Our Leadership Development Programmes often generate much discussion around the difference between how men and women lead; do women need to take on more qualities traditionally associated with male leadership and how to break through the “glass ceiling” or not fall off the “glass cliff” are just a few of the topics. We decided to turn to some of the brilliantly talented women leaders we know and ask them to give their perspective on the challenges facing ‘Women in Leadership.” In the first of a series of blogs, Debbie Simpson, talks about her approach to leadership that took her from a young police cadet to the Chief Constable of Dorset Police.
When I was asked to pen some thoughts about my time as a woman who has held a senior leadership position my immediate thought was how to share something of my experience which allows people to take something from it, whilst remaining personal to my journey; so, I’ve decided to write about one aspect of leadership I refer to as “knowing yourself”.
My career started in Bedfordshire back in 1983 as a police cadet. It ended when I retired this April as Chief Constable of Dorset Police, nearly 35 years later, having been responsible for leading and caring about a workforce of 2,200 people who delivered services to the communities it served. When I retired there were only five other female Chief Constables.
When I started out in my career I had no great ambition to lead a force. In fact, for the first 5 years I did my best to fit in and just be “one of the team”. You will notice I said one of the team, not “boys”, as even though it was, and to a degree still is, male dominated (now about 30% of officers are women) I really did not feel any pressure in having to fit in by losing ‘me’. Did I feel pressurised in changing in any other way? Perhaps, not really by individuals, but by the organisation. When I joined, women officers were not allowed to wear trousers unless on night duty, our protective equipment was not the same as our male colleagues and as Cressida Dick (Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police) says, you could not be a dog handler unless you had a wife!
This organisational culture made women fight to have the same opportunities and equipment as our male colleagues. Not wanting to be seen as different, in reality meant ‘not wanting to be treated less favourably’ and so there was a tendency to suppress some of our female qualities: I did not want to be the sympathetic female officer left to look after children, so I did not do anything that could have led to me being stereotyped. Yet, I now know one of my stronger leadership skills is my emotional intelligence, the ability to read people and find a way to connect. So, counter-intuitively I worked against one of my strengths in a bid to perhaps conform to the majority. We live and learn because over the last 10-15 years as a senior and latterly Chief Officer I have specifically looked for the “difference” people bring to a team not the “sameness”. I believe this has built some strong teams around me. So, to women who feel they compromise themselves to get on I would say two possibly contradicting things: flexibility, negotiating and creativity are skills that women have in abundance and I have found if you can use them to fight the bigger battles you face, it can pay dividends in the longer term but equally you need to know yourself and be authentic.
One of my greatest achievements was to support my organisation to move from competency-based promotion/selection processes to a values-based one. My HR colleagues were nervous as it seemed harder to assess but I persisted. For many years I have been involved in senior selection for policing in the UK, overseeing the process nationally and I have found women are better at knowing themselves, although sometimes they have a tendency to be rather guarded in describing their strengths and abilities. What I mean by knowing yourself is – I know what really offends some of my core values and I know that if I was to take on a role that offended those values I would be unable to cope, or I would be miserable unless I had the ability to change what was offending me – and sometimes you can’t. At those times it’s worth letting a role or position go rather than taking it and having to work against yourself. I did this on at least two occasions, one of which was my dream job! There is a real skill, I think, in knowing an opportunity when you see it (and how many women rule themselves out if it – because “I’m not 110% ready” – rubbish – have a go!) and knowing which opportunities you need to let go.
Knowing what you can live with is a key issue when considering senior roles as there is often a need to compromise, within the board room, with stakeholders or partners. I found my female colleagues were usually more vocally honest about their challenges and development areas than my male counterparts. Values based competency assessments done well attract the right people to the role and women tend to perform more comfortably than if just asked about their technical competency areas, which they tend to play down. Somehow there is a more honest relationship between applicant and role and you as an employer when you understand where values align, support, or challenge what needs to be achieved. You can spot where the differences may prove problematic. Technical competence to lead is just not enough, in my view, there needs to be more.
An example of this in action is as a Chief Constable working alongside an elected PCC (Police Crime Commissioner). The PCC may have been elected on a particular mandate which means they want a police force to do something specific; I saw colleagues really struggling especially if that direction differed from their own view of where the force needed to be. If you are confident in yourself, know your bottom line, (not offending core values) being open, clearly explaining your rationale, will mean a relationship can be maintained and each party can respect differing positions and points of view, even if they do not agree. Saying ‘no’ without listening, over explaining and not working to find a solution is, I think, lazy leadership. I’m not ashamed to say uncomfortable or difficult conversations never became easy for me, it does not matter how senior you are they still provide a challenge. However, my experience is that women tackle the difficult issues more readily than male colleagues at all levels and I often wondered whether that came from a position of being in a minority and being aware of what needs to be said and done even when people do not necessarily want to hear it. Women also seemed prepared to find a solution or compromise and did not see it as losing.
In essence the variety of experiences we have because of difference, in my case being female, provided solid foundations for building transformational skills for the future and as a leader, the key is identifying what they are, and amplifying the positive. Never forgetting your role as a leader in supporting others to develop and reach their potential!
Debbie Simpson QPM
As Chief Constable she was also the South West regional Chief Constable lead for serious and organised crime. Nationally she was the lead for police forensics, leading a transformational approach to deliver new technologies across all forces and law enforcement agencies. She led the UKDVI (disaster victim identification) team and coordinated deployments alongside forces and when necessary the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. She was co-director for the police national assessment centres from 2014 and in 2017 and 2018 she was Director of policing’s Strategic Command Course, the flagship course for development and learning of future leaders of policing. In 2014 Debbie was awarded the Queen’s Police Medal for services to policing.
Debbie is a Mum of two teenage daughters and wife of a serving police officer whose fantastic and unwavering support (taking 5 years off work to look after their daughters and then being the one always there for her and the girls) enabled her to be the best she could, even if she can’t cook and doesn’t understand why her family find The Big Bang Theory funny.
Many thanks to Debbie for her contribution to the discussion surrounding ‘Women in Leadership.” Look out for future blogs where we will be sharing the thoughts and experiences of other successful and inspiring women leaders.