Thoughts on leadership - Ken Thomson

The Director General for Constitution and External Affairs at the Scottish Government offers his thoughts on leadership.

Ken Thomson, Director General for Constitution and External Affairs at the Scottish Government, is an integral part of the team delivering the Civil Service Leadership Academy. This month he shared his thoughts on leadership and how the Academy can make a vital difference to the future of the Civil Service.

Why do you think we need a Leadership Academy within the Civil Service?

Because we can always improve as leaders, to provide better support to Ministers, a better service to citizens, and a better experience for those we lead.

There’s huge potential for the Leadership Academy to make a difference by focusing on key transition points and the particular challenges of leading and working in the Civil Service, and on what we can learn from each other.

The Leadership Academy will develop people’s skills and capabilities, but also provide opportunities for people to step away from the day job and to reflect, as well as to practise.

And how would you encourage leaders that investing in the Leadership Academy is time well spent?

Investing in our development matters for everyone. The busier and more demanding our roles, the more potential there is for us to benefit from investing in our skills and our leadership.

Reflecting further, Ken shared some of his own insights from his leadership journey in the Civil Service.

I joined the Civil Service, a long time ago, because I wanted to help tackle complex problems. I got a lot of those, but I also got the chance to lead teams, and then teams of teams. I learned a huge amount, both on the job and by studying for an MBA in mid-career. The longer I lead, the more I see that it is about people, and how we think, what we feel, and what we do.

When I joined the Civil Service, I was asked whether I wanted to be a policy analyst or a manager. Leadership wasn’t part of the vocabulary! I said “policy analyst”, but soon discovered that you can’t divorce the policy content from leading the people doing the work. If I was going to solve problems, I needed to be able to manage people as well.

And every day brings a new challenge! The greatest and most rewarding challenge is to help others achieve what they want to achieve, in delivery, leading their own teams, and in terms of their own development and fulfilment.

Who is the most inspiring leader you’ve met? Why?

I’ve learned from and been inspired by every leader I’ve worked with, including Ministers. It was a special privilege to work closely with Donald Dewar, as both Secretary of State for Scotland and as First Minister, when I was his Principal Private Secretary.

What does brilliant leadership look like to you?

Helping people to achieve more than they thought was possible.

And finally, what advice you would give to fellow leaders?

Be really open about yourself, and to what you can learn from others. Leadership starts with how well you know yourself, and how good a relationship we have with ourselves. It’s never too early to work on that.” And, the Civil Service Leadership Academy is delivering some opportunities for just that, for the SCS initially. These immersive experiences give participants the safe space and peer support to reflect and identify the what and how of ‘providing better support to Ministers, a better service to citizens, and a better experience for those we lead’.

Published 27 September 2017