Cardiff Business Club interviews: Sir Stephen Hillier

Date Posted: 18 March 2019 Cardiff Business Club interviews: Sir Stephen Hillier

The event, kindly sponsored bythe Reserve Forces’ and Cadets’ Association For Wales, was attended by over 200 people from across the Welsh capital.

Since taking command in 2016, Sir Stephen has led a combined force of 35,000 Regular and Reserve personnel and 5,000 Civil Servants, supported by thousands of contractors. His is personally responsible for the operation of over 700 manned and unmanned aircrafts meeting the needs of defence operations world-wide.

Before taking to the stage, Sir Stephen spent a few moments to be interviewed by Paul MacKenzie-Cummins and Sadie Jones from Clearly PR & Marketing Communications on behalf of the Club.

PMC: It’s interesting to see that the first female three-star commander was recently appointed to the rank of Marshal – now the most senior female military figure across all the armed forces. In light of International Women’s Day, how significant has this appointment been?  

SH: Well from an RAF perspective, we believe that it’s an essential part of our character that we are open to all. What we are interested in is the skill, talent and potential - not where you come from or your background.

For nearly two years now, we have had a policy where every role in the RAF is open to anybody, regardless of gender - that includes our ground combat roles. In our front-line and our aircraft roles, we’ve had female pilots for 25+ years now, so it’s an integral part of who we are as an organisation.

In terms of what that looks like in reality, at the moment we’re recruiting around 18 - 20% of females into the RAF, which is clearly not the 50% that I would hope for. But when I look at the average across the defence it is significantly lower than that, so there is something that we’re doing that is right.

PMC: Do you think that’s what’s potentially lacking in the other armed forces? In terms of ethnic diversity or gender balance within the wider recruitment as well.

SH: Well it’s hard for me to say and I'm certainly not criticising the other services. I think role models are something that perhaps I don’t understand as much as others do. But it’s constantly said to me, as the leader of the RAF, that getting people into the right positions in the service is the something that people look up to. It also provides essential aspiration and motivation.

This is something we’ve put a lot of emphasis on, because we want to be representative of the society we serve, and we also want to be able to unlock the potential of the whole workforce.

We have a lot further to go with ethnicity, I’ll be frank about that. I mean 10 - 12% is the makeup of society overall and in the RAF, we’re recruiting about 6.6% from minority communities. That’s much better than where we were a few years ago, but we know we need to do much more and we’re putting a lot of effort into that. Again, it’s to truly unlock all that we can from the diverse population and making sure we are attractive to the whole of society.  

PMC: Diversity has been very much on top of the HR agenda. What it is you're doing and how are you increasing those percentages?

SH: It’s one of those areas where you can’t just say the right things - you can’t just state your principles - you have to do practical things. Practical action for us is achieved through specialist recruitment teams that reach out into minority communities.

They especially target minorities in cities, who may not otherwise know what the RAF does or may not have exposure to us. The RAF tends not to have a big concentration in big cities. It tends to be out in the countryside for obvious reasons.

We aim to reach out and speak to the gate keepers, the people who provide that advice to young people. It’s not about a hard recruitment drive, its simply about saying ‘well look, here is an opportunity, we’re interested in you, and you might be in us’. It’s also about how we portray ourselves more widely.

We’re a relatively small organisation these days, we need to create a big footprint despite being little. Our one advantage we have in all of this is our brand - it’s a global, powerful brand, and we need to make sure we use that to our advantage.  

PMC: What appealed to you about the RAF when you started your career, and do you feel the same reasons would apply today to people considering a career in the Air Force as well?  

SH: I hope so. What first attracted me was partly my father's influence - he had been in the RAF during the second world war. But it was an interest in flying, an interest in developing myself that progressed my interest. I was an air cadet from at the youngest age I could be. Through the air cadet organisation, I had the opportunity to fly and eventually get my privates pilots license.

I also had my first opportunity to lead people. It’s what I always wanted to do. I didn’t set out to be the chief of air staff, that just wouldn’t have been in my conception at the time. But, I'm now proud and privileged to be able to lead this organisation that I always wanted to be a part of.

My message to those who might be interested in such a career is that I passionately believe this is an organisation that is interested in talent and potential. I don’t come from a grand background by any means, but I am really keen that young people have those opportunities as well. I have huge confidence in young people and their potential - we just need to be able

to unlock it and I think in the RAF and other armed forces, we’re pretty good at being able to do that.  

PMC: What do you think the RAF of future will look like 50 years from now in 2064 or in 2118 when you’re celebrating 200 years? Do you have any concepts at all at what the future will look like?   

SH: We can pretty much guarantee that anything we were to set down would be overtaken by events. If I could see what technology was going to be like in 50 years' time, I would probably be doing a different job at the moment because of what the RAF looked like 50 years ago.

I personally think, looking on 50 years from now, there will still be air, I think that’s a reasonable prediction. If there will still be air and space environments, then the need to exploit those for military purposes will remain. So, we’ll still be flying.

Space will be a much greater part of what we do than has been hither to. And I think autonomy will be a greater part of the job. Now, that’s not in the sense of completely autonomous vehicles in our way of warfare, a human must always be in the decision-making loop.

So, if there is one thing that won't change - it will be the people that will make the decisive decisions. We will continue to need people with not just the skills and the capabilities, but also that spirt, ethos and sense of tradition which makes the RAF the organisation that it is.

As you touched on, it was our 100th anniversary last year. The strange thing was that our predecessors, those who set up the air force, wouldn’t recognise our technology - but I'd like to think they would recognise the people. I think that will be true in 100 years from now.  

PMC: What would you say is the most important leadership lesson that you would pass on through the ranks or people who are in the audience this evening who are looking to become captains of their own industry?

SH: I think it would probably be three things: two of them are more personal and one is to do with the leadership function. The personal ones would have to be resilience. You need to have the mental and physical resilience to keep that sense of purpose and motivate the organisation, regardless of that friction that is going on around you.

I think the second thing, personally is about intuition. One of the reasons you get to a senior leadership position is that you've got a lot of experience and you have seen a lot of situations before. My advice would be to listen to intuition, don’t be captured by it. You should be persuaded by evidence but if your intuition is saying something then listen carefully to it.

The third thing is, that when I took command of the air force, I very consciously decided that there would be no higher priority than gripping our strategic work force challenges. I had great confidence that we knew how to do that, and we were doing it well on a day to day basis. My view was that I needed to keep an eye on that to make sure it was still going.  

I was going to earn my money as chief of the air force by executing a transformation and that’s what I was required to do in order to deliver a change in the way we dealt with our strategic work force challenges. We’re an organisation that people spend a long time in but it’s the bit that I felt I needed to concentrate on most and hopefully, I've made a difference.