“Identify your weak spots – and set about improving them”

Written by Ann Francke OBE Tuesday 29 September 2020
In a wide-ranging interview, this year’s CMI Gold Medal winner David Roberts reflects on how leadership is changing in the NHS, financial services and in society 
Ann Francke

What have been the major leadership challenges during the crisis? Will they lead to a new style of leadership in future? I spoke to this year's CMI Gold Medal winner, David Roberts, chair of Nationwide, vice-chair of the NHS and chair of Beazley for CMI’s latest Better Managers Briefing.

Simplicity, clarity and universal acceptance of the mission

The NHS is used to dealing with crises – but David Roberts admits that in early March concerns about the NHS not being able to cope were rife.

By the end of April, however, capacity had been created to treat 19,000 Covid-19 patients in intensive care. The pandemic has shown that if you have a single goal and a clear alignment behind that, you can make change happen rapidly, David believes.

“The simplicity, clarity and universal acceptance of the mission was absolutely vital,” he explains. He urges managers to delegate decision-making and responsibility within a framework. “If the mission is clear, trust the leaders to do the right thing and support them when things go wrong, as they inevitably do.”

Nationwide was able to transform manual processes for payment holidays on mortgages into a digital system that could cope with thousands in a day within 24 hours. “We coped because we had a very clear mission to the team,” he says.

Give people the opportunity, create the clarity of mission, and give them the resources that they need, David says.

Adapting to face an uncertain future

Managers and leaders must learn from experiences; that’s the way to weather uncertainty in the future, says David.

Digital enablement must be at the centre of organisational transformation, but change is also about continuing to engage the workforce in different ways and constantly ask yourself how you can make the next day better than the previous day. “Identify the weak spots in your organisation quickly – without being defensive about it – and set about improving them,” David says.

The pandemic is accelerating trends that were already on the horizon, David says. To meet the objective of building a better NHS, for example, he is focusing on the day-to-day capacity challenges while also having an eye on the longer term. “We're spending a lot of time thinking about how you capture them [Covid-19 learnings] and cement them into the way the organisation thinks and acts,” David adds.

Balancing wellbeing with delivery of essential services

Delivering essential services and solving problems quickly while also keeping an eye on staff wellbeing is a business challenge across David’s portfolio. Whether it’s the stresses and strains of trying to solve tricky problems, the challenge of leading virtually, or simply the intensity of sitting in front of a screen all day, the toll of that much screen time is potentially huge. “We've done enormous amounts of work communicating and putting support in place,” David says.

Beazley has introduced wellness days in addition to holidays, and encourages all staff (from the chief executive down) to switch off from PCs and phones. “There's an investment of course but the payback is enormous in terms of what it meant and how people felt.” Leaders have to make sure to give employees a mandate to switch off and encourage them there’s no negative fallout from it – especially in a world where job security is front of mind. “People think: ‘I've got to be here all the time or I'll answer that email at 10pm or 5am’. Leaders have to set a tone that says that's not what we're about.”

Successful leaders are flexible, empathetic and authentic, David believes, “because if you help [staff] and help sustain them, they'll move mountains for you.”

Accelerating progress to tackle inequality

Covid-19 has shone a light on some long-standing inequalities, despite widespread recognition that inclusivity is essential to business because it brings different perspectives, skills, experience and talents to the fore and ultimately improves making, David believes: “We have to stand back and ask ourselves some very harsh questions.”

The starting point is recognising that inequality is a problem that needs to be tackled. We need to be willing to talk to colleagues from different backgrounds to understand how inequality affects them. “As leaders, it’s about breaking down implicit and explicit barriers and creating an environment where we positively set out to make sure that people can be themselves,” David says.

Overcoming Covid-19 fatigue

As the pandemic rages on, it’s important to look after yourself. We all need to sustain our energy to take on the business challenges we will undoubtedly face for the foreseeable future. “My dog has a sign around its neck saying ‘no more walks, please!’” David laughs, saying that doing so is how he personally switches off and takes a break. In addition to good sleep and nutrition, being able to share your problems through a solid support network is vital. “It's not weakness, it’s strength to talk about finding things challenging,” David says. “Don't be brave, talk about it because everyone is in the same position.”

If you work for the NHS, MoD or Police Service and would like to find out more about how to spread the word about the Special Award of Recognition certificate, please contact CMI at

You can watch our conversation in full here.

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