Women in Digital: Cheryl Stevens, MBE

Welcome to the first of our new series profiling women tech leaders within government and public sector. First up is Cheryl Stevens, MBE, director for shared channels experience at the DWP Digital Group, who shares what she has learned during her career so far.

Posted 30 June 2020 by Christine Horton

Did you enjoy school?

I didn’t really, I just found it a bit boring and wanted to be with my friends. I only really liked science and English as the teachers really brought it to life.

What qualifications do you have?

I left school at 16 with 11 GCSEs and went to work. I did think about college and Uni etc., but I wasn’t in the right place and family circumstances dictated only my brother or I could go. As he was academic it felt right that he got the opportunity. I don’t regret my decision – he is now one of the most inspirational primary school teachers that I know and I’m proud that he is changing lives.

Has your career path been a smooth transition, a rocky road or a combination of both?

Definitely a combination of both. At 16-19 I was in the hospitality trade and that was tough, but it made me interact with a wide range of folk and that really made me stand out when I joined the Civil Service. I spent probably 10 years deciding what to specialise in; it was a plan that I made with my then mentor and we agreed I would do 18 month stints in a variety of roles to see where I best fit. That 10 years was a bit rocky but I’m glad I persevered and took roles that no one really wanted because there isn’t much that fazes me now and I am clear where my strengths, preferences and areas that I need help with are.

The 10 years since has been a bit smoother, maybe that’s as I grew up too but I also think the Civil Service culture now is more akin to my natural personality and values so whilst it has been mountainously tough in places, it just hasn’t felt all that rocky overall. 

What’s the best career advice you can give to others?

Don’t give up on a passion and don’t take anything on half-heartedly. Life is too short to ‘endure’ work. If you don’t know what sparks your interest or where your natural skills lie don’t be afraid to try new things but be willing to accept if it’s not for you rather than trying to make something unworkable work.

If you had to pick one mentor who has had the biggest influence on you, who would it be?

A chap called Andy Farrar, who we nicknamed Tigger because of his boundless energy. He was the first real visible leader that I came across and although he was busy, he always made time for people. He had an empathy and style that just made everyone want to be the best version of themselves. Andy really guided my career for a long time and whilst he is retired now his legacy lives on for so many of us that he took the time to help.

From where do you draw inspiration?

So many places, my past and how I grew up and that drives me to want to make a difference, the people around me making that difference – often in spite of personal challenges, and the wonderful people who draw groups like Women In Identity, Women in Digital and Digital Voices together to lift and support others.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced to date?

Workwise, deciding to move Departments after 15 years to follow my specialism. I hadn’t quite understood how the loss of networks, familiar feel and faces would impact me and the first six months were tough.

Home-wise, beating breast cancer a few years ago really made me evaluate where I was, and do you know, I actually was already pretty happy and still am.   

What qualities do you feel makes a good leader?

Approachability, authenticity, calmness, and the ability to inspire. Creating an environment where people trust you to listen, act but not overreact and get a sense of who you are is really important to me. 

From a work viewpoint what has 2020 been like for you so far?

Crazy in the best possible way. Whilst I can’t go on without saying that these extraordinary times are having a devastating effect and we are all feeling that in every aspect of our lives, work has actually been good for me. I have moved roles, taking on an interim director position, brought together teams to form the new Shared Channels Experience Directorate, and tried to get to know my teams through every which way apart from face-to-face and all from the corner of my bedroom! I’ve said it before, what we do in DWP really matters and I couldn’t be prouder of our response in these unprecedented times and I am proud to be part of it.

Give us a fact about you that most other people wouldn’t know.

I used to skateboard in my youth. I was pretty good and was competition level. I never won anything major, but I loved that I had a mode of transport! I think I would definitely break something now although I have kind of promised my son that I will teach him at some point…