Leadership Stories: Cheryl Avery is a senior civil servant who has overcome adversity to nurture and support her team members and bring out the best in them.

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What does leadership mean to you, and how has your approach or style changed over time?

Leadership is about being accountable, but also about advising and guiding the people we lead. Most importantly it is about being a positive role model by promoting an inclusive and diverse culture in the teams that I lead.

I am genuinely interested in the lives and aspirations of those with whom I work. I ask lots of questions about the types of challenges that colleagues are facing, and what they want to achieve in life. This is both a professional and personal interest. I believe it's the strongest way to build relationships with anyone. It enables me to stand in another person’s shoes and see the world from a range of perspectives.

In my early leadership roles, I worked under the misapprehension that to be a good leader you needed to know and be able to do everything. I also thought that you had to be everyone’s best friend, but soon found out (to my cost) that familiarity can breed contempt. It is fine to have a laugh and a joke with your teams, but you also need to be able to challenge poor performance or behaviours without fear of reproach. As a result, in subsequent roles I have made sure that healthy boundaries are defined.

My natural leadership style is to nurture and support my teams. I am passionate about talent management, and endeavour to help individuals develop into the types of leaders that they would like to become. However, I am also aware that in times of heightened stress I tend to want to control everything and delegate little. This invariably means that I end up overburdening myself and taking away the opportunity for team members to develop and grow. I realised that if I took more opportunities to delegate effectively, I would be able to empower the team, but still be there to support them if they needed my help.

One key lesson that I have learned as a leader is that to deliver successful outcomes you need to surround yourself with the “best” people. Whilst egos can be fragile and vulnerabilities can come to the fore when we do not believe that we are seen as the brightest and best in a given field, it is important to recognise that teams can only operate at their most effective when everyone is allowed to perform to the best of their ability. That way everyone can share in the successes.

What have been the biggest challenges and the biggest successes in your life, and what have you learned from them?

I have faced many challenges throughout my career and developed a level of resilience that has been admired. However, in my current role I have discovered a whole new level of resilience which has resulted from responses to bullying leadership, learning how to navigate a highly politicised environment, and dealing with the court of public opinion.

Stepping into an environment where I was unfamiliar with the subject matter, without the support of known allies and expected to “hit the ground running” was challenging enough. However, combining that with the leadership of a high-profile major programme which was subjected to the volatility of the many recent changes in UK Government leadership, created a whole new level of complexity.

I had two choices – to let this situation overwhelm me or to find a way to survive (and hopefully even thrive). I naturally chose the latter option and sought to leverage my extended network for support, including my wonderful coach who guided me through the highs and lows. I created new alliances and was able to recruit new team members to supplement the vulnerabilities in the original structure.

Despite these challenges, I am physically and mentally stronger than I have ever been, and I have learned that I can triumph in the face of adversity and succeed.

What advice do you have for younger women aspiring to leadership roles?

Know your “brand” and always be your authentic self

What do I mean by that? Work with a mentor or coach and develop a clear understanding of what your strengths and development areas are. Leverage this information to determine what you stand for and how you would like to be perceived. Do not try to change who you are as you must always maintain your integrity

Know your limitations and do not be afraid to ask for help

The strongest leaders know when to ask for support and do not see this as a sign of weakness. I recommend In Praise of the Incomplete Leader (Ancona, D, T., Orlikowski, W. and Senge, P., 2007. Harvard Business Review, 85(2), pp. 92-100). The authors describe leaders as “incomplete” and explore the concept of building “complete” teams to complement the skills that a leader brings.

Build and maintain your network

It is never too early to build a network, However, like any good relationship you must not take it or anyone in it, for granted. Make sure that you put as much into it as you would like to get out of it, so that there is a sense of authenticity – there is no room for insincerity here! There are times when you will give more than you receive, but when you need support from the network help will always be there.

I ask lots of questions and stand in another person’s shoes and see the world from a range of perspectives.

Cheryl Avery
Cheryl Avery

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