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Charles Roxburgh, Director General of Financial Services at Her Majesty’s Treasury

He advises ministers, but for Charles Roxburgh leadership is very much a team sport and one where you never stop learning.

UK Treasury Budget

Charles Roxburgh
Charles Roxburgh

I have to be both a leader and a doer. Within the Treasury, it’s my job to give advice to the Chancellor and the other Ministers. To do this effectively, I have to be able both to give good advice myself but more importantly to motivate, challenge and encourage my colleagues to produce clear, well reasoned advice to Ministers. I can only be a good leader of policymakers, if I am also seen as a competent policy maker myself.

Letting others get on with the content can be hard, but is essential. If one is a policy wonk at heart – which I am – it is extremely hard not to want to do everything yourself. But you can’t. There’s just too much of it. And it is much better to let others learn and grow by taking on as much responsibility as they can, as soon as they can. However, sometimes one has to intervene to get a project or policy issue back on track. Knowing when to get really absorbed in an issue and when to step back is always a challenge.

Contrary to what people think, the public sector isn’t slower than the private sector. In my experience, especially in HM Treasury, the pace is dramatically faster than the private sector. We work to much shorter deadlines; we have a much faster cycle time on decisions; and we have to react much more quickly to events. That’s part of the excitement for me, but it’s not the popular image of the public sector.

I can’t tell colleagues what to do. The official side of the Treasury (i.e. the career civil servants) is an extraordinarily non-hierarchical organisation. As officials, our job is to provide advice to Ministers, but once the decision is taken, our job as civil servants is to implement that decision. So there’s a very clear hierarchy there. But amongst HMT officials, it is very non-hierarchical – what matters for any particular piece of work is who has the expertise, not who is the most senior. That requires a leadership style that works through influence, credibility and earning respect, rather than formal command and control.

I am still learning about leadership. One of the best things about a long career is you never stop learning. If you feel otherwise, I would suggest it’s time do something else. In my case, I have found that I’ve felt the need to renew myself in some way every three to four years. Luckily for me, I was able to do this without changing firms during the 26 years I spent at McKinsey. I encourage colleagues to look actively for opportunities to renew themselves and develop new skills by such taking on a different leadership role, moving to a new area or in a global organisation, moving to a new location. These moves may feel a bit risky at the time, but over the long-term they reduce career risk as they help you build new skills and broaden your experience.

Climbing the career ladder should be a marathon not a sprint. I’ve seen a lot of junior colleagues make themselves unhappy by focusing on trying to progress faster than their peer groups. If one of their colleagues gets promoted before them, they get terribly upset and they try to work out what they are going to do so they get promoted as fast as possible. But it is typically not a formula for success to try and sprint up the career ladder. Getting promoted too soon is risky because you can “crash and burn” if you don’t have the right skills for the next level. Obviously be ambitious and look to progress, but realise that by growing your capability, skills and professional networks with a view to the longer-term future rather than the short-term, then promotion and advancement will come at the right time.

Don’t assume that when you are promoted, you can do the job on your own. This is another typical trait I see among young leaders. They think: “Now that I’ve made it to junior partner (or whatever), I can get rid of those senior partners who have been clogging my day and I can get on and do it by myself”. It’s a dangerous mistake – one I made myself – because it typically leads to some setback.

Leadership is a team sport. The more senior you get, the more you realise any serious and important job is too hard to do on your own.