Women in Digital: Rhiannon Lawson

Rhiannon Lawson reveals her path to head of standards at the Centre for Digital Public Services, Wales, what makes a good leader and shares her best career advice to others.

Posted 21 February 2022 by Christine Horton

Did you enjoy school?

I loved school. Obviously, there are always ups and downs at school but overall, it was great.

I had some wonderful teachers who truly shaped me into the person I am. My drama teacher, Keith Maughan and my English teacher/form tutor, Brad Young in particular, had a massive impact on me.

I struggled in a couple of areas, maths and science were never really my favourites and subsequently, my dad spent a lot of late nights with me teaching me how to do algebra or supporting me to finish of a science report. I was incredibly lucky to have parents who were super supportive with schoolwork and did everything they could to make learning fun.

What qualifications do you have?

I have a law degree from Kent university. I have wanted to do an MBA for ages but haven’t yet found the right subject or the time to do it. I am however remotely studying a women in leadership course at Cornell University. I also have a CISM (certified information security manager) qualification.

In my first full time job as an insolvency examiner at the insolvency service, I did some accountancy and insolvency courses and exams. I had to push my hatred of maths aside for the accountancy but the law degree came in handy for the insolvency side of things.

Finally, I have level C netball umpiring and fencing refereeing qualifications  (although I may be a bit rusty on both of those), and did my level 1 sign language course a few years ago – I really must pick that up again!

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

Ummmm, that’s an interesting question. I don’t think it has been particularly rocky. I have had a couple of bad experiences with managers or work which got frustrating but all in all, I think I have been pretty lucky with my career particularly as I transitioned from general policy roles into technology.

What is the best career advice you can give to others?

I previously did a talk for a women in tech leadership meetup to talk about career development I think they expected me to go to them and speak about a the career plan that I had created out of uni, that I knew exactly what I wanted to do that would create a path to my dream career or that I had catalogued my skill set in order to find all the gaps, do extra courses and then apply for the suitable jobs to get me there.

I am sure lots of people do this, and it is a completely valid way of developing your career, but it is not what I did. I think sometimes focusing too heavily on one outcome might mean you miss opportunities along the way. I had no idea what my dream career or job was so planning for it wasn’t really possible.

I did know I wanted to do something which felt like it was helping someone and useful in some way, and that was about it.

I’ve also seen things which say, “don’t take jobs which get you nowhere and don’t help you get to the next step towards that dream career.” I think every single job you do, however different, far removed or seemingly unrelated to your “dream career” it seems, somehow helps you towards it.

Also, apply for jobs even if you don’t think you’re qualified. If you’re passionate about it and you think you could do it, apply. Of course, you won’t get interviews for them all, but at some point you’ll be successful. Women tend to apply for roles only if they meet all the requirements in the job description. Men do not do that. So don’t let jobs pass you by just because you are too critical of yourself!

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

It is almost impossible to pick just one person. I haven’t ever had an “official” mentor relationship with anyone and have informal mentors in many people.  

Firstly, is a friend’s dad who has become a good friend of mine, Retired Brigadier Chris Murray. He has known me since I went to university with his sons and he has supported, advised and championed me at every turn. He is excellent at openly discussing issues and helping to find solutions to things I didn’t even know were an issue.  He has always encouraged me in everything I do and wants me on his team whether that be in competitive extreme Connect 4, being my referee for every role I have applied for or reassuring me when the imposter syndrome kicks in

Next is Chris Ferguson who was a director and my manager at the Government Digital Service. He went out of his way to support me in my career progression despite only being in his team for a short time. Despite having not worked with him for over a year, he continues to support me, calls me to check in and I know I can always call upon him if there is an issue which I need to thrash out with someone.

Finally is a good friend who I have regularly spoken to about work, my career and what I should do next. This goes in both directions and we openly discuss pros and cons of various situations. I think we forget that mentorship can come from friends, family, colleagues and leaders.

Yes, you can have formal mentor relationships for specific aims and goals, but I have always found these informal ones work for me

From where do you draw inspiration?

All sorts of places, but mostly from those around me. When I have a team of people who are awesome, it inspires me to be better too.

What qualities do you feel makes a good leader?

I think it depends what kind of leader you want to be. I am someone who wants to be inclusive, I care about people and I want to empower people to do their jobs in the way they see fit and which works for them. To do this the qualities for me are:

Communication: I am as honest with my team as possible. I keep in touch regularly with regular 1:1s and team catch ups. Being open like this allows my team to see who I am, to see my strengths and weaknesses and also to know that they can trust that I will inform them of the things that matter to them.

Being available: Ok so I cannot be available 100 percent of the time, but my team know that when they need me, I am available. Particularly over the last two years with the lockdowns, this is even more important. I make it clear to my team that, particularly if it is a wellbeing issue that they can call me anytime and I will switch meetings around to speak with them. I make sure if there is a quick turnaround piece of work that is very important, I make time to do it and help out. This builds a give and take system where they can rely on me, and I can rely on them in the future.

Coming to a decision as a team: Where possible, I provide a steer to the team regarding a topic they are working on or give information about priorities from ministers, or other strategic overviews which might help steer the work they are doing. But we, as a team, decide on the things we are working on wherever possible. My team are experts in what they do and so I want them to tell me what they think we should be working on. Nine times out of 10 they are absolutely right, and I support them in whatever they think is the direction

Making a small effort to make people’s days better: This is another one of those things that we will not always have the capacity, brain power or personal wellbeing to do and that is ok. But I enjoy doing things and sometimes just a few moments for people to step away from work can make a difference, whether that is my weekly Dinosaur Wednesdays, calling people who were living along during lockdown, doing online cooking classes with my team or creating digital advent calendars, none of it takes me long but it makes a difference to people’s days.

Showing my own weaknesses: I hear people saying that you have to be stoic and strong to be “a proper leader” but I think people need to see that you don’t have everything together and that we are all learning.

Seeing the big picture: Knowing how your work affects others and how theirs affects you means you can build relationships with the people who can help you succeed and vice versa.

From a work viewpoint what has the last 12-24 months been like?

It hasn’t been easy. I think everyone will say that though with lockdown. I have worked more hours than I ever have, there were a lot of changes in the organisation I was working in and a lot of team changes. But my team were always fabulous and any time that things got too much, there was always a friendly face at the end of a video call to make it better

What would you say are the biggest tech-based challenges we face today?

Sadly, it is nothing exciting. I think that just about every organisation has huge legacy issues and without fixing those issues, we cannot move forward and take advantage of the benefits of emerging technology. Alongside that is a continued reticence and concern by some of certain technologies or processes through fear of security consequences.  Some of this is education and dealing with misconceptions. Some of this is a need to embed security requirements into systems, software and connected devices so that consumers and people who have a lower understanding of technology, don’t need to worry too much as they know there are minimum requirements.

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

I have fenced for Kent and played darts for Norfolk, and I have just set up a podcast with 3 amazing women called The Unfairer Sex.