Leadership3Sixty

More from this series

Pamela Permalloo-Bass

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

In Conversation With…

James Saville

Meet James Saville a leader who as HR Director at DFID (The Department for International Development), is the epitomy of compelling leadership. James is a champion of organisational diversity & inclusion, who is especially passionate about banishing mental health stigma at work, and has used his own story as a living testimony. Be Inspired!

James as HR director at DFID you've spearheaded the mental health anti stigma campaign which has really gained traction over the last year, congratulations! Do you think that adding your personal journey to the campaign has helped in galvanising support?

I hope so. It seemed to grab people’s attention and I got loads of people thanking me for being so open. More importantly we had people talking to their manager about their own issues, which meant we could help them and we’re just setting up a self-help network within DFID, so hopefully we’re building momentum. There were useful knock-ons with other senior managers talking about their own experience of Diversity and inclusion issues (caring for elderly relatives, being LGBT and working overseas, working flexibly at a senior level etc.). I believe that authenticity is important as a leader and these interventions have certainly helped reinforce that message.

What would you say has been the biggest challenge in trying to effect this culture change?

Building trust, demonstrating we are serious and convincing people this isn’t the flavour of the month. Given the personal nature of all health issues, that can be hard, as you need people to be willing to share their experiences. To that end you have to develop trust. You also have to have good data and ensure you can track metrics so you can show progress, which drives more confidence in others that it is safe to share. Again this needs trust, as you need people to register their Diversity and inclusion characteristics and they have to feel safe doing so. 

Has there been anything that you thought would be a major challenge that in fact has left you pleasantly surprised?

Well, telling a room full of people you don’t know about your own mental health challenges for the first time felt like a big step at the time!  Actually it was incredibly liberating and every time I do it now it becomes easier. It reinforced how generous and supportive people can be and the wider positive benefits have been huge. More generally, I expected more cynicism from the business about ‘here’s another diversity initiative’ but again I’ve been encouraged about how everyone 'gets' the need to mainstream these things and ensure we leave no one behind.  

In a multicultural society like GB, where there are different cultural responses to mental health, how best do you think organisations can communicate their stance?

By talking about it, finding examples people can identify with and getting people to think about people they know and how they wouldn’t expect those people to be disadvantaged. Basically the same as with all other aspects of disability and diversity. Think holistically and find ways to join up all the initiatives and goals so you’re not having to work on multiple fronts. I find ‘why not’ is a good question when looking at these things. There isn’t usually a good answer…

James what would you say is your leadership style?

At this point my team starts sniggering. I like to give people space and try to help them deliver. I like context and I like everything to be linked to the business plan. My tendency is to the big picture. I do expect people to have plans, to be clear on priorities and to deliver to that plan. If I’m chasing a lot of detail it’s usually a sign I’m uncomfortable. I enjoy people with ideas and I like challenging debates that result in a way forward people can then engage with. I’m quite introverted so I’m better in smallish groups. I do wear my heart on my sleeve a bit too much and I’m a useless poker player, which at best is authentic, at worst is unpleasant for everyone - including me.

Do you think that you are a more effective leader because you've demonstrated your vulnerability?

That’s for others to say. I’m certainly more comfortable in my own skin, which hopefully helps me lead more effectively. I have a long way to go before I would see myself as a role-model leader. Too many idiosyncrasies.

What did you dream of becoming when you were little?

The usual, scoring the winning goal in the World Cup, winning Olympics athletics gold…

Based on where you are now in your life, what would you consider to be your greatest achievement?

Proving to myself that I could operate at a senior level after my illness was pretty important. My wife and son are pivotal in my life and the way we all work at that relationship makes me happy and proud. On the work front I have a good record of being followed into jobs by people I’ve helped grow. That’s hard to top.

Are there any individuals who have inspired you whether you know them personally or just by reputation?

I admire leading players in any field, especially if they can remain grounded. Excellence and the effort it takes to acquire it I find humbling and compelling. It’s something to do with the inner strength people need.You also see it in people who have had to overcome real challenges and in people who can put others’ needs before their own. I think my current role models would include those people working on the frontline in Sierra Leone to help control Ebola, and Malala Yousafzai.

What has the power to make you jump out of bed with excitement on a cold wet Monday morning?

Honestly? Very little! I’m not good at Monday mornings. I love holidays and doing interesting things so probably a good day out with the family. Unfortunately too often it is the frisson caused by the 4.30am alarm clock for an early flight…

What behaviour of yours would you like to get rid of? What quality/behaviour would you like to have/develop? (If any)

Lose: procrastination; getting frustrated too easily (and showing it); and lack of stickability (I’m more of a boom and bust merchant unfortunately).I’d like to develop the ability to see the positive in every situation.  

As an HR Director, do you think that 'work life balance' is realistic, overrated or under emphasised? Is it gender neutral or gender specific?

Personally it’s not a helpful distinction. I know that if I’m not busy I’m a pain and that if I’m away too much I’m unhappy. I tend to think of life balance including family, work, holidays, theatre, reading and physical activity. If any of those are out of balance I’m not fully effective so for me it’s about finding ways of fitting them in. I’m conscious I’m in a privileged position and that others may have a very different view. We still need to do more as a society so that everyone has the opportunity to find the right balance for them and as an HRD I have a role to play in that.

As diversity and inclusion continues to be high on the business agenda, how can organisations ensure that their D & I policies are more than just 'tick box' exercises and really are creating change?

By making them part of the mainstream not a separate set of issues on the side. They are a fundamental part of the psychological contract with staff, a key element of attraction and retention and basically morally right. Everyone knows someone adversely affected in their extended family and no one thinks that’s fair so let’s make it equally unfair in the workplace. Make it easier too.  Have simple approaches with multiple touch points, rather than hundreds of separate initiatives. My favourite current example is job design.  Let’s make it easier for people to work flexibly, it benefits so many different groups yet we are still wedded to Monday to Friday 9-5, full time in the office.  Why?

What was the last book that you read? do you have a favourite book, that you revisit from time to time? 

Just finished The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton and now reading The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. He, Roddy Doyle and Colm Toibin are probably my current favourite authors. My all-time favourite book is War and Peace. The books I reread most often are probably The Hitchhiker’s Guide series because they’re just brilliant.

Thank you James.