Q&A with Dame Helen Ghosh - director general of the National Trust

Sarah Atkinson
Stakeholder Engagement Manager | University of the West of England
17th May 2017
Member roleInitiative member

UWE, in partnership with Business West, runs an annual lecture series that brings top business leaders to Bristol. We caught up with Dame Helen Ghosh, director general of the National Trust, before she gave her address:

1. What is the one characteristic every leader should have?

I think the characteristic that all leaders need is optimism!

They have to be realistic (but optimistic) about the future, and they have to be prepared to deal with the downs as well as the ups. You just have to keep going, and that requires a bit of stamina.

Personally, I think I’ve been very lucky in this regard.

I had a happy family life as a child and I have a happy family life now, which gives a base but you need to train yourself to some extent to be optimistic.

I think you need to be reflective about things that have happened and the lessons you learnt from them, and be positive when things go right as well as when they go wrong, so that you can create that set of circumstances again.

2. What inspires you?

I think everybody needs to know when they are setting out on a career what their fundamental set of values are.

What inspires them? What turns them on? What gets them out of bed every morning?

Both in my 30-year Civil Service career and indeed at the National Trust, it sounds trite, but, I chose both because I thought that this was a way of making a difference for people, for society and the public good.

I joined the Civil Service after university, I hate to say it, in 1979.

There was much less pressure in the early years of Thatcher on students to go off into the City and make lots of money, life was, although tough for many people in those days, a  bit gentler, and I came from a public sector background.

That’s why I joined the Civil Service, which was a wonderful career for thirty years and it's also why I wanted to spread my wings and lead in another kind of context, but one again (the National Trust) that gives people wonderful experiences, both in historic houses, on our coast and out in the countryside.

So that’s kind of the bundle of things that inspire me.

3. What do you do to ensure you continue to grow as a leader?

I think it comes back to the idea of being reflective about what you do and why you did it.

The essence of that for me is understanding yourself.

For many years, before I really started thinking about leadership, I didn’t think deeply about why I reacted in certain ways in different circumstances.

And although this sounds like classic management training: those exercises where you discover what your personality is, and, why for example, in my case, I’m someone who is perfectly happy working with teams and dealing with large numbers of people but I need my private space.

I need some reflective time; I need to build that into my diary otherwise I become completely drained of energy.

Understanding yourself and building upon that understanding every time something happens thinking: ‘why did I react like that?’ ‘why did I think that?’ ‘why did I do that?’ and ‘what do I need to do next time?’.

That’s what I do.

In a sense my mentors have been the people who I’ve worked for, and from them I’ve received positive messages and negative messages.

There are several people who I’ve worked for that have made me think: 'I would never do that myself'.

One particularly transformative coach, with a very clear target, when I was really quite senior, did a lot of work with me on: what is my personality?; why do I react in certain ways?; what are my ‘derailers’?,  but also making me think all the time 'where do I want to be in 5 years?'

I know these are classic coaching techniques, but actually you do just need that structure to think about things.

When I’m building a team to support me, to support the organisation, I do think and consciously look for someone in the team, who is, in the true sense of the word, disinterested.

They’ve perhaps reached the end of their career; they’re not wanting promotion; they’ve been experienced.

Someone in my team who I can bounce ideas off such as ‘do you think I behaved well then?’; ‘should I have done it differently?’.

I think that’s very useful in your own context.

4. Do you have a pivotal moment when you decided to pursue this career path?

No. I don’t think there was something pivotal.

I think it is true that at all stages of your career, and this could happen to you in your twenties, thirties or forties, you think 'have I got everything out of this bit of my career that I’m going to?' or, in fact, will the future just be some kind of repetition? 

By the time I chose, or was lucky enough to get this job at the National Trust, I’d been the head of two government departments (DEFRA and the Home Office) and I thought: 'what am I going to do next?'

Well I could run another department. Start again, get to know another department. Did I want to do that? Did I want to go back?

I think not wanting to go back is a very important thing for people to think about.

At the same time I always wanted to try being a leader in a different world while I still had the energy. There were one or two people who I’d worked with in government who had made the step into an NGO.

I knew I couldn’t or wouldn’t be able to take a step into the private sector and why would they want me?

But running a big charity in whose purpose I believe seemed to me to be an exciting thing to do, partly because it would give me an opportunity to reinvent myself as a leader.

I’m not sure if you could ever do that actually because your personality is the base from which you have to work, but that was what I wanted to do.

5. What characteristics would you look for in a graduate employee?

I am always looking for people who have space for development.

I like working with people who you can help to get better and they’re anxious to do so.

That sense of ‘yep I know I cant do this thing perfectly’ or ‘that always strikes me as a weakness and I need to learn how to deal with it’. That’s what I look for.

One of my favourite questions to ask in an interview is: ‘can you tell me about an occasion when something went wrong and what did you do about it?’.

It can be fantastically revealing.

I was once on the selection board for a very, very senior police officer role and the person concerned looked around the room and said: 'I cant think of anything that I have ever done wrong'.


Then I thought ah! I’ll cross you off the list then!

I think one of the things that all young people need to be able to do is to work in a team, and young people today are much better trained to do that, they're encouraged to do that at school. Work together, revise together, sharing experience and all of that - they're much better at that.

The ability to work in a team and be flexible in a team is something that employers look for - I certainly do.

6. If you could go back, what advice would you give yourself as a new graduate?

I think the two things I might say sound deeply contradictory, and I suppose one is more about my private life, the other is about my professional life.

It’s astonishing how important small detail can sometimes be. Paying attention to small details is one of the lessons I learnt painfully at various points, but I wish I'd learnt it earlier.

When you're working in a high pressure area or a high profile area its those small details. To take a Civil Service example: how a bit of legislation works (or precisely how the money would work) -  that really makes a difference and you think I wish I’d paid attention to that at the time!

As you get more senior, of course, the key thing is to make sure there is someone in your team that does do that. Occasionally you do have to dip down and say can we just talk about that detail.

The flipside of this is you don’t have to try so hard!

You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have produce all the cakes for the cake sale. You don’t have to look perfect. You don’t have to be completely ready. You don’t have to pretend its easy. So I think that side of my life I’d say don’t try too hard!

7. What do you want people to think about the National Trust when you leave?

I want people to think that its for them. That its relevant to their lives.

We have 4.8m members, we have 20m visitors to our houses, 200m visitors to our countryside, but there are still some people that think its not for them.

And I'd love the nation more broadly to think that it is.

This series of free public lectures brings top level business leaders to Bristol. If you have any queries please contact events@uwe.ac.uk. Discuss these events on Twitter using the hashtag #BristolLectures. View content from Dame Ghosh's lecture here.

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