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Behind enemy lines; a civilian in a military world

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As project delivery professionals we forge and develop relationships across different stakeholder groupings, and even cultures to successfully deliver our outcomes. As Portfolio Director, and Head of the Project Delivery (PD) Profession for the British Army, how does it feel to work to lead as a civilian in a world which has so much history and recognition for its military prowess? Having engaged with the profession outside Defence there are sometimes questions, and confusion around the role civilians play in the delivery of Army capabilities through its Programmes and Projects. 

In short, it feels immensely rewarding. Civilians play a huge role, not just in terms of continuity but with their extensive knowledge and experience! 

I would caveat that by saying the critical success factor is the ‘wholeforce’ approach. By this I mean the appropriate mix of military, Civil Servants and contracted civilians who bring their own unique skills and experience. There around 700 PD Professionals across the Army, split 60% civilian and 40% military. So, what’s that like? Nothing comes easy working in a team and it’s no different here. You need to enhance the team by understanding human preferences as well as peoples’ strength and development areas. The military culture is driven by hard work, hierarchy, and structure, the perfect elements for delivering projects successfully. 

The challenge the Army faces is huge, with the scale of ambition which sits across multiple programmes and projects grouped under 19 Senior Responsible Owners (SRO’s) with a good mix of both military and civilian senior leaders. 9 of our Programmes form part of the Government Major Programmes Portfolio so are tracked across Whitehall and directly accountable to Parliament. When all brought together, the Army is spending over £30bn across 10 years. There is a need to have a highly professional cohort as well as structures in place to recruit, retain and develop our senior PD leaders of the future. 

So, what does the Army have to offer potential PD professionals who see opportunities but aren’t sure about whether they have the skills, experience and/or qualifications? The way I look at this is, there are three key ingredients, ‘where and how far can I take my career’, ‘what level of investment is there to get there’ and ‘are there people around me who are credible and inspire me’. The underpinning component part, often seen high up on hierarchy of needs when looking at a role is ‘purpose’. Unpacking each of these questions in turn: 

  1. The Civil Service is a hierarchical organisation with a grade structure that reads across to our military colleagues. There are opportunities at entry level from supporting P3M delivery, to Director level Senior Responsible Owners, and everything in-between providing wide ranging opportunities to progress.  
  2. Attracting and growing talent is vital for any organisation and the Army is no different. Talent schemes play a key role, and the Army is currently exploring how we can improve our offer in this space. Professional training, qualifications and accreditations and investment in training has become a real focus, with a firm commitment to retaining our people. From a personal perspective, Defence has invested in my personal and professional development throughout my career to support my career progression.  
  3. Credible, inspiring, and experienced leadership is so important and the diversity across Army and wider Defence is immense. Every organisation has the good, the bad and the ugly but my experience shows that there is a strong leadership culture within the Army where I now work alongside colleagues I would describe as mentors and project delivery ninjas! 

Back to the unpinning element ‘purpose’.  This is an area where Army, Defence and all Government departments excel. The Army’s strategic vision isit’s not the weaponry or the vehicles — it's the people. Our vision is a competitive, adaptable and inclusive Army imbued with an unwavering will to win; where people feel they belong; where their talent is nurtured, where health is positively promoted, and opportunity maximised.’ You only have to look at our role and support during the COVID pandemic, the illegal conflict in Ukraine or even the floods that hit a number of years back. The Army were central to the response effort. So, if you’re looking to deliver visible and impactful purpose, the Army Programmes are the place to be. 

My final point is to dispel another urban myth that the Army is a male dominated environment. This is absolutely not the case. We have a number of female SRO’s and Programme Directors and are led at Director General level by Lt Gen Sharon Nesmith. To showcase our talent, come and find us at the APM Women in Project Management (WiPM) Conference in London on 21 September, or reach out to us via email .


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  1. Sunchana Johnston
    Sunchana Johnston 10 September 2023, 10:11 AM

    So so true, what a brilliant article! Some of the most amazing colleagues I’ve encountered within various organisations come from the British Army, thank you for sharing this.