What drew me to cross the Rubicon from private practice to the public sector was a very strong sense of mission that aligned with my values system. I was engaged by the challenge of improving the profile and impact of the Office of Fair Trading, and wanted to help deliver a successful change.
I was not entirely prepared for the transition – it was significant. However, I was assisted by what I learned from private practice: how to think creatively and innovate, how to spot opportunities and craft solutions through a commercial lens and how to be fleet of foot when dealing with the unexpected. Over time, I also learned the value of truly listening to clients and peers, and being wide open to constructive feedback.
One benefit of public service is working within a community of shared values. When there is disharmony or a lack of cohesion, we understand the importance of breaking down the issues – because we do not fundamentally disagree on a mission or our goals, just on how to achieve them.
I am very much a team-based leader. You cannot bring about change, particularly cultural change, without a supportive team. Dictators are not great leaders. However, you do have to be decisive, which occasionally means stepping up and making a difficult decision.
Good leaders take ownership for the tough choices while letting others stand and take the glory for collective achievements. It is a difficult balance to strike, but imperative to get right.
Although I came to Whitehall in a relatively senior position, developing a peer network was still essential. It helped me progress my career – to hear about upcoming opportunities and to get involved in the latest cutting-edge project. At all stages of your career, so much depends on your networks; whether via sponsors, mentors or coaches, or via a peer network of colleagues. However, you reap what you sow – it is important to invest at least as much as you take from your network. So, you should always prepare for a session with a sponsor or mentor to maximize your time together. You should always return supportive favors when peers have helped you on your way.
Equally, you have to find ways to derive support for yourself. Personally, this strength comes from my own sense of perspective, which is largely founded on my activities beyond the work context – my commitments as a mother of three primary school children, a school governor or as a trustee of Target Ovarian Cancer. I am also fortunate in being resilient and in having a positive disposition in life. A Charlie Chaplin quote sums it up well: “You’ll never find a rainbow if you’re looking down.”
As for the perfect work-life balance, I don’t believe you ever reach that nirvana state where you don’t have at least one tricky issue at work or at home. However, you can still be completely content because you are able to deal with them. I prefer to ask myself: “Is there any reason at all not to be content with where I am right now?” Almost always, the answer is, “Everything is fine.” So nurture your resilience and accept the flaws in life – perfection is a myth.