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Lessons in Leadership – An interview with Sir Martin Narey

Martin Narey, former Director General of the Prison Service and first Chief Executive of the National Offender Management Service and CEO of Barnardo’s has spoken at every Wavelength Connect programme since it started over 10 years ago. He is one of the most remarked upon, most highly rated and respected presenters and one of Wavelength SpeakersHub most booked speakers.

In this interview, Martin talks candidly about his childhood, his own leadership challenges, building resilience and offers advice to today’s leaders in the face of change and uncertainty.

You grew up in a large family in Middlesbrough. How did that prepare you for the challenges you faced in your working life?

“Being number eight of nine children certainly didn’t prepare me for leadership! It was no big surprise that my eldest brother went on to become a Head Teacher. But my upbringing is positive evidence that leadership is a learned skill. And working for many different leaders over the years I’ve learned to emulate them.

When I worked for the Home Office I worked for an incredible leader. Every single day at work he managed to be enthusiastic, encouraging – he made me feel as though I could take on anything. He’s a good example of someone that I’ve tried to be like – to help those that work for me have similar feelings, that I’ve got their backs.

Then there was David Hatch at the BBC – who taught me the power of saying thank you to my team. Not in an email but through the power of a handwritten card, posted on a Friday night to individuals who have done a great week’s work. A card of thanks. There’s nothing like it for helping people to feel valued and appreciated – and that leads to better motivation and desire to rise to even greater heights.”

What was the biggest challenge you faced during your time as a leader?

“My biggest challenge was coping with deaths.

Whilst I was at the Prison Service there were nearly 600 suicides. The single most important part of my remit was to reduce deaths and in that I’m afraid to say I failed. It was the consequence of people’s despair – people who felt this was the end of the line and it was devastating.

How did I cope as a leader? Well, not very well at first. I thought that by doing a little more work each day I could get on top of things. I ended up working twelve-hour days. And it was only after a couple of years that I realised this behaviour was just making things worse. I was getting tired and stale and had lost my sparkle. And this was impacting my team, who were taking their lead from my behaviour by also working long hours. I realised I needed time out from work to make me a better leader. I had two lovely kids and I decided that I was going to spend more time being a dad. As a result, things got better. I could cope better, I had more balance.

My staff felt liberated by this change! Again, they followed suit and so it helped achieve a better team of balanced individuals who had energy and zest for getting the job done.

In the civil service everyone gets a generous holiday allowance but there is a trend amongst senior staff to say that they couldn’t possibly take 30 days holiday a year. I did the exact opposite. I told everyone I would be taking my full holiday allowance and that I expected them to do the same.

One of my proudest achievements as a leader was to make it a performance indicator for one of my team to pick his son up from school at least once a week. That aspect of work is changing, albeit slowly. We are now respecting the need for people to have a family life as well as work.

One of the other factors of being a leader that no one tells you about is coping with loneliness. You have to be the one in control, who knows what to do, yet you may be filled with self-doubt. To help my team cope with this I put in place mentors so that everyone has someone they can talk to.”

What advice do you have for new leaders?

“In the early days of leadership, you just have to front it out.”

People in the business will want to watch your every move, every reaction to every situation. You will be scrutinised. And at the same time there will be other things going on in your life that you’re worried about and that occupy your thoughts – this could be family worries, finances, health issues or a hundred other things. But as a leader you must be perky, present and actively interested in the job and other people around you – every single day.

When actor, Dustin Hoffman made his directing debut in 2012 with the film, Quartet, he famously said that it was the greatest acting job he’s ever done. On the other side of the camera he couldn’t have moods or act like a diva. Instead he had to put all his efforts into being consistent, lively and motivational – even when he really wasn’t feeling up for doing that. It’s a similar kind of challenge for leaders.”

You talk a lot about resilience being a core quality of a good leader – can you tell me how you go about developing this?

“Resilience is built by having something outside work that really engages you, that takes you away from the everyday. For me, this was having the discipline to stop taking work home. Once I came through the front door, I was a husband and a dad. I made a conscious effort to use the weekends and holidays in a positive way and for me that meant escaping from London to a beach hut in Whitby several times a month with the family. I was doing lots of media appearances at the time in London and so to go to Whitby made it feel a million miles away from that world.

Having that divide helped me cope, built resilience, made me realise what real life was all about.”

In the face of political uncertainty what advice do you have for leaders trying to steer the ship this year?

“Uncertainty is nothing new. It may be Brexit now but a decade ago it was the banking crisis and before that it was the Trade Unions. My message is don’t be dragged down by it. Yes – there will be change and some of it may not be very positive at first, but life and business will go on and you need to keep the sparkle, keep being perky and positive. You need to keep on being inspirational, keep learning and expanding your network.”

If you could only give three pieces of advice leaders today what would they be?

  1. “Do something you feel is worthwhile. That doesn’t have to be in the charity sector – private sector companies are great contributors to the economy and the quality of life for millions of people. But do something that you believe in.

  2. Don’t take yourself too seriously. There’s always room, even in the darkest hours for humour.

  3. Get on the Wavelength Connect Programme. It is life changing.”

You’ve spoken at the Connect Programme every year since it started over a decade ago. What is the most interesting aspect of the programme for you as a presenter?

“If I could only use one word to describe Connect it would be stimulating. The atmosphere, especially at the start is incredible; there’s a sense of enthusiasm and anticipation, it’s almost febrile.

The pace of the programme is rapid, engaging. For me as a presenter it’s always interesting to see a new generation of leaders. Younger brighter things. One of the best parts of Wavelength is the calibre of the people they take (they don’t accept everyone) and the mix of industries and sectors. It provides new perspectives. Has leadership changed much over the last 10 years? I would say not. There are constant issues in leadership that remain. The constants are about inspiring and influencing and being successfully demanding of staff to get results.”

From your time engaging with UK leadership on the Connect programme, what are the biggest issues they face in 2019?

“People on the Connect programme often send me emails after they see me speak, with questions they don’t want to voice in a public forum. Many of these are about feelings of self-doubt, that they feel out of their depth as leaders and are asking questions about how to become more confident.

One of the issues making people feel inadequate is the amount of literature on leadership – and most of it is terrifying. It centres on dynamism and certainty – and life’s just not like that.

I’ve been relatively successful in my career over the years and yet I’ve spent most of my life feeling I’m out of my depth.

It happens first when people get promoted and find that suddenly they have to manage other people. They are expected to be a leader and have never really thought of themselves in this role. The hardest thing in the world is to work as part of a team – then one day you are promoted to be the manager of your team of co-workers. Overnight the relationship changes and you are forced to act in a new role.

The good news is that you can learn this stuff. I don’t believe that there’s any such thing as a born leader – it’s something you just learn and get better at over time. For anyone that is sceptical – Connect is the programme to help do this and really make a difference to your leadership.”

Wavelength Connect 2020

Wavelength Connect is an inspirational six-month leadership programme. Now in its tenth year, Connect provides participants with the inspiration, knowledge, and mindset needed to lead change and solve core organisational challenges; from service excellence, innovation and disruption, to diversity and inclusion. Learning from a highly experiential curriculum, leaders are given access to some of the world’s most successful and admired companies and accomplished practitioners. Airbnb, Alibaba, LEGO, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, Liverpool Football Club, The Eden Project, and Four Seasons are amongst those featured on recent Connect programmes. Connect is primarily designed for teams and provides participants with the inspiration and knowledge to find solutions and to own and action them.

If you would like to know more about the Connect 2020 programme you can view our brochure here here or email Jessica.


Sir Martin Narey is part of SpeakersHub and one of our most sought after speakers on leadership. To view his full biography to book him to speak at your own event please click here.

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