Know how to take on a national role

Commenting on Jacqui Smith’s tenure as home secretary, Digby Jones, former director general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and minister of state for trade and investment, said: “With no training or experience, she had taken up the reins of the third great office of state and found herself in a system that is, to use her own words, ‘frankly, pretty dysfunctional in the way that it works’. Expecting her to deliver in the post of home secretary without a scintilla of experience or training was not only unfair on her but damaging to us all.”

Jones’ comments highlight the lack of training available for jobs with national responsibilities. This is particularly acute when someone is moving from a local to national remit. Making the leap from local or regional to national leadership can be daunting. There is no guidebook. Mistakes are often public, with UK-wide or high-profile consequences.

No two routes to national leadership are the same, whether in the public, private or voluntary sector, and it is up to the individual leader to make it successful. These are the leaders who will influence the direction taken by their organisations and, in the process, shape the society we live in.

Expert’s view: Marie Mohan, 20:20 director, Common Purpose

What are the biggest challenges?

There is no specific route to national leadership positions and there isn’t a standard set of conditions that can neatly be understood and planned for. The central challenge of moving to a national role is that, after successfully rising up the ranks of an organisation, industry or regional power structure, a leader finds that they haven’t “arrived”. There is a whole range of new challenges that they have to overcome, a new set of rules that they weren’t expecting.

What should you avoid doing?

  • Don’t assume that because you’ve got to a national leadership role that you have all the answers.
  • Make sure you don’t lose vital thinking space.
  • Don’t lose your personal values – your sense of integrity and self-belief.

Top tips

  • People make things happen and national leaders need a wide range of people who they can call on. Checking who is with you, and crucially, who is not, can be a critical investment in getting to the outcome that produces lasting change.
  • Take time to stand back from the day-to-day and consider the long-term. This will reduce the risk of you getting derailed by the unexpected.
  • Work on constantly expanding your horizons. This will help develop your strategic thinking and help you generate new ideas that will take your organisation forward.
Navigating the new waters of national leadership, a report by international not-for-profit leadership development organisation Common Purpose, found many senior leaders fear that they aren’t up to the task at some point. The report found that there are common barriers to this shift; the blind spots and insecurities of moving into a different ‘circle’ and not knowing the ‘right language’ or ‘customs’ needed to get things done.

These barriers are often hidden, unclear and unexpected. No leader who is new to or about to take on a national role, no matter how seasoned or skilled, can afford not to contemplate their new landscape and consider how to equip themselves with the knowledge and insights that will help them make a step change to operate at the most senior level.

According to Jon Williams, world news editor at the BBC: “In terms of the pitfalls, it seems to me the real danger is thinking you’ve made it simply by getting there, that because you’ve got to a leadership role, you must have all the answers. Actually, the truth is quite the reverse. That’s the time to be the human sponge, mop up the insights and intelligence. Sure, have the vision, but use the experiences of others to map the route rather than expecting everyone to find their own way. The platform becomes a virtuous circle, networks open up, you’re exposed to fresh ideas from other sectors. Each reinforces the last, that’s the real privilege of the national leadership role.”

Tim Melville Ross, chairman of real estate group DTZ, says: “Be very clear about what it is your organisation or department is trying to achieve. Surround yourself with the best people you can find to help you achieve that, and then communicate ceaselessly with everybody, both internally and externally, who might be able to influence the outcome.”

Confidence is key, as is accepting that this is really just another promotion – take it in your stride.

If you only do 5 things:

  1. Be confident
  2. Get a mentor
  3. Be open to change your working style
  4. Don’t reinvent the wheel
  5. Ask for advice when necessary.

Further information

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