2023 wrapped: revisit GGF’s Leading Questions podcast episodes

By on 21/12/2023 | Updated on 21/12/2023
Senior civil servants share their leadership stories. Credit: Mark Bowley

From working with ministers to managing personal resilience, current or former senior public service leaders share what they learned from their time at the top

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Episode 1: ‘Unless you fight for it, it’s not worth it once you get there’ – Phindile Baleni

Phindile Baleni was appointed secretary to South Africa’s cabinet and director-general of the presidency – the first woman in the country’s history to hold these roles – amid the pandemic in April 2021. It’s a good thing she likes a challenge.

With a background in maths and law, she joined the public service in 1994 just as South Africa was transitioning from the old apartheid regime to a new democratic order. Working in provincial government before moving to national, Phindile’s career has been akin to “navigating an obstacle course”, not least on account of her race and gender.

From a magistrate describing her as a “little girl” and refusing to address her in the courtroom to coming up against lawyers in the public service who excluded her by speaking Afrikaans, Phindile has faced discrimination with strength and grace – sometimes working to educate bigots and when necessary “fighting fire with fire”.

She says she has always had people “who have known what I’m capable of who troubleshooted on my behalf” but it is principally her self-confidence – built by her parents from a young age – that has helped to pull her through. She is, she says, “motivated by struggle”.

Using her experiences and leadership prowess to support others – Phindile subscribes to the idea popular in Africa that “a star shines because the other star gives you the light for you to shine” – she has worked to help talented colleagues get over crises of confidence, pushing them out of their comfort zones so that they can achieve their best.  

In this first episode of the new series of Leading Questions, Phindile also describes the “harrowing” experience of transforming a public service built on apartheid – to serve four million of a population of 54 million – into a democratic system capable of serving all South Africans.

From an “eclectic” leader who comes across as humble and unassuming, this is a lesson in quiet unshakable strength, resilience and never giving up.

Episode 2: ‘Serve your country – you will never regret it’ – Noreen Hecmanczuk  

In the first of our Leading Questions podcasts to feature an American federal government leader, Noreen Hecmanczuk reflects on a long and diverse career which has seen her serve in the White House twice.  

She took her first job in Washington D.C in the early 1990s – inspired by her WW2 veteran uncle – and hasn’t looked back.   

The senior adviser on strategic engagements and communications to the US federal CIO, Noreen is right at the heart of government. But having worked at nine agencies and for six administrations – and in a range of roles from strategic communications to stakeholder engagement, HR to technology – she has a very well-rounded perspective on government operations.  

From volunteering to take notes at meetings of foods standards executives in the midst of a deadly E coli outbreak to a particularly sobering moment whilst at the Department of Labor, Noreen has always shown a dedication to understanding her colleagues’ needs and how she might help meet them.  

And she has kept two quotes front of mind: Teddy Roosevelt’s “Do what you can with what you have, where you are”, and her boss Clare Martorana’s motto that “people support what they helped create”.  

Also covering improving citizens’ interactions with government through technology, why leaders shouldn’t confuse their role with that of a subject matter expert, the particulars of the American system and much more besides, this is an episode brimming with insight from a public servant whose work always comes back to one thing: resolutely serving the American people as best she can.  

Episode 3: ‘Empowering people with a sense of possibility’ – Iain Rennie

Iain Rennie spent 30 years in the New Zealand Public Service culminating in eight years in the top job – that of state services commissioner.

In this episode, Iain tells podcast host Siobhan Benita about talent management reform, his realisations about effective leadership, his work as a consultant to governments around the world, and why public servants should be mindful of the increasingly diverse perspectives of citizens.  

Realising that great leaders in the New Zealand Public Service often reached their potential “despite the system” rather than because of it, Iain’s focus in his latter years in the top job was on devising and implementing a more systematic way of identifying and nurturing talent and “empowering people with a sense of possibility”.

He credits this and subsequent work with women now accounting for more than half of chief executive roles – but there is “unfinished business” he says, particularly around ethnic representation.

Now working with civil and public services around the world to improve their effectiveness, he describes what looking at governments from the outside in, as well as the inside out, has meant for his perspectives.

And he also looks back on the lessons from COVID – particularly that governments “failed pretty spectacularly” when it came to wellness – and his belief that the frames put around government response to major shocks are too narrow.

Also sharing his thoughts on bias in decision-making, waning public trust and the rise of mis- and disinformation, and the promise of technology to change public services for good, this is an episode packed with the kind of wisdom that comes only through decades of hard work, experience and reflection. 

Episode 4: ‘Find your references, your mirrors and your mentors’ – Israel Pastor Sainz-Pardo  

Podcast host Siobhan Benita speaks know-how and knock-backs with the deputy director of learning at Spain’s National Institute of Public Administration.  

Israel Pastor has more than 20 years’ experience as a senior manager in the Spanish state administration – including stints in the health, environment, finance and justice departments – affording him a broad perspective on leadership and what it takes to make the organisation you’re in charge of better.    

Having studied hard to get through a rigorous selection process whereby people with no prior professional experience can become an executive member of the civil service – entering at grade 26 of 30 – Israel found himself leading a team in an unfamiliar organisation whilst still in his 20s.     

He advises others who find themselves faced with such a baptism of fire, to “find your references, your mirrors and your mentors” and to have the humility to learn from less senior colleagues.  

Entering any new high-ranking position requires vision, the ability to connect disparate projects and programmes, and the resources “in your backpack” to make improvements, he says. And as listeners will find out, it is these capabilities, along with a focus on shining a spotlight on the work of his teams and being attentive to colleagues’ needs, that epitomise his leadership style.  

Also describing his current work leading the civil service’s learning and development programme, Israel shares his view on what leaders’ greatest challenge will be in the coming years and how to overcome it, and touches on much more besides: on frank discussions with political bosses; pushing back against the stereotype of the lazy civil servant; the importance of institutional communication; and remaining faithful to your public service calling.  

Don’t miss this episode featuring a man who has been determined from a young age to be the best public servant he could be.  

Episode 5: ‘I always knew that my anchor was health’ – Dame Una O’Brien

In this episode, Una O’Brien, who was head of the UK health department between 2010 and 2016, speaks with podcast host and former colleague Siobhan Benita about her unconventional route into the civil service and what she learned along the way.

Having been appointed health department permanent secretary just as a coalition government was formed and responsible for implementing sweeping and controversial reforms, Una was right in the thick of it – being scrutinised before a parliamentary committee no less than 28 times. 

It was a “bumpy” ride, she admits, but one she was absolutely ready for.  

Being the daughter of Irish immigrants who were “firm believers in giving back”, Una worked in politics, academic research and other roles before joining the civil service Fast Stream in her early 30s.

She held roles in the Cabinet Office and transport department but was always drawn to health.

Looking back, it was time spent setting up a hospice and care centre for people with AIDS and HIV in London in the 1980s that had the most profound effect, she says, having seen first-hand the people who were on the receiving end of poor care and discrimination – and wanting to play a part in making change.

Also describing her role in inquiries into major healthcare failings at two hospitals and “deeply hurtful” realisations about her own department’s conduct, insights into working with ministers, and her current work as a career and leadership coach, this is an episode packed with personal reflections from a leader whose motivations never wavered.

Episode 6: From COVID-19 to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: Estonia’s top public servant Taimar Peterkop’s tips for dealing with crises 

Estonia’s most senior civil servant, secretary of state Taimar Peterkop, shares his insights into leading through crises.  

From dealing with a vulnerability in the country’s digital ID system – which involved updating thousands of digital services – to the country’s response to the COVID pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this is an episode packed with lessons on what to do when government is faced with emergency.  

Taimar’s main learning from the digital ID crisis was the importance of building relationships with the private sector, academia and civil society – so that they can be called upon when the government lacks the internal capabilities to deal with crises on its own.  

“You need all the different players in these situations to talk the same talk and to have the same message: ‘This is the problem, this is the solution, and don’t worry’,” Taimar says.  

Through clear and consistent communication with citizens, the Information System Authority, which led the work to secure the IDs and which Taimar headed up at the time, managed not only to retain trust in the digital ID system but to actually increase it. Indeed, following the incident, use of the cards actually began to rise.  

When COVID hit, by which time Taimar had been appointed secretary of state, he took the lessons from that crisis and applied it to his leadership through the pandemic, not least in looking after the wellbeing of public servants, many of whom were having to work 16-hour days. He brought in mental health advisers and gave officials who had done exceptionally well gifts to boost morale. 

Also describing his part in moving management of the pandemic response from the health department to the prime minister’s office and establishing a COVID taskforce; Estonia’s readiness for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; his background as a lawyer and technologist; and why he has decided to work for two years in his second term rather than the usual five, this is a not-to-miss episode for any public servant interested in how government can prepare in the era of permacrisis.  

Episode 7: Flipping the script with former Bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane

In this, the last episode of Leading Questions series 3, Andy Haldane talks about thriving on leading through crisis and the challenges and opportunities “when the old is broken and the new is yet to be forged”.  

Having spent 32 years at the Bank of England, latterly as chief economist, headed up the UK government’s Levelling Up Taskforce, founded the charity Pro Bono Economics, and spent the last two years as chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts, Andy has a range of roles and experiences to draw on. Yet though he has been very honest publicly about his organisations’ successes and failures over the years, he hasn’t divulged much about his own leadership style and motivations – until now.  

The man once named amongst the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine has seen his fair share of crises – not least, during his time at the Bank of England, the global financial crisis of 2008, the European debt crisis, Black Wednesday, and the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“Looking back over those 32 years, it was hallmarked or perhaps pockmarked by crises. They always come along, don’t they? But we seem to have had a particularly virulent sequence over the last 15 years plus,” he says.  

It is fortunate, then, that Andy is energised by the opportunity to drive big, system-wide change.  

Motivated by his belief that the most effective and durable way of making change is to engage as broad a base of stakeholders as possible, Andy describes the importance of listening to those not often given a voice. Indeed, speaking to people for whom the economy was not working proved to be “one of the most valuable sources of intelligence I could have had”.  

He also speaks of his tendency to be publicly honest about the things that have gone wrong and to suggest ideas radically different from the status quo; his concern that civil servants do not have “a long enough window of relative tranquillity to build their sea defences against whatever the next tsunami might be”; and of the importance of having an “optimistic, non-fatalistic mindset”.  

This fascinating episode is a window into the motivations of a man in the business of “establishing next practice rather than best practice thinking”, of considering what’s around the corner, and of “instilling a sense of belief about what’s possible”.

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