Setting the Context – Leading with the Civil Service – Matthew Rycroft, Permanent Secretary, DFID

What it was:

A talk from a senior leader about setting the global context, followed by group discussion.

This was part of the Deputy Director Leadership Programme held in London on 16 and 17 September 2019.

What I learned:

When people are stressed, as senior leaders we can rise up a level and set the context. Think what is the global context for your team – e.g. PESTLE – and then relate this down the chain.

The UK will need a clear view on what it excels at: for example higher education, rule of law / rules-based systems and compliance (some countries want to disrupt the rules-based system). We are open to innovation and ideas. The prevalence of the English language is hugely beneficial.

An interesting question – what does UK need to do to become as important as Google? For example – the UK’s ‘net zero’ carbon commitment is a huge leadership position

Try to identify the things in your area where things are changing but being less talked about – this may be where you will be able to add value.

Our teams need us not to be stressed – they need us to think “up and out” – what is the context? What is coming? What are our partners and competitors doing?

“Future – Engage – Deliver” is a simple model of what a leader should do:

  • Future – It’s important to find reasons for your team to be optimistic – but it must be pragmatic and hard-headed
  • Engage – Bring that vision to each team member, what can they contribute?
  • Deliver – Decide what real impact you as a team will make.

Context, ambiguity and leadership – group exercise

  • Different people see ambiguity at different levels – the team may not care about the strategic ambiguity you are worried about!
  • Leading through ambiguity is a key common challenge
  • What are my key context challenges right now? Uncertainty over op model and resourcing, which is having real impact on the team.
  • Prioritisation: Everyone thinks the level above them is the level that should be doing prioritisation and isn’t. The problem is every level thinks this! So you need to do it yourself.

Four thoughts on leadership:

  1. You need to make the job your own. Be yourself in the role, don’t try to be someone else. My reflection – I have been guilty of trying to act too much as I imagine my predecessor would have done.
  2. Only do what only you could do. Deliberately push things down so that you – and your team – can do more “up and out”. Don’t fall back down the ladder from Leader > Manager > Operator. Stay a Leader, don’t retreat into being manager when under pressure.
  3. People always think they are incredibly busy, however busy things actually are. Could you and your team go up a gear? If not then this is a sign of lack of resilience. Things can always get worse! So build resilience.
  4. Personal development is not just about becoming adequate at the things you aren’t very good at. Develop your strengths – turn your powers into superpowers! Don’t think of ‘development needs’ as a euphemism for areas where people are not very good.

You can get energy for work from your work!  Identify which parts of your work give you energy. Minimise those elements which sap your energy – power through them quickly.  Think which parts of the day / week / month you will need to have maximum energy and when you can coast or build energy.

What I will aim to do differently as a result:

  • Research and remember the “Future / engage / deliver” framework
  • Think about my wider interests and where I can add value – presumably the use and exploitation of information?
  • Remember to set context for the team and help them explore and prepare for potential futures
  • Find ways to bring external context into the team, and external thinking.
  • Make the job your own – don’t always think “what would my predecessor have done?”
  • Do more “up and out” for the team and for yourself. 
  • Don’t fall back down the ladder from Leader > Manager > Operator. Stay a Leader!

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