Empowering your team with swagger: In conversation with Ryan Shea of PUBLIC

Huckletree's Editorial TeamThe Editorial TeamHuckletree6/9/2022

From intern to director in just three years, now that’s some impressive ladder climbing. Kevwe, Community Associate at PUBLIC Hall, our hub curated around GovTech, sits down with Ryan Shea, Director at leading European government-focused technology company PUBLIC, to chat about what he’s learned about leadership over the years. 


Kevwe: First off, tell us a bit about your background.

Ryan: Before coming to PUBLIC, I spent five years in strategy consulting for Deloitte in the States. I discovered PUBLIC when I came to London to do my MBA, and it hit all the right points for what I wanted to do next. It was this confluence of government, finance, and strategy. So, I sent a cold LinkedIn message to a current employee at PUBLIC saying, “Hey, I’d love to have a coffee”. A couple of interviews later, I walked out with a one day a week job while I was still in school. And then the rest is history. I was employee number eight - my claim to fame on the roster.


Kevwe: So coming in as employee number eight, did that mean you were given leadership automatically?

Ryan: Not at all - I came in as an intern just once a week alongside my MBA. But, this industry pulls you in and eventually, I spent my summer here. During my internship, I did a lot of research and then supported the development of our Ventures function. This function took ideas and learnings from the research and insights from our interactions with tech companies, leading to a discovery that there was a huge need in the market to bridge the gap between public and private innovation. 


Kevwe: To you, what’s the difference between management and leadership?

Ryan: There are a couple of components to it. It’s essential to engage in your team’s projects. So even if the project centres around a topic I’m removed from, I’ll always be active in my team’s projects and chip in with value. Being an active listener is crucial. Finding those areas where you can add value instils confidence in your team and empowers them to work autonomously.

Management, to me, is something else. It’s a project plan, a checklist of items. Have you done this? Yes or no. Proper leadership creates teams that can scale and work autonomously, where you've empowered the layers beneath you to make the right decisions so that you don't need to be in the room for every conversation.


You have to find a balance. It’s vital that no team member ever feels alone on an island, so it’s important also to make yourself available for people to put their hand up and say, “help, I’ve never encountered this problem before”.


Kevwe:  As a leader, what feelings are you trying to inspire in your team? You said confidence, autonomy. Any others?

Ryan: I want a bit of swagger in my team. I grew up playing sports, and I feel very grateful for the lessons that environment exposed me to. It doesn't mean putting other people down, and it doesn't mean putting yourself on a pedestal. It means having quiet confidence. Swagger gives you the muscle relaxation to be able to play at your highest level.

Daniel and Alex (PUBLIC founders) do an excellent job embodying swagger, and I think that's been a huge reason we have such low turnover in the team. They both bring a lot of energy, have high standards, and expect high performance levels, but it's not in that task mastering kind of way - it's in a swagger-first way. They believe in us, give us the shot, and put us in the room. And they do this in a brilliant way that doesn’t compound pressure.

When you’re in a room with the prime minister, you don’t need more pressure. Being given that opportunity empowers us to perform - you’re not going to disregard that kind of opportunity.


Another critical element is purpose. If you're just showing up here for yourself, you're not going to be a great teammate.


Kevwe:  What qualities would you say makes a great leader?

Ryan: A degree of selflessness. I think you have to prove to this group of people that you're worthy of their trust and respect. All the leaders I've ever respected have embodied that they're giving back as much as they're asking. And when that transaction is happening fluidly, then that's where you start to get a high level of trust and performance.

Emotional intelligence is essential. I've certainly found that my team has grown as I've risen in the organisation. My daily life has become much more about measuring how the team feels. Are people in a good place? If we're not in a good place, what do we need to be doing to get to a good place? How do we get from a good place to a great place? Enabling others and delivering through others becomes the job, which requires a lot of emotional intelligence.

A support network is one of the greatest assets a leader can have these days. You can read all the books and articles in the world, but sometimes it’s best to learn from another’s experience. I’ll plug Huckletree here. For us, being part of a workspace curated around GovTech is fundamental. It means we can have meaningful daily interactions with people focusing on similar challenges from different angles without leaving the building.


Kevwe: What things have you found about yourself by leading people?

Ryan: It might be the pandemic, but I’ve mellowed out more. Now, I can look at a situation I previously would have found stressful and find a resolution. When faced with challenging situations, I have a lot of confidence in both my team and myself, which has allowed me to mellow out.

I’ve discovered that I need to work on applying more intellectual focus on the most critical problems instead of getting stuck into every little minor thing.

The fact I want to be involved in everything shows I care, but there are only so many hours in a day, and I should spend those driving real value for the business.


Kevwe: What books / content have you consumed that’s made you a better leader?

Ryan: I grew up playing tennis, so the Inner Game by Timothy Gallwey resonated with me. You can learn a lot about emotional management and how to deal with high-pressure situations from it. Another great one on emotional management is Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss. I’m learning a lot about engaging with multiple parties to get the best outcome.

Matthew Syed’s Rebel Ideas emphasises the importance of having diverse teams and diverse perspectives for complex problem-solving, something that intuitively we all understand but the studies and mathematical proofs he uses to prove the point are really compelling.


Kevwe: What key attributes make a team member stand out to someone who’s senior leadership?

Ryan: I think effort and attention to detail are table stakes, but when you see high levels of those, that always catches one’s eye. Commitment to bringing different ideas is definitely one. We have something at PUBLIC called the Idea Bank, which happens every two weeks where we bring learnings, from creative ways of making a presentation to having an idea about a tech product. It's an outlet for people to be able to express creatively and bring ideas that could be commercially valuable. I’ve always found that to be a great way of measuring who’s thinking strategically, and who has what it takes to get to that next level.


Kevwe: What advice do you have for someone looking to climb the leadership ladder?

Ryan: So two key things: First, have a mnemonic to hold yourself to account for day to day excellence. My favourite mnemonic is one I’ve taken from the Ohio State Buckeyes football team: if you want to impress someone, go + 2 for the day. Finish the things people ask you to do, then find two ways to go above and beyond. If you can consistently do that, you’re going to be successful. 

The second thing is always to think about what this business needs strategically. What are the opportunities? What’s the next big thing? If you can do both of these things - high level accountability and thinking about the direction of your business, there’s no way you can’t be successful.


Kevwe: Great answer. Last question, what general leadership / career advice do you have?

Ryan: Constantly audit yourself for what you find interesting. You won’t always get to do something exciting every day, you can’t always ask that of your career, but I think you should have a North Star for the things you find important. Professional happiness accounts for personal happiness at the end of the day. It’s important to check in regularly and see how they align. 


Kevwe: That’s a wrap. Thanks for such an insightful conversation. 

Ryan: It’s my pleasure. 


PUBLIC’s mission is to help public sector bodies transform the services they offer in order to create a better society for everyone. In 2019, we joined forces to put London’s first GovTech workspace on the map. Perfectly placed in the heart of Whitehall, PUBLIC Hall is an ecosystem curated for GovTech startups, scale-ups and investors. 

Discover Public Hall.

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