I had no career plan. After doing a law degree at university I went to Reading County Borough as a trainee solicitor. The chief executive wanted to get someone who would be doing the same job as him within 10 years - it took me 11.
During this time I was seconded for a year to Birmingham University to do a masters degree on urban management. After four years in Reading I moved to Berkshire County Council. When I didn't get a promotion there, I decided that I needed inner-city experience. I moved to Lambeth as head of the chief executive's office. I set up one of the first economic development units and worked with Herman Ouseley (now chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality) establishing one of the first race units.
I was also responsible for the capital programme which was then the biggest in local government. I became involved in equal opportunities issues and began to get interested in community involvement. I loved working in Brixton. I learnt a lot and it was a very influential time. After failing to get the deputy chief executive post in Camden (having been caught out by a question from Tessa Jowell) I decided somewhat arrogantly to apply for the chief executive post in Brent and was appointed when I was 32.
I spent six years in Brent and this was a further period of learning. I developed a high level of political sensitivity. I think it is really important for leaders to have the ability to be their own person, in the sense of having the confidence to take decisions you think are right when there are no "right" decisions. When the council changed control in 1986 I decided I did not want to be there for another four years. I did the same job somewhere completely different - Gloucestershire County Council.
The second time round as chief executive was when I realised the extent and limitations of the role and had the confidence to put into place all the things I'd learnt about management and leadership in Brent. I was happy but my growing interest in customer services meant that the chief executive post at the DHSS's Benefits Agency was too much to resist.
Until this job I hadn't understood the pressures of running a national organisation, particularly if you believe in being a visible leader. I learnt how to go about changing the culture of a large organisation which had a long way to go in terms of customer service.
I was a bit surprised when I got the job of Permanent Secretary at the Department of Employment - later merged with education - especially as I was convinced I'd made a mess of the interview.
What is the most important aspect of your job?
It varies from time to time. After the merger the most important thing was to get the department up and running, and management and leadership were my priorities. Now it's more policy, management and leadership.
What do you enjoy?
I love being at the centre of politics. I'm not a politician and have served all three parties in different places at different times, but I love the taste, feel and smell of politics. I also like the combination and balance of policy, management and leadership.
What don't you enjoy?
The extent to which my life is organised.
What's the most difficult thing you have to do?
The mornings when you don't really feel at your best but you have to get up and inspire a large group of people. You are always on show. There is no hiding place.
What was different from what you expected?
I have to spend more time on management tasks than I expected.
Who influenced your approach?
Harry Tee, the chief executive in Reading who took me in hand and taught me a lot - social skills as well as how to be a good chief executive. John Stewart, professor in Birmingham where I did my MA, and who is one of the most influential voices in local government. I've learnt from many people. I consciously watch and observe. You can pick up a lot from bad practice as well as from good.