A MatchFit interview with Lyn McDonald OBE of the Cabinet Office

In this interview, we talk to Lyn McDonald, the first ever female UK tax inspector specialist in financial transfer pricing. She reflects on the lessons from her unique career trajectory, the challenges of leadership in a large organisation and how working with MatchFit has helped her, and the wider impact it’s had for her team.

As a Political Philosophy graduate, Lyn joined the Civil Service in 1987 through the specialised Fast Stream programme, and chose the Inland Revenue out of the three departments in the scheme (the Foreign Office and the MOD being the other two). She spent 16 years as a tax inspector, specialising in international taxation and specifically on financial transfer pricing. This resulted in her becoming an expert in a very restricted, male-dominated but incredibly interesting area.

She says: “I was the first woman inspector to be given that position, at the time it was considered a bit hard and technical for the girls!

From there I set up the first risk area in HMRC and later joined the senior Civil Service in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) because I was curious to see what the rest of the Government did. However, the role was very different to what I thought I was there to do and somehow I ended up managing hundreds of people!

I started a project with the DWP called ‘Tell Us Once’, which was about how we treat people when they are at the worst or best points in their life. ‘Tell Us Once’ was the first ever cross-government programme, with the purpose that someone could tell government just once that they’d had a birth or a bereavement. It won lots of awards, and accelerated my career considerably.”

Lyn gained a reputation for speaking the blunt truth and was recruited into the Cabinet Office by (Lord) Francis Maude to work on grants, efficiency and effectiveness, which totalled £130 billion worth of expenditure every year.

She explains: “The Prime Minister wanted a review of counter-fraud and I was the only appropriate expert on the team. So I ended up doing the review and then it just grew and grew, and before I knew it, I was leading three functions for the whole of government and trying to work out how I ended up with 200 staff when I only ever planned for five!

Functional government is a reasonably new concept that’s of interest to the rest of the world, and will be quickly adopted by other governments, I suspect. If you think about the departments across government, they are organised into discrete areas: the Department for Education does what it says on the tin, then you have the DWP for benefits, jobs; HMRC for tax. We’ve been very good at picking out what we believe are the key elements to our society, and what we need to focus on.

At the head of this structure are the Permanent Secretaries. These are the accounting officers – the Chief Executive officers, in private terms. As accounting officers they are accountable for every penny spent and for everything that happens in their department. What Lord Maude discovered is that while we have a lot of expertise within government, we were short of subject matter experts, for example communications specialists. We now have 14 functions that run horizontally, and the leads have professional expertise, set the standards and lead the professions.

My area is called FEDG – “Fraud, Error, Debt and Grants.”

How did the Cabinet Office manage performance standards before working with MatchFit?

“We do performance reviews and staff surveys every year, but these can be a blunt instrument. I have 360 degree feedback from staff, colleagues and externals; then we do staff surveys. The staff will say how they’re feeling, what they’re happy about, what they’re not happy about and my performance is related to that. I could be brilliant, but if I get really bad staff survey scores I better be ready to explain why!

I think most people are frightened of feedback. Running an operational unit the way I did with ‘Tell Us Once’, the feedback was gold. I didn’t really understand what feedback was until ‘Tell Us Once’. It’s lovely when people tell you how well it’s going, but what you actually want is the person who tells you what you’ve done wrong, because then you can sort it, and more people are going to want to use it.

We designed ‘Tell Us Once’ from the outside in – we went out and spoke to bereaved people, and to the people who were delivering the service and they designed it. What we then did at the centre of government was make it happen. We said ‘go do it and come back and tell us what’s working, what’s not working and then we will put legislation in place or break down barriers or find you the money’.

Because we designed it as a strategic outcome, it meant that every local authority could administer it in a way that works for them. What works in the Scilly Isles with one death per year is not what works in a London Local Authority that’s got two major hospitals in its borough. Once you start working like that, feedback is your lifeblood.

And that works for staff as well. Is it a surprise that if you look at formal grievances, much of the time they’ve come from somebody who’s got a poor performance marking. If you don’t understand that then you are looking the wrong way. I can be asked ‘how did that person get it, did you put the wrong processes in place?’ But you can’t make a decision based on the number of grievances, those are indicators – not absolutes, because if you manage performance properly, you’re going to get poor performers either situationally or because someone is not right for the role, and dealing with that properly, helps individuals in your teams and of course your business. Getting continual feedback from staff is a brilliant way of finding out not just where they’re unhappy, but why. If you do it well, you get a chance to change, adopt and adapt in flight which helps individual and overall performance. In our business that makes a difference to the country. So the feedback is vital. While the quantitative information is useful, we tend not to do very well at qualitative feedback, and tend to shy away from it, get a bit nervous. However, both my boss and a colleague I work closely with, who also works for me are actually very good at doing that – they’ll say ‘are you open for some feedback’ and they’ll always tell me where I could have done better. I love that, because I can use it or ignore it—that’s entirely up to me—but if I don’t hear it, I’m never going to know whether I’ve just missed the opportunity of a lifetime to get it right.

How is the MatchFit CLIMB programme helping?

“MatchFit gives me that qualitative opportunity, gives me opportunities to get underneath. It doesn’t mean I’m suddenly going to make all my staff happy and give me 10/10, but it lets me see where I can add or change things. I can change the message, change the tone or the approach and I can work out where I can do that for the business. It’s a real chance just to sit back and look.

Initially, I was really cynical – I’m a Tax Inspector! However, I love to be the first to try things, it was a tick in the box, and I thought ‘you know what, it might just work’.”

So what convinced you of the programme’s merits?

“I think the joy of MatchFit CLIMB is that if you asked everybody else you would probably get a different answer. That’s one of the things I love about it – it takes on different forms because what you put into it is what you get out of it as well.

Where MatchFit has had a big impact for me, and the difference for me from other training, is it creates a safe space, and time to just think about these things. That doesn’t always sit well with others, that’s not the magic answer. They may not understand why we don’t ‘just do it anyway’. But the reality is that none of us actually do and sometimes it’s just not possible in a normal day.

Like any good therapy, the questions are what counts! My son’s an expert in conflict resolution and I sometimes go to him and say “I don’t understand why I can’t persuade ‘x’, or why ‘y’ thinks this, what do I do here?” and he always says to ask questions. Asking questions enables you to find out what’s going on, but people also find out about themselves and their motivations. So asking the right questions is how MatchFit has been guiding us back to really thinking about the issues.

As experts, we trust other experts. The fact that the training and techniques are delivered by trained psychologists means you’re immediately more relaxed. There is a predisposition among all of us that if you show up saying ‘I’ve got these qualifications and I’m accredited’ then we’re going to take your view, because that’s how we work. That’s a big thing for us and it’s allowed us to all sink into it and really think about it.

For me, it also came at a perfect time. My colleague Mark has been working for me for years. He came up through the ranks quite quickly, so at the start of Covid he was temporarily promoted to the same grade as me, so that we could do this project together. It was challenging for him, but it was also challenging for me – I wanted the help, but I’m used to being in charge!

MatchFit gave me time, and in asking me questions about my leadership, it’s allowed me to realise I am a leader. As an expert, a lot of what you invest in yourself is your technical expertise. But leadership is also a skill, and I’ve had a little bit of a realisation that I’ve grown in that regard.

I’m starting to describe myself as the leader of three functions, not just as someone who heads up those functions. I have started trying to live in this as a leader. Yes, I am required to be an expert in order to lead other experts, but that’s no longer really my job. I now need to sit back and let others be the experts and to concentrate on getting better and better at the day job – which is leading!

That for me has been a big gift.

MatchFit’s CLIMB programme is enabling me to enjoy my role more fully. I am interested in the concepts anyway, and read around the subject a lot, but it’s allowing me to think more about how I lead, what I’ve done, and how I show up as a leader. How I talk about leadership is as important as anything else that I do.

Really what it showed me was that if my staff results are bad it’s not necessarily my fault, but if I’m not being the leader how will I know? How will I know what can happen unless I step up to that and really pass it onto everybody else as well?

So I’ve spent a lot of time working with the staff around leadership that I wouldn’t have done before, and I’ve been getting fantastic feedback, which is a joy. My 360 degree feedback reinforced the point that if you put the effort in and you think about it properly and professionally and you make that your job, not the thing you do on the side, but the thing that you do – then you know it can make a difference. It makes a difference to people’s perceptions and it makes a difference to how they hear you. When I talk now in board or group meetings at the Cabinet Office, I’m no longer just talking as a niche expert, I’m talking as a leader. That has had an impact on me and I think that’s allowed me to make a big impact on my wider team as well.

The challenge I have now is how to roll this out to my wider team, because I would love to do that. I know it works and I want other people in the Cabinet Office to get in and do it as well. I just think it will help hugely with the challenges ahead.”