Gill Rider, head of civil service human resources

Are you suggesting that people might think I’m pink and fluffy?” Gill Rider asks me, somewhat testily, in response to a question on HR credibility in the Civil Service.

The Cabinet Office’s HR chief may be physically small in stature, but she certainly knows how to stick up for herself and her gender. You would expect nothing less of someone who has spent much of her career talking to boardroom dinosaurs about ‘inclusive’ behaviour. “I’m not pink and fluffy. I’m a hard-nosed businesswoman,” she says. “I think HR is the toughest place to be [in an organisation] because you are dealing with a lot of intangibles.”

Increasing professionalism

Jobs don’t come much more challenging than Rider’s. As director-general of leadership and people strategy, she heads up civil service HR and is tasked with, among other things, increasing professionalism across the function.

To meet the challenges, her offices could not – symbolically at least – be better placed. She operates from rooms atop Admiralty Arch – giving, theoretically at least, a bird’s eye view across Whitehall.

We meet on the day of her first anniversary in the job. Rider, 53, says her first year has been a mixture of both “the expected and unexpected”. She previously had a job with the same scope at consultancy Accenture, but the numbers in this role are daunting. She now oversees about 550,000 civil servants working in government departments and their agencies.

“The thing that has surprised me most is there is a scale and complexity here that the private sector has no idea about,” she says. “The complexity of all the things government handles and the relationship with ministers is something more ambiguous and difficult than you get in the private sector.”

Rider’s appointment last year was met by some raised eyebrows along Whitehall’s darkened corridors. It was the first time her role had been taken by an ‘outsider’, someone who had not been a career civil servant. Rider insists this has not unduly helped or hindered her, but admits her first six months were “quite difficult”.

“When you go into any different organisational culture, you have to do two things. You have to listen a lot because you can’t assume that what you know from previous organisations is relevant,” she says. “I’ve been brought in because of my external experience, so you also have to hang on to that and use it – in the nicest possible way – to challenge the way things have been done.”

Positive relationship

Jonathan Baume, general secretary of senior civil servants’ union the FDA, says relationships with Rider over the past year have been “positive”, and that she has been keen to strike up a dialogue. This is a good thing, he says, as the public sector can sometimes be an “alien landscape” to those with only private experience.

Rider’s leap across sectors is just one example of a spate of high-profile HR professionals who have been attracted to the challenge of working in the public sector. These include Bev Shears joining the Ministry of Justice and Clare Chapman moving to the Department of Health.

Rider sees this as no bad thing. “I think we need the right mix of people who really know the Civil Service, and those that can look at it with a fresh pair of eyes,” she says. “Clare is a brilliant appointment because she is a very well-respected HR director who absolutely understands about customer service in large-scale organisations. Now she is working in a very complex organisation and bringing those skills to bear.”

Rider bats away questions about the frustrations of working in such a monolithic organisation and the pace with which change occurs. “People always ask me those questions. My friends tell me the word I use all the time is ‘challenging’,” she says. “Change does take longer but I don’t think that’s frustrating it’s just reality.”

Boosting leadership

One strand of the change she is responsible for is boosting leadership. But how do you get more and better leadership? It’s not an easy question to answer – when you search for books on the subject on the Amazon website, you are confronted by more than 22,000 results.

Rider says: “My belief is that leadership is personal. A good leader is someone who is authentic and true to themselves.” Rider says she draws heavily on the theories of US guru Noel Tichy, that leaders should be teachers. “If you wake up in the morning and have yourself in the mode of ‘teacher’ rather than ‘teller’ or ‘director’, your organisation will perform much better,” she says.

The second strand of her work is to ensure the HR function within government is fit for purpose. However, that doesn’t mean – at least for the moment – that people must hold a qualification from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). “I don’t think it matters as long as we have the right balance of specialist skills and people with business understanding,” says Rider, who is not CIPD-qualified.

Rider’s vision of HR in the Civil Service is that it ought to be the place to gain experience. “This is an organisation employing more than half a million people. We have every sort of challenge and opportunity imaginable,” she says. “Why would a UK HR professional want to be anywhere else?”

The size of Rider’s challenge has been laid bare in the 15 departmental capability reviews published over the past 12 months. The reviews see an external team assess capability in areas such as leadership, strategy and delivery.

HR, people management and skills gaps emerged as common problem areas, but Rider says the issues are being addressed. “The reviews pointed out very clearly the need to strengthen our leadership capability and the need to improve our people management. These are very powerful things that are on both HR’s and the organisation’s agenda,” she says.

Following the first tranche of reviews last summer, there were reports of government HR directors being axed and moved aside. Rider admits there was a reshuffle, but is adamant there was no scapegoating of individual directors.

“We had people who were ready to move, and places where we wanted additional skills. It was actually a good opportunity to take people who had been successful and move them around,” she insists.

Directors’ council

Rider is a big fan of the reviews, and not just because they were the brainchild of her boss, cabinet secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell. But reading the Cabinet Office’s own capability review was “really hard”, she says. “The excellence of the process is that it really challenges you. Somebody coming in from the outside helps you prioritise. It may not be easy to hear, but it is important that departments listen and respond,” she says.

As part of that process, Rider has formed an HR directors’ council, consisting of 42 members from the main departments and agencies. She thinks the council will be a “very powerful network” in helping to drive improvement across government.

There is a “real energy” among HR directors to do something different, to bring the profession together and share best practice, according to Rider. “I think all of the directors on the council would agree we need to step up to strategic HR. So it’s about absolutely getting the transactional agenda right but delivering beyond that into the business strategy,” she says.

Despite this, change does creep along too slowly for some. One central government HR director told Personnel Today: “Has a lot changed as a result of Rider being around for a year? The answer is no. The focus on the broader HR strategy has been slow.”

Rider says her relationship with O’Donnell is “extremely good”.

“He speaks from the heart about public sector reform and the opportunity we have to make a difference to the lives of people,” she says. “That is an attractive proposition for anybody thinking about what they are getting up to do every morning.”

With such a heavy workload, I ask her about her work-life balance. It turns out that the self-confessed “hard-nosed” businesswoman can be found at weekends in a pair of wellies and scruffy jeans. Rider’s husband is a farmer, and she likes nothing better than spending time in the great outdoors.

Rather than being repelled by the prospect of looking after animals on her days off, and then taming an altogether different kind of beast during the week, Rider says she enjoys her role. “I’m in a place where so much of what I’ve done in my career has led me to here. I’m only a year into something that is very big and very complex, and it would be hard to give that up,” she says.

Gill Rider’s CV

2006: Appointed director-general, leadership and people strategy at the Cabinet Office.

2002: Appointed Accenture’s chief leadership officer to develop the people side of the business, including human capital strategy.

1990: Became a partner and held a variety of management roles across the globe, including the leadership of energy, chemicals and natural resources businesses.

1979: Joined Accenture after completing a PhD in Botany from Southampton University. Spent the next decade consulting to government, financial, health and utilities companies.

Cool Rider – feedback from the profession

Angela O’Connor, chief people officer, National Policing Improvement Agency

“I think Gill is very good news for Whitehall. She has a difficult job on her hands to transform HR but has a great personal style approachable with backbone. She also has experience from different sectors, which will assist her a lot.”

Bev Shears, HR director, Ministry of Justice

“I’m impressed with what Gill is trying to do. She has been working with HR directors to drive change, and my experience is that people are contributing to that agenda. We are seeing a different pace and energy around the Civil Service because there is a healthy mix of experience.”

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