Antonia Romeo: "Leaders can't have bad days"

Think about the shadow you cast as a leader, says the Permanent Secretary at the Department for International Trade.

by Kate Bassett
Last Updated: 31 Jul 2019

Antonia Romeo began her career in the private sector before joining the civil service in 2000 as an economist. She went on to become Her Majesty's Consul General in New York. Now Permanent Secretary at the Department for International Trade, she's tipped to become the first woman to head the civil service.

She recently told Management Today’s Young Women in Business conference about her early influences and career lessons.


On her childhood:

My mother worked full-time as a professor of biochemistry. All my friends would get dropped off and picked up from school by their mothers – but I would travel to school by tube then spend the afternoons doing my homework in my mother’s lab. She absolutely loved her job. People talk often about "work/life balance" but my mother showed me that the best type of working life you can have is where your job, your life and your family all co-exist happily and fluidly.

My father was also a major influence on me. I was an enthusiastic Brownie girl guide and won all the badges bar one – the "house orderly" badge (which involved sweeping and making cups of tea). He refused to let me do it because he thought it was demeaning to women.

On her early career:

I studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University, worked for management consulting firm Oliver Wyman, and then did a Master’s in economics at LSE. I had no idea what to do next but then I saw an advert in The Economist for a job as an economist in the Lord Chancellor’s department. I didn’t know what the department did – and I barely knew what the civil service did.

But I applied, got the job and landed a one-year temporary contract. That was 20 years ago. I soon became addicted to the complexity and privilege of tackling big issues every day, to make life better for the citizens we serve.

On taking chances:

After having my first child, I returned to work on compressed hours – working five days in four. And then a role came up in the senior civil service, running the Freedom of Information division. I thought it sounded like a brilliant job so I went to see the hiring manager and asked whether I could do the job on compressed hours. He wasn’t sure at first, but to his great credit did let me apply – and I got the job.

It was my first big leadership role, managing 40 people. My advice is to be your own career coach, identify opportunities and demonstrate your credibility to show people you’re the best person for the job.

On leadership:

As a leader, you’re always "on". You need to think about the shadow you cast, and even if you’re having a bad day you can’t show it. When I get in the lift in the DIT building, I try to engage with every person in there and ask them about what they’re working on. As a leader, your daily interactions can have a huge impact on someone’s day, so they have to be good. Think about the shadow you cast as a boss. Your role is to motivate and lead others, not just worry about your own to-do list.

On taking bets:

In 2015, I became director-general of economic and domestic affairs in the Cabinet Office. That was my dream job – the role I’d always looked at and aspired to. But after nine months, for personal reasons, I needed to move with my family to New York.

I had to tell Jeremy  Heywood, the then-cabinet secretary and my direct boss, that I needed to leave the job I loved. I dreaded that conversation but he could not have been more supportive, and encouraged me to take a role in New York as the Government’s envoy to the tech sector. I later became Consul General in New York.

When the role of Permanent Secretary at DIT came up, it was too good an opportunity not to go for, even though I was living in New York at the time. There are now nearly 4,000 in the department I lead, charged with promoting British exports, securing inward investment, opening up global markets, and negotiating new trade deals. I believe it’s important to work in a job that you really love: if I’m going to leave my kids every day, it has to be for something amazing.

Tickets are now on sale for Management Today's Inspiring Women conference on 21 November. Our stellar line-up of speakers includes: Dame Inga Beale, former CEO of Lloyd's of London; The Stylist Group CEO Ella Dolphin; and Gemma Greaves, CEO of The Marketing Society. 

Image credit: DIT

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