‘Find your references, your mirrors and your mentors’: GGF’s Leading Questions podcast with the Spanish government’s deputy director of learning, Israel Pastor Sainz-Pardo

By on 29/06/2023 | Updated on 29/06/2023

In this episode of Leading Questions, 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 big policy departments including health, environment, finance and justice. That experience, combined with his current role overseeing the civil service’s learning and development programmes, has afforded 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” to provide reflection on your work – and to have the humility to learn from colleagues whether they be more senior or less.

Allowing young people to leapfrog into such senior positions, as the Spanish system does, helps to bring in the “innovation, creativity… that we are desperately wanting” and “new ideas… from the outer world in what would otherwise be characterised as a closed system”.

But Israel acknowledges drawbacks too, not least that it requires applicants to study full time and can only be done by those who can afford not to work until they pass. A dilemma when “we need to recruit people from all backgrounds”.

Shining a spotlight on the work of colleagues

Fast forward six years, to 2008, and Israel was appointed deputy director general for air quality at the Ministry of Environment. Realising quickly that he could never know more than the technical specialists in the department, he concentrated his effort on shining a spotlight on the work of his team before his top-grade peers – an act he believes is a key tenet of any good leader’s role.  

Later in his career, in 2016, Israel became director of the Centre for Legal Studies at the Ministry of Justice, and discovered a week into his new role that – because he didn’t have a legal background – the prosecutor general felt he wasn’t right for the job.

Knowing from experience that technical knowledge isn’t necessarily important for a leader to lead, Israel, though unsettled by the revelation, believed he could play a positive role in the organisation and worked hard to prove it.

He found the support of the bosses who had appointed him; relied on vision, the ability to connect disparate projects and programmes, and the resources in his “backpack” to make improvements; and got to know colleagues, how they worked, and how he could provide what they needed.

His determination and attentiveness to colleagues paid off: a few months down the line, the prosecutor general acknowledged that he had been wrong and that he was happy with Israel’s work.

Also describing his current work leading the civil service’s training and development programmes, 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.

Find out more about Global Government Forum’s training courses

This is the fourth episode of Leading Questions Series 3. The first featured South Africa’s cabinet secretary Phindile Baleni – ‘Unless you fight for it, it’s not worth it once you get there’ – the second featured Noreen Hecmanczuk, senior adviser to the US federal CIO – ‘Serve your country – you will never regret it’, and the guest of the third was New Zealand’s former public service chief, Iain Rennie – ‘Empowering people with a sense of possibility’.

Future episodes in this series will comprise conversations with the UK’s former health department permanent secretary Una O’Brien and Estonia’s secretary of state, Taimar Peterkop.

Listen to all episodes of Series 1 & 2 here: Leading Questions podcast: civil service leaders share what they learned from their time at the top.

We are searching the globe to find the best examples of public sector leadership for Leading Questions Series 4. If you’d like to recommend someone to feature in a future episode, please get in touch.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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