Transformational Leaders: Gary Aitkenhead, CEO of Dstl (Defence Science and Technology Lab)

Transformational Leaders: Gary Aitkenhead, CEO of Dstl (Defence Science and Technology Lab)
Published: 2 January 2020

With a constant threat from our adversaries investing heavily to erode our military advantage, our armed forces face continuous and constant challenges. As the world changes, so must we. In the latest instalment of our ‘Transformational Leadership’ series, we speak to Dstl’s CEO, Gary Aitkenhead. Dstl is a government owned organisation, sitting at the heart of innovation and research, maximising the impact of science and technology for the defence and security of the UK. Gary talks about his transition from the private sector to the civil service, and the difference he has been able to make since joining Dstl in Dec 2017.

A Chartered Engineer by background, Gary enjoyed a 24-year tenure with Motorola. He progressed rapidly through the ranks, working in R&D, product development, services, sales and into P&L leadership, managing revenues in excess of $1Bn with a full international remit. He is particularly proud of delivering significant change in highly complex and competitive environments. He latterly managed the largest business unit at Sepura, a global exporter of radio equipment to the public safety agencies.

Having spent most of your working life in the commercial sector, what was the trigger to make the move into the MOD/Civil Service? What stood out about Dstl in particular?

I must admit that I did not know much about Dstl or the inner workings of MOD before being approached for this role, but I could see that Defence and Security faces significant threats and opportunities due to the pace of technology change. Where disruptive technology changes threaten the core business of a commercial firm, I could see that defence faced even higher stakes in terms of national security and personal safety, which is such an exciting challenge. As I explored Dstl further, I saw a highly capable organisation that could be a significant driver of defence transformation through technology - and that was what attracted me to become Chief Executive here.

What really stands out about Dstl, and I still speak often about this, is its world-class science and engineering expertise, combined with a deep understanding of how military and security agencies operate – and that is such a fantastic, globally-leading professional offer. Our people are incredibly committed to making a difference, in fact many having dedicated their careers to this cause.

Was there a transitioning period? Have you taken any specific approach or had certain priorities?

Having deliberately taken a wide variety of roles at Motorola to broaden my experience, I was well used to going into unfamiliar waters and quickly gaining situational awareness. Early on at Dstl, I received some great advice to help me to engage deeply with the organisation. I took the opportunity to meet as many of the 4,000 employees - in groups, 1-1s or via lab tours - so I could see what was happening at ground level and what people ‘at the coal face’ thought we either did well or could be improved. I also built strong relationships with key customers and stakeholders; this enabled me kick off a strategy process to bring some structure and to engage the senior leadership team in what we needed to do moving forward. What was evident was that we had strong capability, customers liked what we do – but we needed to identify clear and consistent priorities across the organisation, and to address some pockets of non-performance and under-investment.

What resulted was our ‘Strategy on a Page’ (or SOAP as it has become affectionately known inside Dstl). We assigned clear actions with KPIs to a named executive leader, and we set up quarterly reviews against those specific actions. As a result, all of our 4,000 employees are familiar with the SOAP content and many link what they do to the priorities contained in it. The result has been transformational in terms of our organisational performance. As a team, we have raised our focus on customer and supplier relationships, increased investment in people, development, IT and infrastructure and improved how we communicate the impact of what we do. This has increased the confidence and engagement of our people right across Dstl – as well as positively impacting in turn on our customers.

We also worked as a senior team to share more of our personal and professional experiences, speaking openly about what has made us the people we are today and talking about what works well and what ‘gets in the way’ in each of our 1-1 relationships. At times, this has been a bit scary – opening up and making ourselves vulnerable. But that’s the way, in all parts of our lives, that we really get to know people and build a deeper level of trust. We agreed as a top team that ‘together we set direction, inspire and lead our people to ensure Dstl is greater than the sum of its parts. I shared this part of our leadership journey with our people through our executive team blog on our intranet and asked them to support us as we tried to become better leaders, a stronger team, and ultimately to help Dstl to achieve greater impact and be a great place to work.

Coming from outside the sector, what do you think you have brought (beyond just another perspective) that the more ‘traditional’ candidate might not have?

The Defence eco-system is extremely complex; being a newcomer afforded me the opportunity to ask the ‘dumb questions’ with no preconceptions or ‘baggage’, this helped me to objectively understand the systemic drivers and issues. Furthermore, I was able to focus on the big picture and set in motion initiatives that would have significant impact on the performance of Dstl. My deep experience of technology, customer-centricity and business helped me to focus on return on investment and Defence & Security ‘impact vs money invested ‘and not revenue/profit as it is in business. Dstl had never really thought about its work in this way, it really focused the mind-set towards what is important and the value the organisation delivers.

Was it as you expected and, if not, what was unexpected? With hindsight, how could you have better prepared yourself?

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but previous experience had taught me not to assume too much about a new environment and to ‘seek first to understand before trying to be understood’. I therefore spent a lot of time listening and trying to understand the culture of Dstl and how it was performing. On our strategy formulation, we did that together with several hundred of the Dstl staff, and so when we played back the output from that exercise, colleagues identified with the priorities and actions, saying “yeah, that’s what we told you”, which really helped gain traction on execution. I expected more bureaucracy than it is here, but I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly we were able to move; it is more agile than I expected – or than, maybe we give ourselves credit for.

In hindsight though, and if I could change anything, I’d have talked to Dstl and MOD people prior to joining so that I had a bit more insight right from the get-go. There are other things which I simply couldn’t have predicted: such as being on national TV after just a few months when Dstl was at the centre pf helping protect the nation during the Salisbury and Amesbury Novichok incident, but, then, who could have seen that one coming!

What change or transformation have you instigated that you feel has had the biggest impact on Dstl?

The biggest change has come from me as an ‘outsider’ recognising and promoting the amazing work the organisation is doing, both in terms of scientific and engineering excellence, but also in terms of committed, passionate people, who are so proud to work here, making a real difference to national defence and security. It’s hard not to be impressed by Dstl’s work but due to its sensitivity and a few years of unwelcome changes, it felt like people had lost confidence – so I believe my role has been in helping us restore that self-belief. Bringing business experience of focus on customers, development of people, communicating impact and restoring investment in IT and facilities have all helped to set us on path towards a significant opportunity to transform defence through technology.

When hiring transformational leaders, you look for ‘Edge’ in relation to a competency. Please can you describe what this means.

Yes. ‘Edge’ I believe is something that one sees in high-performing senior leaders. Simply put, it’s the ability to simplify complexity and maintain steely focus on what’s most important. In complex organisations operating in increasingly elaborate external environments and with rapidly changing technology thrown into the mix, this ability will be even more important for future leaders. In my experience of working with many great leaders around the world, the most effective ones demonstrate and seek to develop ‘edge’.

What can you advise future employers who haven’t hired an individual outside the sector before?

It’s always easy to hire someone within the sector, someone who instantly hits the ground running with domain knowledge. But I would suggest looking for transferable experience and skills, curiosity and ability to learn. It’s often that curiosity and drive to look at things differently that brings the most value to an organisation, so it’s worth the ‘learning curve’ investment.

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