The former highest-ranking woman in the British Army talks diversity, empowerment and building high-performance teams on International Women’s Day

By Anita Jaynes on 8 March, 2023

An International Women’s Day special

Brigadier Nicola Moffat, the former highest-ranking woman in the British Army, took part in this exciting interview to discuss her experience of being in the military. The corporate consultant was listed as one of the Best Speakers for International Women’s Day, and is a revered thought leader in building high-performance teams and managing corporate change, two topics she explores in this Q&A. 

What was the biggest life lesson you learnt in the military?

I think in terms of life lessons, this was something that came to me over time, and I actually think it’s about self-care. What military people tend to be, not just because it’s ingrained in us and in our training, is very mission focussed, hugely focussed on developing our teams and the individuals within them. So, we expend a huge amount of our energy on other people.

And I think it took me some time to realise later on in my career, when I was a Colonel, that I was pushing myself too hard. I remember a particular job when I was working in the Ministry of Defence, I was really focussed on helping to create ministerial endorsed and funded policies that would support our troops on operations.

And, of course, that’s a really important task. But I put so much energy and effort into that, that I would go home at the weekend exhausted and tired. 

So, the biggest life lesson is that if you’re going to be a good leader or deliver your best in any role, then you’ve got to be match fit. And I was most match fit when I made sure I got the balance right between the energy and effort that I was expending on my work and [making time for] rest, recuperation, decompression and some time out.

What advice can you give businesses on how to build high performing teams? 

Building a high performing team starts with the leader. I often refer to something called Mission Command, it’s from the Prussian Chief of Staff many, many years ago. 

I can simplify it into three key areas: firstly, it’s about clarity of direction. A leader must have a clear vision and give direction on what needs to be done by the organisation. People must properly understand what’s being asked of them and why.  

Secondly, you need to have an environment of mutual trust, where I trust my teams to go and deliver what I’ve set out. They also must trust that they can come to me if there’s, for example, a lack of clarity or insufficient resource.  

And the third thing is true and full empowerment. So, building a high performing team, if I use Mission Command, is about clarity of direction in an environment and culture of mutual trust, where people are genuinely empowered. 

The other thing about a high performing team is that diversity within the team can add real value. I don’t just mean diversity as in Black, White, gay, straight, male, female. I mean diversity of experience, perspective, insight, culture and capability.

What is your top tip for leading and managing transformational and cultural change? 

Change impacts people in different ways. Some people will respond with shock, panic, fear or paralysis, whereas others will be more forward leaning. Now, my response to change is actually very forward leaning. I like to understand what that change means. I like to think about what it might mean for my organisation, what it might mean for my people. And I want to engage with it to then see if I can help shape [the] change.

And then, of course, a leader has got to develop understanding amongst their people [and] encourage them to own the change. I think this is the key thing to change. About 70% of change programmes fail, and I think principally they fail not because of the strategy or vision, they fail because they’re not implemented, or they’re poorly implemented, or they’re not resourced.

Get your people to own [change], understand it and engage with it at the lower levels and then start growing things not just from the top down, but also from the bottom up.

What is the most important quality of a leader? 

One of the most important qualities of a leader is emotional intelligence, the ability to recognise that people process things in different ways and therefore, find ways to bring those people on board. 

There’s always going to be some people who have the same thinking and motivations as me as a leader, but just because the others don’t it doesn’t mean they’re not great employees!

It just means that I’ve got to find another way to reach them, to give them time to process the change and then to encourage them to come on board with the journey. When we talk about diversity, it’s not just about Black, White, gay, straight, male, female and so on. It’s about people who lead differently, react differently and think differently.

This exclusive interview with Nicky Moffat was conducted by Roxanna Hayes, courtesy of The Female Inspirational Speakers Agency