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Fighting the good fight in the public sector

Warwickshire Council's Sue Evans has had a career full of challenges. She explains how she's learnt from them

When someone tells you they were once handed a ‘broomstick pass’ instead of a car pass, a certain impression starts to form. But with Sue Evans, it’s hard to believe that this anecdote (from her time as head of HR and OD at the Fire and Rescue Services) relates to her.

When HR magazine meets the now head of HR and organisational development at Warwickshire County Council, and president of the Public Sector People Management Association (PPMA), she’s just helped a colleague she found crying in the stairwell. “I said ‘call me a nosey old bag if you like, but don’t sit there and cry. Come and sit in my office; I’ll find you a nice quiet space’,” Evans recounts as she leads the way through the council’s airy, inspirational quote-festooned offices.

“I got her a cup of tea. She sat and had a sob. She said: ‘It’s not work, it’s life’. I said: ‘They tend to be a bit intermixed. If you want somebody to talk to, you only have to say and we’ll find someone. And if you need to go home, you need to go.’”

It’s hard to reconcile this impression of Evans with someone who was once dubbed ‘the white witch’ of the Fire and Rescue Services. The vibe in Evans’ office – with its dangling straw hearts and floral placemats – is much more interior decor Pinterest account than local council, or witch’s lair.

But despite her warm demeanour Evans is not one to shy away from confrontation or challenge. And her time at the Fire and Rescue Services is a prime example.

When she arrived in 2003 she found divisions “run like fiefdoms”. “I met the chief and he said ‘this stuff you’re doing is a waste of time’. He said ‘put me in a room with 20 people and I’ll tell you the ones that’ll make it’. I went to his management team meeting the next morning and all these guys were just like him: carbon copies,” she recalls.

Not only were “processes for progression absolutely skewed against women, or anyone who didn’t quite fit the mould of white middle-class male”, so too was selection for entry-level positions, which had a ludicrously tough fitness test – a comic contrast to the “beer guts” and cigarette habits of those higher up.

So Evans was unsurprisingly none too popular when she insisted on using assessment centres. “They didn’t like me at all… It was really hard; they just didn’t want to change. That’s been my toughest job,” she admits.

Not that other aspects of Evans’ career have been challenge-free. After a year of teaching (she decided staying in education was too “narrow” [an] existence), Evans properly started her working life dragging logs around muddy fields at Sandhurst.

It was this experience that first ignited her passion for diversity and inclusion. “Between me signing on and the date of my joining the army it had been decided they were going to send women to Sandhurst. So I found myself among a cohort of the first women ever to darken the doors of this hallowed bastion of male pride,” she explains. “They weren’t really happy to have us there. There were 650 male cadets, and I think 40 of us [women] started – only 30 finished.”

“They didn’t have uniform to fit us, they didn’t have boots; it was men’s uniform,” she continues, explaining that the (at times hostile) reception occasionally involved ‘initiation’ practical jokes – japes that weren’t played on the men.

Evans is encouraged the army has cleaned up its act now. And diversity issues or no, Sandhurst was an experience so formative that Evans would repeat it in a flash. It was here she found her passion for HR – and in many ways found herself.

“It was quite a humbling experience; you suddenly realise just how much there is that other people know that you don’t,” she says. “It taught me how much you can get out of yourself when the chips are down. And also how much you need to rely on your colleagues. I learnt an awful lot about team working and personal leadership.”

The approach Evans learned characterises her leadership style today, and informs her leadership training strategy. “As I was a graduate and had been working I got ‘back-dated seniority’,” she explains. “I was commissioned on a Friday as a second lieutenant, got promoted to lieutenant on Saturday, and promoted to captain on Sunday. Normally if you’re wearing captain’s rank you’ve done six years; I’d been in the army eight months.”

She adds: “It made me realise you need to find out where the experience and strengths are [in the team] and capitalise on that.”

Capitalising on strengths, rather than weakness-spotting, is a key aspect of Warwickshire’s Personal Leadership programme. “We’re pulling back from giving people management qualifications because we were spending quite a lot of money on very few people. Individuals were able to build their CV, which was good. However, we needed to reach a lot more staff,” Evans says.

The council has launched a new three-day programme, starting with the leadership team and then rolling out to strategic directors and the board, rather than the other way round. “We wanted to hit critical mass; the leadership team have a fundamental role in getting stuff done,” explains Evans. “We wanted to get some kind of feel for how it is going to land.” Now, she says, the strategic directors are actively asking for it.

Perhaps reflecting Evans’ own career experiences, the programme includes “an awful lot of personal challenge”. “It challenges you to think how well you use your skills, how you impact others,” she says. “It’s quite searching, quite emotional. People have come back and said it’s been life changing.”

She adds: “It’s a values-based way of working; it’s not about leadership theory but who you are and what you do. In the past we’ve tended to think ‘where are your gaps?’ But this is positive psychology.” (She gives the closer to home example of improving her son’s maths by boosting his confidence with extra English tuition, a subject he was already good at.)

Positivity could be expected to be in short supply at a local council, given the seemingly endless waves of cuts over recent years. But in fact it has characterised Warwickshire’s approach. “Instead of saying ‘we haven’t got this or that’, it was ‘this is what we’ve got, how do we use it best?’” she says. “We stripped out all of our council aims and objectives and narrowed them down to just three.”

Communication is critical, with senior leaders doing regular roadshows. “People can ask whatever they like and I think that’s really key,” Evans says. “They’ve never shirked a tough question; if they don’t know the answer they’ll say so.”

Although she estimates her department is around half the size as when she arrived in 2012 she has “stuck to [her] guns” to protect it from further downsizing. “I think we [the public sector] have seen too much outsourcing,” she says. “If you take any more from HR the natural result is managers have to do more; and they’re already doing loads.”

“It’s really important to recognise that connection between what happens on the frontline and everybody else. I hate being called ‘back office’. It’s a big passion. We [HR] are support services; when you no longer support something it falls over.”

Public (and indeed private) sector HR professionals need to be much more willing to stick up for themselves, and call out injustice and short-sightedness, feels Evans. “It’s about enough people doing that and keeping that challenge,” she says, adding: “You can do that without falling out with people, but sometimes you just have to hold the line. I think there are people in our profession who are very capable, but when it comes to speaking up they won’t do it. I’m not sure what it is we need to give them to support them to do that.”

Evans believes a crucial support, for those public sector HR professionals this applies to, is the PPMA. The post-Brexit, post-cabinet reshuffle climate is – and has been for some years – a rather confused, “not very pro-public sector” one, she says. And so the PPMA has a crucial role in giving public sector HR a voice on matters such as the upcoming apprenticeship levy for instance, which Evans is, (along with many others) livid about.

She made no bones about telling the prime minister’s former apprenticeship adviser and local MP Nadhim Zahawi so recently. “I invited him and got him in a room with 20 of our apprentices. I said ‘this is what we’re able to do now, we won’t be able to do this in future. I spelled it out to him,’” she says, adding: “I managed to persuade the council to invest £1.5 million in apprenticeships over three years. We’re able to do that because we committed the money but actually the government will take the largest slice of that; I won’t get it back because we’re not a training provider. The levy is going to damage the quality and quantity of apprenticeships for us.”

However, as well as voicing concerns Evans is also approaching her tenure as PPMA president with characteristic positivity. She is determined to get more case studies of public sector HR successes out there, and achieve the recognition it deserves as often being equally, if not more, creative and impactful than private sector HR.

“In the past I think we’ve been a bit too self-effacing, a bit too quiet,” she says. “I’ve just got myself a meeting with Peter Cheese [CIPD chief executive]. I said ‘can I come and talk to you about getting a bit more recognition for the public sector?’ The CIPD is very private sector-focused. But the public sector, particularly in HR, is doing a lot of really good work that goes uncelebrated. So I want to make sure that we’re noticed, that we have a voice, and that we’re able to influence what happens.”

And something tells me – as Evans shows me out, recounting how she went ahead and emblazoned her inspirational quotes on the wall despite facilities management telling her ‘no’– that she’ll do a great job of doing just that.