Susie Timlin is COO at UK Government Investments (UKGI), and was Global Director of People and Culture at Hays Talent Solutions. Here, she shares her advice on how to optimise organisational structure for agility and how the board can successfully lead transformation programmes.
Are there any defining moments that spring to mind that contributed to where you are today?
- Realising that just because I was good at something didn’t mean I loved it. If you don’t feel like you can give it 100% then maybe it is time to step aside and explore opportunities elsewhere, not just for your own benefit but for the organisation too.
- Someone telling me that “if you put your mind to it, you can do most jobs”. Particularly as women we can tend to restrict ourselves to roles we’ve done before, so I’ve actively tried to take on different roles.
Are there any key differences or challenges you’ve faced working in both public and private sector roles?
One of the differences I’ve noticed in moving from the private sector to that of government is that there are noticeably more processes to go through here, which can make it harder to get quick decisions and move quickly. Instead, you spend more time building up consensus — that is necessitated by the great interconnectedness of everything whereby you pull one lever and things are impacted which you maybe wouldn’t have expected. Another difference has been in cost constraints, which mean that we ask people to come and work with us because of the purpose and their passion for the work and not purely financial reward. We do need to make sure that that balance doesn’t go too far in one direction to the extent that it impairs our ability to attract and retain the best talent.
We have a lot of people in our team who came from the world of big investment banks and law firms where they found lots of pointy elbows and cutthroat competition. You can’t operate like that at UKGI and be successful, as we have a really collaborative culture and organisational structure. Consequently, I think it’s a much nicer place to work as you are surrounded by colleagues who are helpful and supportive.
How is your organisation structured to ensure that it remains nimble and agile?
The work we undertake is incredibly varied. In our Governance role we have Shareholder NEDs and teams working with over 20 government-owned bodies such as the UK Infrastructure Bank, the Nuclear Decomissioning Authority and Post Office Ltd. Our Corporate Finance recent work has included having a team of people working on the vaccines task force and supporting companies through the pandemic and energy crisis. Because of this breadth of work, it’s crucial that we are agile in the way we work as we often have to move people around to the latest issue or project.
To do this, we have a broadly skilled staff with their own specific skills. We deploy each staff member on three or four projects at a time, enabling them to bring their own expertise to bear and complement the expertise of their colleagues. This means that if something urgent comes up that has to be dealt with rapidly we can put together a team very quickly whilst ensuring that none of their other projects is compromised. The multi-disciplined teams also lead to cross-fertilisation of knowledge and skills and therefore great individual development opportunities.
How can the board be supportive of transformation programmes?
- Drive it from the beginning.
- Focus on purpose and strategy and avoid process taking over from purpose.
- Ensure the executive leadership are 100% aligned on the transformation as any dissenters will quickly derail you.
- Explore if the executive team has the necessary skills to lead a transformation project – even top performers may not.
- Examine what accountability is in place and how the transformation will be measured and reviewed. Transformation programmes are marathons, not sprints — and the board has a role to play in ensuring that it doesn’t just run off the track.
Are there any golden rules that you follow in ExCo or the boardroom?
- Whatever the topic of discussion, its impact on people will almost always be a critical consideration. It’s extremely easy for conversations to get bogged down in questions of process or cost but I think that if you get the people piece right, then the rest follows.
- I always try to keep an open mind to new information and arguments, and I’m more than happy to change my mind if the facts and arguments presented to me are convincing — it’s vital to avoid falling into entrenched viewpoints. My younger years were spent having a firm view on everything in life, but as I got older I realised that it’s more important for the end result that you keep your mind open to the views of others and take them on board.