Clare Cameron: “As a civil servant, you don’t have to agree with all government policy”

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Clare Cameron graduated from University College Durham in 2002, where she studied History, and applied for the Civil Service fast stream in the following year. Two decades and twelve roles later, she holds the position of Director of Innovation for the Ministry of Defence. Palatinate spoke to Cameron about learning from mistakes, becoming a better ally, and the challenges of leadership in the coronavirus pandemic.

Personal conflict

During her time at Durham, Cameron held a student leadership position as the Student Union representative. In this role, she engaged in protests against increasing tuition fees and, after graduating, participated in marches against Iraq War of 2003. Cameron decided to apply for the Civil Service fast stream soon afterwards, admitting that she had an “altruistic view of wanting to make a difference to people’s lives.”

Cameron was successful in her application and started working in the Ministry of Defence in the June of that year. She explains, “As a civil servant, you don’t have to agree with all government policy – even in the department in which you end up working. You just need to make sure that any disagreement that you might have doesn’t get in the way of the work you’re doing.” Her current role as Director of Innovation centres around culture change. “There is a massive bureaucracy that needs to change and that’s the challenge that I have at the moment.”

if you don’t know yourself, you can’t lead other people

As someone with ostensibly strong personal values, Cameron has occasionally struggled to unite these with the demands of her various roles. She recalls a situation when the way she was working was not in line with her values. “There was a time when the ‘small-p’ politics and hierarchy of my team was just getting ridiculous. I took proactive action and changed teams around the 2010 general election. It was all really quite tedious. My personal value is that it’s important to do what’s right – for the organisation, for the government, and not necessarily for individual careers. It was all the career politics that was playing out in front of me that I really disliked.”

Aptly, Cameron cites self-awareness as the most important quality of a leader, emphasising her mantra: “If you don’t know yourself, you can’t lead other people.” However, the positions which have enabled her to grow most quickly have not necessarily been leadership roles. “It’s situations where I’ve felt most vulnerable or most challenged. Because those are the situations when you come through and you’ve learnt about yourself and you are stronger as a result. As long as you’ve got the reflection time and the reflection habit that goes with it, you’re going to make the most of that and it will translate into having an impact on how you are as a leader.”

Helmand, Afghanistan

Following her time on the fast stream, Cameron deployed herself to Afghanistan for six months as a Policy Advisor to the British Commander in Helmand province, where troops were stationed. “If I was going to work in the Ministry of Defence, I wanted to get as close to the front line as I could to understand what it is I was supporting all day and see what was going on. I also recognised that it would give me credibility working with the military thereafter.”

“Did I know how tough it was going to be?” Cameron asks herself. “Probably not. And it was really quite tough. I was deployed into a small headquarters which was pretty much entirely male, all much older than me and more experienced in everything they did. It was an environment where there was nothing to do except work and the imperative to work as hard as possible was enormous. We were also losing quite a few soldiers. It was a really important time to me in the way that I see myself in my job. Although it was tough, I definitely don’t regret it.”

it was all the career politics that was playing out in front of me

Expanding on the difficulties of her position in Afghanistan, Cameron adds that her main struggle was to make sure that she was viewed as an “enabler” rather than a “blocker”: “So much of this was about building the right relationships where I judged when to intervene and ask questions. We would work seven days a week, from about 7am to 11pm.” 

In such a high stress environment, it was not always easy for everyone in the office to coexist. Cameron explains, “For that entire time, I was sitting next to someone who was the key person running the operations from the headquarters to all the outstations. He was definitely one of those people that I really wanted to get along with! But it was really hard. I don’t think that he particularly thought that I had anything valuable to add. And I saw the way that he operated with others and didn’t really respect his methods. It got to the point – quite a long way through the six months – that we ended up having a stand-up row in the office in front of everybody. I can remember regretting it bitterly soon afterwards because it was unprofessional to have got to that point.”

even in their darkest moments, the military are able to bring humour in 

Cameron reflects, “Why did I not manage to make that relationship work? Particularly when I knew from the beginning how important it was. I don’t think I was aware enough of the impact I was having on him. I just got more and more frustrated and that was definitely unhelpful.”Humility is significant when learning from these moments, Cameron argues. “It is really important to not assume that I’m right or that I know better. Actually, in that situation in Afghanistan when I was the only person there as civil servant – representing the Ministry of Defence and reporting to ministers – it could be quite easy to be high-handed. But the right way is to be humble and ask questions in a very open way, thinking about learning rather than querying their judgement. The other point I’d make is about humour. Even in their darkest moments, the military are able to bring humour in and it works really well.”

Leadership in 2020

Despite the challenges that Cameron has faced throughout her career, the unprecedented public health crisis of last year pushed her to adapt her leadership style in a significant way. She explains, “We’ve started using a word that we wouldn’t normally have used: kindness. And it sounds ridiculous because we probably should have always used it. I don’t know how unique the Ministry of Defence is for this, but there was a real necessity to consider firstly, everybody’s individual reaction to the first lockdown and how that was making everyone emotionally feel; and secondly, the personal circumstances around when they could and couldn’t work.”

I’m really noticing the lack of situational awareness

“My other reflection is that it has actually been an interesting prompt for authentic leadership, because everyone has much more of an insight into people’s lives. Just because these video cameras are on with people sitting at home. In a funny way, for people that did struggle with presenting their whole self at work, it has helped them break down the barriers.” 

“I’m really noticing the lack of situational awareness,” Cameron adds. “Just what you pick up from sitting in the same room as somebody all day long. We compensate for that as best we can. I have lots more individual catch ups that I wouldn’t have probably needed to do if we’d been in the office. And there are pros to that as well because it means we’ve got a focused half an hour to chat in the diary, whereas before it might have been catching somebody while they’re in the kitchen. With absolutely no time in the office at all, it would be very hard to compensate entirely but hopefully we’ll reach a happy medium at some point.”

Aside from the global pandemic, the year 2020 was significant in terms of the Black Lives Matter movement and bringing light to racial injustice. Cameron discusses how this, too, has changed her perspective on leadership role. “My style has adapted to be much more aware of racism as something that needs tackling. I am learning how to be an ally. That’s my aspiration: to move into that allyship space and really try and help. I’ve got a wonderfully diverse team and I want to learn from them and be an ally for them. I’m on that road but I’m not at the end.”

This article is a collaboration with the Durham Leadership Framework, which hosts weekly events with notable Durham alumni as part of its Leadership Speaker Series. Find out more at https://www.dur.ac.uk/leadership-framework/speakerrecordings/

Image: Clare Cameron

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