In my opinion: Chartered Management Institute

Chartered Management Institute companion Sue Street, permanent secretary at the DCMS, believes the priority of bosses is to earn staff loyalty

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I shouldn't start an article like this. But do you really want to read any more theories about leadership? If you've only got a couple of minutes, here is what I'm going to say. First, earning loyalty is more important than being visionary. And second, people do like change, whatever the books say.

For me, having worked in both the private and public sector, there is no great distinction between leadership in either of them. As I worked my way up through the civil service and a City firm, I gave my best to people I respected, who had earned my trust and loyalty. I would not follow them blindly, but I cared more about them than distant strategic objectives. Don't get me wrong; no-one could be more determined to set clear goals with a defined strategy and modern management systems. But strategies, goals and systems alone don't deliver results.

The most important thing for those at the top is to tap into the roots of our organisations and understand what makes people tick and what frustrates them. The late John Garnett of the then Industrial Society gave me the compelling image of the 'gardener boss'. This means giving people the support and headroom to develop their own style, not racing out in front shouting: 'I'm off to the wild blue yonder with a vision and I expect you to follow'. You're sunk if they don't - or perhaps you move into the more bullying mode known as 'robust management'. Fear can drive performance for a while, but sustained high performance and morale can be achieved only by nourishing the roots.

My department of Culture, Media and Sport may be small in Whitehall terms, with fewer than 500 people, but we have a big family of associates: a total workforce of about 19,000 people involved in delivering services to the public. This ranges from internationally renowned bodies like the Tate and the British Museum, which we fund directly, to the network of libraries and local institutions that actually bring sport, art and culture to local people. Our shared - and indeed inspiring - goal is to improve the quality of life for all. But making it happen is the hard bit. My job is to set the strategic direction - but also to engage the enthusiasm of the talented people who work in our sectors to increase the impact of what we do. If I were not sincere, people would spot that straight away.

A quick way to judge is to look at the boss's diary. I could talk endlessly about how much I value our people, but if a cursory look at my weekly schedule revealed that I spent most of my time at glamorous champagne receptions - well, there are some compensations - I would be easily sussed. My electronic diary is available to everyone here. They can easily see whether I mean what I say. Induction courses, ginger groups, divisional meetings, open meetings and behind-the-scenes visits well away from London all allow me to connect our business aspirations with the day-to-day preoccupations of our partners. I call it 'policy from the outside in'. And sometimes it is not policy at all. Sometimes when the tension is between defective water coolers and brilliant support for the Olympic bid, you'll get the latter by sorting out the former.

People are still very pleased and surprised when the boss makes sure something gets fixed.

I doubt if Sir Humphrey would have spent much time on such matters, but the modern civil servant is far more a delivery agent than the traditional perception. We have redirected our traditional intellectual strengths to advise Ministers - in my case Tessa Jowell - on policies that will work in the real world. We see ourselves as strategists, just as most business managers do. A strategy has to set the direction for delivery so that our Secretary of State can go back to the electorate at the end of a parliamentary term with a record of achievement. But if you haven't set the strategy with delivery in mind, it's all leadership with no followership.

The conventional wisdom is that people do not like change. Indeed, there are business schools and management libraries founded on that view. But I just don't agree. After all, what are the things that inspire and excite us in our private lives? Big events, births, marriages, moving house, going on holiday. Look at the popularity of makeover programmes on television, fashions and different foods. Nobody wants to be stuck in a rut.

If you want to change things, find out what is frustrating people and you have a ready-made and keen appetite for change. Working as we do with a wide range of committed organisations and partners, we have had to change the way we operate. The DCMS change programme grew from the roots and it won't stop. We are moving from delivering through different divisions, to a more joined-up project approach with a focus on results.

Of course, I have shaped that change from a position of confidence, having worked in this way outside the civil service. But I didn't dash out in front shouting: 'Follow me'. The time was better spent asking myself: 'Why should they?' Now the unions are pressing me to go faster - and that's what I'll do.


Sue Street's career spans the public and private sectors. A philosophy graduate, she worked her way up through the Home Office to become director of criminal policy. Her career path was marked by six years raising a family and working in Latin America, and three years with PriceWaterhouse in the early '90s. Street became permanent secretary of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport in 2002.

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