‘The pandemic brought the opportunity to change and a willingness to experiment’: GGF’s latest Leading Questions podcast with the European Commission’s Gertrud Ingestad

By on 25/01/2023 | Updated on 26/01/2023

Global Government Forum’s latest episode has been published, featuring Gertrud Ingestad who has held a variety of roles in her 27-year career at the European Commission, most recently as director general of human resources and security.

In this episode, Gertrud covers everything from why being an introvert doesn’t mean you can’t be an effective leader to the post-COVID world of hybrid work.

Taking a leap to join the Commission as a translator in 1995 after 13 years as a language teacher in her native Sweden, Gertrud had just two months’ notice to pack her things and begin a new life in Brussels. She was “scared to death” but as she tells podcast host Siobhan Benita, despite having only recently felt confident and at ease professionally after decades of experience, she “never regretted [the decision] for a moment”.

She recalls the Commission’s reputation as a “friendly monster” due to its complexity and the in-at-the-deep-end nature of joining the organisation in the 90s. “I had colleagues who came to a desk in a room with a pile of papers, no computer, nothing, and they were told to just get on with it and to find their way.” It was a baptism of fire. Yet, once new starters had made the right connections, it soon revealed itself as a place of work that was “super friendly, much more personal” and where “things happened fast”.

Describing her career as a “series of banana skins”, Gertrud shares the experience of an early move to a more senior position in which her team thought her too soft – misunderstanding her cultural background and personality type, perhaps – and taught her to lead. “They told me very clearly, ‘this is what we need from you: much more guidance, clarity, decision-making, and clear directions on what you want us to do’. I learned so much there,” she says. 

Asked what fellow civil servants can do on their own career paths, she advises “going beyond the normal limits of the job” and thinking about what can be done better, and to “listen to your inner voice” and move when the time feels right. The important characteristics for those aspiring to be leaders, she adds, are “authenticity, integrity, vulnerability, and admitting when you make mistakes”.

In the podcast Gertrud also shares lessons valuable for anyone navigating the post-pandemic world of hybrid work. And she is eminently well-placed to do so. Having started in her latest role as HR chief on 16 March 2020, the first day of lockdown in Belgium, she and her team have been responsible for negotiating a new work model for a hugely complex organisation for which in-person collaborative work is a core value and with the complicating factor that most of its employees have special conditions under expat status that means they must work primarily from Brussels.

That exercise involved setting a framework for the Commission’s people management strategy that guarantees equal treatment for everybody at the top level whilst offering flexibility so that local teams can decide what is best for them – a strategy that dovetails with the Commission’s ambition to be more transparent and human-centric.

Looking at the big picture, Gertrud says the pandemic brought “opportunity for change” and an “openness and a willingness to question and to experiment because we couldn’t do things the way we’d done them before, with very far-reaching consequences and impact and possibilities”.

Also touching on experiencing burnout and recognising the signs in others, being alert to cultural sensitivities, the growing importance of managers’ people skills, and creating a safe space for employees, this is an episode full to the brim with wisdom – one not to be missed.

This is the sixth episode of Leading Questions Series 2. Other episodes in Series 2 include:
·      Australia’s governance chief Stephanie Foster who discusses stepping into the unknown, and embracing her strengths – and flaws – as a leader
·      UK civil service stalwart Sir Suma Chakrabarti, who talks of staying sane while
managing change

·      Canada’s former cabinet secretary Michael Wernick on taking the good with the bad
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 3. 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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