7 tips for successful in-house leaders in the public sector during COVID-19

Sarah Watt
Sarah WattNHS Wales

COVID-19 has brought both challenges and opportunities for in-house leaders in the public sector. Sarah Watt, senior solicitor and team leader at NWSSP Legal & Risk, the in-house legal team of NHS Wales, offers her top tips for successful leadership during the pandemic.

At the time of my last article for Inside Out in June, we were in the midst of the pandemic. We were responding to urgent requests for advice from our clients in NHS Wales, putting support structures in place for colleagues and teams and ensuring we all remained calm, in control and did not become overwhelmed, personally and organisationally. 

The landscape is very different in this 'new normal', but that brings many new challenges – and unique opportunities – for leaders in the public sector. The skills needed to succeed now are no different to before the pandemic, but their ranking in terms of importance has changed.

1. Be visible

Many of us have lost the softer support structures in our previous working lives. The catch-up by the coffee machine and the “hello, how are you doing?” chats on the way to our desks seem distant memories. This has put at risk what makes our organisations individual, special and personal.

Unless leaders fill these gaps, pull everyone together and lead with heart and compassion, this is in danger of being lost for good. You cannot be an effective leader if you are not seen by those you lead as being present, accessible and part of the team.

Attend as many meetings as you can, put your video on. Seeing someone’s face is important and you must lead by example. Raise your profile within and outside of your organisation. Remember: out of sight, out of mind.

2. Prioritise relationships

Good relationships are critical to the success of your organisation, and your own wellbeing and happiness.

Remote working is here to stay and many of the face-to-face social interactions which slowly built, established and developed relationships, have disappeared. Invest the time you may be saving from your daily commute in building and maintaining relationships. 

It is the little touches that make the difference. Ring someone and ask how they and their family are doing, rather than sending an email. Getting through the last few months together has created strong bonds across many public sector organisations. How do you make sure new colleagues feel part of these close teams?

Be imaginative and find new ways for you and others to get to know, and embed, those joining your organisation at this time. Giving someone your time sends a very clear message that they are valued and respected. 

3. Be innovative and inclusive

Who would have believed how quickly the public sector would adapt, processes streamlined and major decisions taken, before the pandemic?

Take advantage of the current momentum and consider what other changes could/should be introduced now to improve efficiency, quality of service and staff wellbeing.

Embed any changes you’ve already made which you want to be permanent. Encourage everyone you lead to ask themselves the same questions.

4. Challenge yourself and others

Some leaders will struggle in adapting to these changing times. Ask yourself if there are areas you could be performing better in. If so, seek help and training to give you the necessary skills and share this with colleagues.

If you have gaps in your skills and knowledge, others will have too, and the more opportunities to meet up remotely, the better. 

The impact of individual leaders on staff morale, welfare and organisational culture can potentially be far greater in a remote working environment. If you are concerned another leader is struggling with leading in this climate, speak up and try to help them.

5. Be bold

Think beyond your organisation. What are the new and emerging synergies between your organisation and your partner, and potential, partner public and third sector bodies?

What new ways can you support and learn from each other? What resources can you share and what responsibilities can you deliver together? Lead by example, reach out and find out where you can collaborate. 

6. Be resilient

Most public sector organisations are changing at a pace not previously seen before. Overly hierarchical structures are being streamlined, colleagues burnt out by the pandemic response are leaving and organisational priorities and relationships are changing.

Some changes may challenge your sense of security, confidence and being valued. Whilst self-reflection is always good, self-doubt is not.

Remember all you have achieved, remind yourself of your personal values and goals, adapt and stride forward, taking with you what you have learned from the process.

7. Be kind to yourself

The COVID-19 infection rate is rising, and winter is nearly here. In Wales, we are into a second national lockdown and, I, like many, have not met anyone I work with in person for over six months. Everyone is under pressure and at times finds it hard to cope.

Do not be afraid to ask for help yourself and take a break to recharge, even if you cannot get away anywhere. Empower others to lead and share the responsibilities. This is a great opportunity for aspiring leaders to step up.

If working from home, make your workspace as comfortable as possible (I find a perfumed candle makes a big difference), let your pets join you, and buy good coffee!