a role model for other autistic colleagues and I am an autism buddy, which means that staff and managers can contact me to request advice on autism-related work issues. 

In this capacity I was approached by a colleague who was considering applying for a development course. She commented that she “didn’t know any autistic people in senior grades and was therefore unsure if this is a realistic aspiration”. I was really pleased to inform her that, as an autistic person operating at Grade 7 level and a Future Leaders Scheme participant, I had previously completed the course. I was then able to share my experience, including the challenges I encountered and the workplace adjustments likely to be available. I am pleased to say that she successfully applied and is starting the course in September.

Being disabled, you may have experienced self-limiting beliefs or had your confidence knocked by others. However, there is no reason why a person should not aspire to being a leader because of their disability.

Applications for both schemes are now open until 20 September. If eligible, I would encourage all of you to consider applying. 

I hope you found Stuart’s and Jenni’s stories as insightful as I did and it encourages you to think about your own development. It chimes with an excellent blog from Paul Morrison in my own department. He observed that an important leadership quality is to recognise skills and talents different to our own, and he advised anyone considering applying for FLS/SLS not to be be put off by an outdated stereotype of what a leader is.

I would echo Paul’s comments and would encourage any eligible, talented colleagues from all diverse backgrounds to apply. 

You can find out more about the Future Leaders Scheme and Senior Leaders Scheme, including how to apply, on Civil Service Learning.

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