Leading Questions podcast: civil service leaders share what they learned from their time at the top

By on 15/04/2021 | Updated on 07/07/2022
Senior civil servants share their leadership stories. Credit: Mark Bowley

From working with ministers to managing personal resilience, every episode a current or former senior civil servant reflects candidly on the challenges they have faced in their career and what they learned from them

Series 2

Episode 3: Taking the good with the bad – Michael Wernick

“Any kind of meaningful career is going to experience setbacks and defeats. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a successful career.”

Michael Wernick spent nearly four decades in the Canadian public service, rising to become the country’s most senior official before his retirement in 2019. In this episode he reflects on some of the many lessons of his long and varied career, its supreme highs and its crushing lows.  

Drawing on his experiences as a white city-dweller at the helm of what is now known as the department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs to the three years spent as clerk of the Privy Council of Canada and secretary to the Cabinet, Michael is open about the public service’s strengths and its failings.  

Touching on the systemic racism in government processes, why he has a problem with the notion of ‘speaking truth to power’ while simultaneously advocating candour, and why his vision for the public service is akin to the moving staircases in Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, this is a valuable listen for anyone interested in the inner workings of government.

Episode 2: Staying sane while managing change – Sir Suma Chakrabarti

“You should never pick me for any job which is business as usual… I am my best or worst, depending on your point of view, when dealing with change.”

From helping to establish the UK Department for International Development (DfID) after its separation from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to managing a prisons crisis as justice department permanent secretary, Suma Chakrabarti has never been afraid to take on big, complex challenges. Quite the opposite – the opportunity to create change is, he says, what energises him.

In this episode, Suma reflects on his long career in the UK civil service – which also included stints in the Cabinet Office and Treasury – and his time as president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

Discussing his decision to leave one civil service job because he was at loggerheads with the minister, why he thinks the merger of DfID and the Foreign Office is a mistake, the future of work, his advice to ambitious civil servants, and much more besides, Suma reveals himself as a bold, astute, and empathetic leader with a truckload of lessons to share.

Episode 1: Engaging with risk – Stephanie Foster

“I’m really kind of glad I didn’t know all the rules because if I’d stuck to the rules, we would never have done it.”

Stephanie Foster had been in defence for 23 years when she volunteered to take responsibility for a floundering AUS$1bn stimulus package for local government. Despite facing public criticism over the scheme that she feared might end her career, she says breaking the rules – albeit unknowingly – helped her team deliver 1,000 projects across Australia.

Now deputy secretary governance, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and head of reform for the Australian Public Service, Stephanie also talks of the mighty challenge of delivering the Foster Report in response to an alleged sexual assault in Parliament House, against a politically-charged backdrop and under intense media scrutiny.

Looking back at her long career, what’s clear is that she has become a leader formed of the qualities she admired in her mentors – one who isn’t afraid to be afraid, and who is perfectly imperfect.

Series 1

Episode 7: Adjusting your leadership to the grain of the organisation – Baroness Minouche Shafik

“You have to flex your leadership and you don’t really know how to do that until you’ve really understood the culture of the organisation.”

Minouche Shafik was the youngest ever vice president of the World Bank. In 2008, she became permanent secretary of the Department for International Development, before moving to the International Monetary Fund as deputy managing director in 2011 only to find her new boss engulfed in scandal.

From there, she became the deputy governor at the Bank of England and is currently director of the London School of Economics.

Minouche draws on her vast experience to reflect on her own leadership style, her belief in servant leadership and her passion for promoting diversity.

She also explores the challenges associated with leading decentralised organisations, the beauty of an independent civil service and why a small gesture from Christine Lagarde has stuck with her for many years.

Episode 6: Leading the digital revolution ­– Professor Sir David Omand

“GCHQ is an example for the rest of the public service… here is a case where civil servants have made technology sing.”

In 1996 David Omand faced his first major leadership challenge: he had become the director of GCHQ and was charged with continuing the intelligence agency’s post-Cold War programme of technological transformation and reform.

In this episode David discusses his experience of being “the young man sent from London to destroy the organisation”, the overlooked concept of followership and the importance of having a narrative.

He also explores his time as permanent secretary of the Home Office, reflecting on why he put so much store by safe spaces, how a life-threatening diagnosis of Non-Hodgkin lymphoma changed his approach to work, and becoming the UK’s first Security and Intelligence Coordinator.

Episode 5: The Treasury boy who supported four prime ministers ­– Lord Gus O’Donnell

“The idea that in any sense I planned my career is completely wrong.”

Lord Gus O’Donnell’s long career in the civil service started in 1979 in the Treasury and included stints as a diplomat in Washington, press secretary to prime minister John Major and cabinet secretary, head of the civil service and permanent secretary of the Cabinet Office under three prime ministers – Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron.

In this episode he discusses what it was like to work with four very different leaders, at very different points in their premierships, and with very different styles. He also reflects on his own leadership development, how he remained calm in a crisis and why he regrets feeling irreplaceable.

There are plenty of insights on the civil service too – with comparisons between the private sector, his drive to instil pride and why he always told people that if they want to get on, they should get out, get different experiences …and then come back.

Episode 4: When Whitehall leadership dictats don’t work with Professor Ciaran Martin CB

“The worst piece of leadership advice I got was: ‘be an authentic leader.’”

Of course be true to yourself and your values, says Ciaran Martin CB, professor of practice in the management of public organisations at the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government.

“The bit I interpreted wrongly, which made it the worst piece of advice, was to just act yourself at work,” he adds.

In this episode, Ciaran reflects on his long civil service career including stints at the Cabinet Office, GCHQ and latterly as the founding chief executive of the National Cyber Security Centre.

He considers the switch from central government into the intelligence agency; why “monolithic” leadership dictats from Whitehall were useless when working with technical specialists; the experience of publicly fronting the 2017 WannaCry ransomware attack; and whether Northcote-Trevelyan still holds.

Episode 3: ‘It takes two to tango’ with Ed Balls and Sir David Bell

“On the one hand, the cabinet minister has to understand that nature of the civil service role and the role of the permanent secretary as a leader alongside you…

“But I think the permanent secretary also has to respect that the cabinet minister is not necessarily someone to be shaped in content or style to the previous way of doing things.”

In this very special episode, Sir David Bell and Ed Balls explore the minister-permanent secretary relationship.

The two joined forces in 2007 at what was the Department for Children, Schools and Families – David as permanent secretary and Ed as secretary of state. They discuss first impressions and how they built a coherent team and vision together based on chemistry, trust, and openness, with plenty of fun thrown in there too.

But it wasn’t all plain sailing. The department faced a series of crises including SATs results, payments of Educational Maintenance Grants and the tragedy of Baby P. Both Ed and David talk about how they worked together in a crisis, and personally managed the pressure.

Episode 2: ‘A steep learning curve’ with Sir Peter Housden

“Did I feel equipped to become a permanent secretary? I thought I was, but I was very quickly disabused of the notion.”

In this episode Sir Peter Housden reflects candidly on his first permanent secretary role at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. He talks about how he prepared in all the wrong ways, what he learned from the experience and the coping strategies that kept him going.

In 2010 he put his lessons into practice when he moved to become the permanent secretary of Scotland. Here he explores how different the environment was, trust between civil service and ministers, public service reform, the Scottish Independence referendum and how good habits can save you.

Episode 1: ‘Understanding what’s expected of you‘ with Dame Helen Ghosh

“I have used the term over the years of ‘having running away money’. That doesn’t mean having a stash of savings, but it does mean all the time thinking to yourself, ‘If this job doesn’t work, if I can’t stand this a moment longer… what would I do?’”

Dame Helen Ghosh enjoyed a long career in the civil service, becoming permanent secretary of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in 2004 and then the Home Office in 2011. She then led the National Trust before becoming master of Balliol College, Oxford in 2018.

In this episode Helen discusses the importance of embedding in and understanding what different organisations expect from a leader, drawing on her extensive experience of taking the helm in very different environments.

She also considers the role of the civil service in serving the government of the day, and shares insights into her own hinterland and where she draws resilience from, as well as female leadership, dealing with public scrutiny and being open to the fact you may have made a mistake.

Your host is Siobhan Benita. Kate Hodge edited Series 1, and James Ede produced it. Series 2 is edited by Mia Hunt, and produced by Jack Aldane. We really hope you enjoy listening – new episodes will be released every month. We would love to hear what you think so feel free to leave a comment below or give us a rating on whatever platform you listen on. If you would like to get in touch, you can tweet us @globegov or email us at [email protected]

About Kate Hodge

Kate is a journalist and editor, holding roles at both the Guardian and the Financial Times. She specialised in education and combines writing, commissioning and editing with social media and audience engagement. If you have any ideas you would like to pitch, or suggestions to improve the website, feel free to email her on [email protected]

One Comment

  1. Maisss Hamza says:

    Outstanding program I learned a lot from these great leaders and enjoyed specially the podcast with my daughter Minouche Shafik
    Thank you
    Maissa Hamza

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