Thu 13 Jan 2022
What we can learn about moving into the Senior Civil Service from the journeys of former DLUHC Deputy Director Bernadette Thompson (left) and HMRC Deputy Director Nicola Hamilton (right)
By Murielle Gonzalez
Listening to leaders who have made it to the top ranks of the civil service is inspiring. Their experiences help you reflect on whether leadership is for you and what you can do to improve your chances in the Senior Civil Service. Take it from Bernadette Thompson, for example. "It's important to understand that you don't just rock up in a leadership role. You have a journey," she said presenting at the 2020 edition of 'Unlocking Senior Civil Service', the event organised by Dods Diversity & Inclusion in partnership with the FDA.
Thompson joined the civil service just over two decades ago. She progressed her career through different roles across government departments, including the Legal Aid Board (now an executive agency of the Ministry of Justice), Home Office, HM Treasury, and Cabinet Office.
In December, Thompson became Associate Director of Inclusion at Barts Health NHS Trust, following a two-year tenure at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (formerly the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government) where she served as Deputy Director of Inclusion, Wellbeing and Employee Engagement.
Thompson revealed that the key to unlocking the SCS has been shaping the narrative of who she is before setting her sights on leadership roles.
Born in the UK from Nigerian parents, Thompson understood early on in life that potholes and hurdles would challenge her way up the career ladder. "What was important to me was being the best that I can be," she noted.
As a former athlete, Thompson admitted being competitive, so she took up any opportunities that came her way to make sure she got the job she wanted.
"Towards the end of my career in legal aid, I realised that I wanted to move out of debt management into HR, so I had to fund a qualification for myself in that field," Thompson said, noting that career investments pay dividends later.
Now you see me
For Thompson, visibility has been vital to secure her progression in the civil service. "After the Legal Aid Board, I went to the Treasury and volunteered to coach cross-government race networks, and that was critical because it helped me to stand out," she explained.
Thompson argued that thinking about your contribution, not just for the department you work for but the whole civil service, is key to improving your visibility. She advised delegates to think about how they can answer a question in their organisations that will help them to be more visible, bringing some of their skills to bear in a different setting.
For Thompson, visibility and networking go hand in hand. "I've valued the opportunities that I've had to move across the civil service, and my network across government departments is quite wide now," she said before revealing her best-kept networking secret.
"When I come across a knotty issue that I don't know the answer to, there is always a friend I could call in another department or outside of the civil service," said Thompson. "So, as you progress, try to network but not in a wishy-washy manner. Network with intent, and do it sideways, upwards and downwards."
Above all, believing in herself has helped Thompson's progression in the civil service. "I do believe in my abilities, and I focus on honing my skills," she said. "I'm my cheerleader, so before you give me critical feedback, I would have given it to myself," she added.
'Don't stop believing'
A different journey, but equally inspiring, is the SCS career of Nicola Hamilton. Speaking at the Unlocking the Senior Civil Service 2020 event, she told us that she worked as a medical microbiologist researcher before joining the Inland Revenue in 2002. Following a career in compliance, in 2017 Hamilton was appointed Deputy Director for Large Business North East, part of the Customer Compliance Group (CCG) within HMRC.
The post in the civil service was a better fit for her than short-term contracts and the hospital environment. Hamilton took up a leadership role in the CCG's C19 Bronze Team, which was set up in response to the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020. Fast-forward 12 months and Hamilton became Programme Director for CCG's Workforce Business Readiness.
Hamilton reflected on her upbringing, growing up in the 80s. "I'm from a typical northeast family: a stay-at-home mom, dad is the breadwinner, and children have free meals at school,” she explained. “Money was tight, and opportunities sometimes felt hard to come by," she added.
For Hamilton, the less-than-privileged background, coupled with her strong regional accent, prompted questions of self-worth. "Overcoming that feeling and building confidence has been an important step in my career progression, and certainly in my move to SCS," she said.
Reflecting on the moments of doubt, Hamilton recognised that they didn't automatically stop when she reached the SCS. "The key is to understand that your background doesn't always have to be a barrier," she said. "If I ever had to put a song title to this [stage], I'd say Don't stop believing," she enthused.
Hamilton said that applying for the job at HMRC was very much a leap of faith. "It felt like going into the unknown. I was thinking, 'Oh gosh, am I good enough? Can I do it? But that leap of faith was one of the best career decisions that I've ever made. It has moved my life in very different directions."
She argued the notion of taking the risk knowing your options, feeling fear, but doing it anyway has been a learning point that stuck with her. "This is more so true at SCS level 1 when the responsibilities sometimes feel a little bit overwhelming. But, if you do take the step forward, it's quite amazing what you can achieve," she explained.
As well as seeking support from coaches and mentors, Hamilton built her SCS career by making the most of being based at Benton Park View, the government campus in Newcastle. "It's been a chance to meet and work with different people, not just from the HMRC," she said.
Reflecting on her career ahead, Hamilton said that finding her voice in the SCS continues to be a learning curve. "I think that I've got plenty of it today, and that's part of observing others around the table and feeling able to deliver messages that I don't necessarily personally agree with, but corporately I would deliver. It's about taking the opportunity to refine, learn and grow as a leader — and that journey never stops," she concluded.
Unlocking the Senior Civil Service returns on 3 March. Join us online, and you will hear from inspirational leaders examine the barriers and enablers in the move to the SCS. You will also gain a better understanding of the skills, qualities, and competencies required in a leadership role.
Attend the event to hear from recent entrants about moving into the SCS and what life is like for them now.
The Unlocking the Senior Civil Service event is also a great place to network with peers from across government who are considering an SCS career.
Just some sessions you don't want to miss:
- Opening address by Bernadette Kelly, Permanent Secretary, Department for Transport and Civil Service; Social Mobility Champion
- Personal perspectives — my route into the SCS: Sadeea Magee, HR deputy director – Reward, ER and Change, Home Office; Catherine McMeeken, deputy director of Leadership, Culture and Wellbeing for Health and Social Care, Scottish Government; and Dr Nicky Guy, deputy director – Culture, Welsh Government
- Making the most of your Application and Interview Performance
Visit the event website to explore the agenda and book your place today!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Murielle Gonzalez, content strategy manager at Dods Diversity & Inclusion, is an experienced journalist and editor. She can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org.
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