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In Conversation with Lieutenant General Richard Nugee

For our most recent interview, Lt Gen Richard Nugee, Chief of Defence People, made time to speak to us, very candidly, on everything from the obstacles still facing gender balance across defence, some of the work he's done to tackle them, to his inspirations and what's next up on the horizon for him.

General Nugee, thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us today. As a key supporter of Women in Defence since the very beginning, and a member of our Governing Body, we know that you share our passion for improving gender balance across defence and security. But why is this goal so important to you?

I think it's really important because we’re trying to get away from a stereotypical single-minded view of the world.

I have the most amazing role model as a woman, my mother. She taught me the value of diversity of thought. The way she thought was different to the way my father thought. The way she acted was different to the way my father acted. They were both highly intelligent and both very good people, but they thought differently. What that taught me was that what women bring isn’t diversity for its own sake, but a real diversity of thought. They also, I happen to believe, tend to be more inclusive and what I want to create in defence is an inclusive culture, a culture where people think before acting, a culture where people are prepared to accept other people's points of view because they come from a different base.

So that's why I'm really passionate about Women in Defence, because it's about trying to get a better, more inclusive culture and diversity of thought.

Brilliant thank you. You’ve touched on it there: you have responsibility for ensuring a commitment to inclusion and diversity across the defence workforce. So, what does a ‘normal’ day, if there is such a thing, look like for you?

Oh gosh, there isn't a normal day!

I take it for granted that the person who's speaking to me is the expert. It doesn't matter at all what their gender is, what their sexual orientation is, what their ethnicity is, what their level is. It just doesn't matter. What I'm after is somebody who's prepared to speak up and say what their expertise is about and talk to me about a certain issue. I don’t stand on ceremony and I tend not to try and force a hierarchy. I try and do my utmost to allow people of whatever grade to be able to talk to me and be honest to me.

So, for me, a normal day is meeting people who are from different backgrounds with different thoughts, and listening to them and talking to them. Whether I achieve that every day is a different matter altogether.

Okay well, that actually leads us on to obstacles quite nicely. In your view what is the biggest obstacle to inclusion and diversity in the defence and security sector?

I think it's culture. And I think that culture is particularly difficult in defence, because the cost of getting it wrong is somebody's life. That is the business we're in. We're not naturally conservative or fixated by tradition, we're deeply averse to making a making a decision that might lead to somebody being killed due to that decision.

Why? We don't want to risk people's lives unnecessarily and that makes us much more conservative than other organisations who are prepared to take the risk, because the effects of that risk going wrong or manifesting itself is not loss of life.

Everything I have learned from my 10 operational tours is that operations are different, and so it's a false excuse to throw ‘operational effectiveness’ in the face of anybody who wants to make a change. Because operational effectiveness is very, very rarely affected, if at all. But it functions as a useful excuse for making no change. And that is the biggest barrier in defence.

So how, in your view, do we get around that excuse being used so often?

That's a really good question and it's one that we've been struggling with for years. It’s a tricky balance where you have to pay attention to it, without pandering to it at a level that means that you give into it. The example of opening up all roles to women is a really good one, because we defeated the ‘we are not prepared to take this risk’ argument after 2015.

Firstly, we had enough experience from 2011 to 2014 of women doing extraordinary things on operations. My favourite is that shown in the massive oil painting at HMS Raleigh: Kate Nesbitt, a female medic in the Royal Navy who got a Military Cross because she was the only person standing up when everybody else was lying down, to save somebody's life. That and many other extraordinary acts of heroism, extraordinary acts of courage, allowed us to rebut that part of the excuse.

The next excuse thrown up in the way of opening up all roles to women, in the Army particularly, was that they weren't fit enough and that they couldn't cope physically. So, we did a massive physiological study to check whether that was or wasn't the case. And one key thing that came out of it was that our equipment is all designed around the male frame rather than the female frame and therefore the women who were wearing men's equipment were finding it deeply uncomfortable. And it would be too easy for women to drop out due to this discomfort, in comparison to men, and for people to say, ‘that’s because you’re a woman’ and not because you’ve got incompatible kit. So, we solved that problem by bringing in different training tests.

And there was no further excuse that could be thrown at us and therefore we have opened up all roles to women. So overall, it's about listening. It's about understanding what the reasons are and explaining them every single time, if that is appropriate. And I think it is appropriate.

Thank you for such a candid answer and a great example. The point you made about individual acts of heroism, that links nicely to a key aspect of the new Women in Defence vision – inspiring. As you know that's something we do each year the Women in Defence Awards. Who inspires you?

Lots of lots of people inspire me!

My mother was one of the key inspirations. She's just the most amazing woman. And she inspires me.

And if you look at the women I know, what I find is that they've had to work twice as hard to get to where they've got to. And it humbles me that actually I've waltzed into this job - as far as I can tell there's just nobody left so I ended up here! - and they've had to work really hard to get to where they are. There are just so many people like that who are genuinely inspiring because they never stop believing that what they're doing is right and they keep going, which for me is really exceptional.

In terms of other inspirations for me, there are two male Officers I know, who both started as Private soldiers and finished as Lieutenant Colonels. You cannot do better than that in the Army. They’ve been through more promotions than I have. And they’re just utterly inspirational as humble, thinking, wonderful people. The sort of people who have led soldiers at every level and have come out not bitter and twisted but genuinely fond of their people, and genuinely good people.

Could we turn quickly to the Defence Diversity and Inclusion Strategy 2018-2030: A Force for Inclusion. It sets out a very powerful vision that ‘defence harnesses the power of difference to deliver capability that safeguards our nation's security and stability’. And we all have a role to play in bringing that about both as individuals and as organizations. In your opinion what's our role at Women in Defence UK?

For me, I’m very passionate about Women in Defence being about more than just celebrating women.

There's absolutely a role for celebrating, and we should celebrate true inspirations. For example, someone I’m really proud to say I have in my family, is the woman who discovered DNA, the double helix. A woman called Rosalind Franklin. She was my mother's cousin. She’s on the front of King's London, they've just named the Mars rover after her and there's a petition to make her the face of the £50 note. A hugely inspirational woman, and we should celebrate people like that.

But there’s more to it than that. Because in order to make sure women have the opportunity that they deserve because of their talents, they need to have a support network. For me, as a man in the Armed Forces, I have a support network and almost all of them are male, because of the generation I am. If I’ve got a problem I can go and have a good laugh and chat to them about all sorts of things. But that’s more difficult for women partly because there are many fewer of them at that level. Something like two Major Generals, one Air Marshal and two or three Air Vice Marshals and no Admirals who are women.

So, at that level as a woman you stick out like a sore thumb because you are one of so few, and that support network becomes even more important. And that’s where Women in Defence can step in. It can be about more than celebration, but also about supporting, mentoring, networking, to allow people the opportunity to flourish when they are in the severe minority.

Thank you for highlighting that and we absolutely agree. Turning back to you, in May you’ll have been in post as Chief of Defence People for three years. Looking back over that time, what's been your biggest achievement?

Surviving!! But seriously, it’s very difficult because I don't think in terms of legacy. I don't think about what I have done. I think about what needs to be done and so I don't dwell on what we’ve achieved.

If I was to think of the thing I most hope I've achieved it is to begin to change the culture in Defence, around women, around race and around the culture between civil servants and the military. Trying to get acceptance that we're working alongside each other and we all bring benefits to the organization, rather than it being what it has been in the past - and I slightly exaggerate for effect - a white male dominated society.

I've tried to combat that as much as possible, through little things. For example, I forbid anybody in my presence or on paper that I go anywhere near to use the words 'manpower', 'manning' 'under-manning' and so on. I change it all. I say no you're just not allowed to use that language in my presence. And that’s a tiny little thing but it's slowly, slowly, slowly beginning to have an effect. So people don't talk about the 'manning challenge' anymore. They talk about the 'personnel challenge' and things like that.

And little things like that do, little by little, nudge us into a better society, better inclusion. For me, that’s far more powerful than simply saying we don’t challenge. We don't challenge because we don't have the culture to challenge. We don't have the culture to challenge because of our hierarchy. And you're not going to get away from hierarchy on the battlefield. Forcing people to do things that they don't want to do is a leadership challenge, and hierarchy can help. But it isn’t what we need away from the battlefield. So, by trying to change the culture in this environment, by trying to ameliorate, by trying to blur the edges, by trying to make people understand that we've all got something to offer here, there are no second-class citizens in this organization.

That's what I've tried to do. And if I've started that, then that would be my greatest achievement.

Fantastic! Thank you. And on this theme, are there any regrets that you have in the sense of areas that perhaps looking back now you wish you'd pushed harder on?

If you look at where we were three years ago and where we are now, is there any discernible difference? I don't know. So, could I have done more? Of course I could.

One area I'd love to have done more on earlier is mental health. In the last couple of years, it’s really taken off. But there’s plenty more we could do to try and get the ethos of ‘it’s OK not to be OK’ into the organisation. I also think we are too paternalistic an organisation within the Forces. We need to give people more imagination and more flexibility and more choice to make their own decisions. But we're getting there slowly. For example, very recently we opened up eligibility for long term relationships in accommodation for the first time in 150 years. So, this is changing slowly, but we need to do more.

Let me just close by saying that at Women in Defence we certainly see a real difference in where we are now from three years ago and are very excited for the next three years ahead. So, last question, what do the next three years have in store for you?

Boy I wish I knew!

I’ve got another year in the job, a fourth year. And I think my wife would say that's enough! She says this is the hardest job I've done. And that's only right because it's the one with the most responsibility I think. But after that who knows. I want to do something different to defence. I'm really, really lucky. Defence has worked for me in terms of getting to way beyond where I ever thought I'd get to. But if there's any opportunity to do something similar in another organisation in another environment completely, then why wouldn't I try that?!

Okay well we will watch this space! And thank you again for your time and all your answers.

If you'd like to keep up-to-date with CDP and the incredible work he and his team are doing, you can follow them on Twitter.

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