Leadership3Sixty

More from this series

Pamela Permalloo-Bass

Meet Pamela Permallo-Bass Head of Equality & Diversity at Salisbury NHS Foundation Trust

In Conversation With…

Aileen Walker

Meet Aileen Walker the dynamo who is the Director of Public Engagement at The Houses of Parliament, Who says "I don’t think we can consciously develop a specific leadership style if doesn’t come naturally to us"

Aileen congratulations on the recent very successful event ( which I loved)– the third TEDxHousesofParliament (TEDxHoP), which, as Director of Public Engagement at the House of Commons, you have a role in facilitating. Tell me why you are so passionate about it?
I went to the Observer’s TEDx event in 2011 and loved the format – short, entertaining talks, structured around inspiring “ideas worth spreading” (the TED strapline). I came away buzzing, and couldn’t shake the thought that we should organise a TEDx event at Parliament. So we did! Tom O’Leary, Head of Public Engagement and Learning at Parliament, became our TEDx licensee, curator and organiser. Our speakers and performers (TEDx is more like a show, definitely not a series of lectures) come at the theme of democracy from oblique angles, challenging us to think in new ways, sparking ideas, and starting conversations. If you haven’t seen a TED talk (or even if you have!), here are a few of my favourite ones from TEDxHoP over the last couple years: 

Suli Breaks’ video: Nature practices democracy

Rick Edwards: How to get young people to vote

Baroness Onora O’Neill: What would it really take to rebuild trust

In your role as Director of Public Engagement at the House of Commons, you are responsible for creating initiatives to engage the public in political life: what would you say are the biggest challenges that you have to overcome?

There are many challenges but they all stem largely from one basic challenge, which is simply - lack of knowledge. How many UK citizens could explain the difference between Parliament and Government? How many even appreciate that there is a difference? When I see the struggles and strife and civil wars raging in countries around the world, I realise how lucky we are to have a stable democratic system that, largely, works.  Our democratic system elects MPs to Parliament, the winning political party (generally) forms the government, but it is the job of all MPs, in the House of Commons, to represent the people who elected them and hold that government to account. Some people say they are not interested in politics, but everyone has some issue they care about, be it tuition fees, mental health services, roads, VAT rate, or whatever. Issues are politics. And issues are discussed at Parliament. Get your voice heard there! That’s what Parliament’s public engagement services are trying to facilitate. 
What would you say are your career highlights to date?
I’ve spent most of my working life at Parliament in a variety of roles, and I have loved every one of them. I feel particularly proud to have overseen a significant increase in the scale and ambition of our public engagement, information, education, outreach, and visitor services work over recent years. I am always looking to the future, so if you would like a specific example, I will anticipate a future career highlight: we are looking forward to opening Parliament’s first dedicated, custom built education centre next year. This will allow us to welcome 100,000 school pupils a year, to enjoy an interactive workshop, tour the Palace of Westminster, talk to their MP, and understand how Parliament is relevant to our lives.
What is your leadership style?
I’d say I have several styles in my pocket, and am ready to deploy the most appropriate one in any given circumstance. However, to try to encapsulate my leadership philosophy, I offer: I C E = Innovation, Collaboration, Empowerment. (I just made this up specially for you!). 
I truly believe that in any workplace, innovation, creativity, and continuous improvement are key to success. I also believe that we achieve much more through collaboration than we do on our own. I am a natural networker and find myself creating links and connections in all areas of my life. Working across boundaries also sparks innovation, so it becomes a virtuous circle.  And empowerment - surround yourself with great people, have high expectations, be open and direct, encourage them to work to their strengths, give them cover but let them get on with it!
How has your leadership style evolved over the last 10 years?
“Evolved” is the right word, because I don’t think we can consciously develop a specific leadership style if doesn’t come naturally to us. What we can do is be aware of our strengths and the consequences of our behaviours, and consciously work on those behaviours that produce effective results. 
There is a key lesson I have learned, if you want to be an inspiring leader and bring people along with you. I wholeheartedly agree with my friend Henry (from the company Happy Ltd) who says – People work best when they feel good about themselves. And vice versa. 
In your experience, is there a difference between how women and men lead? If so how would you describe it?
I think we all have our own individual style, and there will always be exceptions to any generalisations on gender differences in leadership. However, I am certainly aware of differences in how female and male leaders are perceived and described. Sheryl Sandberg’s “Ban Bossy” campaign – her observation that women are “bossy” while men are “the boss” - really resonates, (having once been described by a male colleague as “that scary Scottish woman”). 
I think of you as a kind of people magnet, who engages, networks and multiplies connections: in terms of the global upheaval that we have been witnessing over the last 5 years, what role will people with your skillset perform?
I’ve been thinking about this too recently, not so much on a global scale but on a more local one. My younger son is about to go off to university; my older son is going into his final year. We live in one of the most deprived boroughs in the country. My boys have had a good start in life and now a whole world of opportunity is out there for them to explore; why can’t all the young people in our borough (in the UK, in the world) have similar life chances? There are so many people who care about issues and so many brilliant individual initiatives. If we all do what we can to make the connections we can effect, we can make a difference - make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.
Who are your mentors or role models?
My line manager in my first job after university had a lasting impact on me, both as a role model and a mentor. She was a talented manager, whom I respected greatly. Not only did she encourage me to pursue ideas I came up with, she also entrusted me with some pretty responsible initiatives beyond the confines of my actual job. “Delegate responsibility, not just tasks” was one of her phrases. I know I grew and developed as a result of that approach. My current line manager is an effective strategist and political operator. One of the things I learned from him was perspective: when confronted with an intractable problem, don’t get sucked into the detail – step back and look for a different way to achieve the desired result. 
Do you support networks that are geared towards supporting/empowering people who are often marginalised in the workplace and in business based on: gender, culture, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability etc... do you think that they promote/encourage inclusion and diversity OR separation?
Over the last few years, the House of Commons and House of Lords have set up a range of workplace equality networks: covering gender, sexuality, race/ethnicity, and disability. These, together with a concerted campaign to mainstream equality issues and highlight good practice, have certainly helped to raise awareness and promote inclusion.  They are popular groups, offering a supportive forum for discussion. 
Aileen do you have a favourite book?
My favourite author is still Doris Lessing, whose books I first read as a teenager. The power of her writing awoke in me a social and political awareness and an understanding of the injustices, conflicts, and inequalities in life. Which of her books is my favourite? It’s hard to choose between her first novel – The Grass is Singing – and the much more complex narrative of her ambitious masterpiece – The Golden Notebook. 

Aileen thank you