“Without doubt, networking is vital for a successful transition”

David Picton shares his career journey from RAF officer to Interim Executive Director for Commercial and Procurement at Highways England.

Can you give me an overview of your military career?
I served as an RAF officer for 20 years – starting out with sponsorship through my A-levels and degree (as a university cadet), before joining the supply and logistics branch. I did a range of operational, strategy and programme tours, supporting fast jet, helicopter and strategic fleets as well as joint service and coalition logistics operations. For active service, I deployed on peacekeeping duties, and held command roles in the Afghanistan campaign and the 2003 Gulf War after graduating from the Advanced Staff Course at Shrivenham in 2001/2.

How did you become an Executive Director with Highways England?
I left the military in 2005, and have since had three major roles. The first was as a sales and marketing director with Motorola, then I moved to an operations director role with Sky, followed by six years with Carillion, first as supply chain director and then as chief safety and sustainability officer.

Early in 2018, Carillion suffered a high-profile business failure and went into compulsory liquidation. Fortunately, at the same time Highways England were looking for an Interim Executive Director, and I was available to start immediately. Often interim roles need someone who can join quickly, learn the ropes fast and be effective straightaway.

What OA services did you use as part of your transition?
I had a career consultation, which covered different career options, translating my skills into ‘business friendly’ language and advice on networking through contacts. I also went back to the OA after a year or so, to take stock of what my next career moves might be, and get advice on keeping up my professional progress.

What is your long-term career plan?
Having worked in industry for 13 years, and with 20 years of leadership experience from the military, I decided to launch my own business consultancy – called Hengist Inspired. I’ll finish my interim contract with Highways England at the end of November, which will then allow me to focus on growing my company in areas such as leadership, team dynamics, engagement and change programmes. However, I’ll still keep an eye out for interim roles that could offer new challenges, or where I know I could add real value.

What transferable military skills have helped in your civilian career?
My military career has really helped in commercial roles. I was a logistics officer, so I already had a good understanding of supply chain principles and had several logistics qualifications. Officers are trained and experienced in leading and delivering change, skills that have really helped in all four commercial roles I’ve held, especially in rapidly responding to financial pressures. My colleagues have also said they value a Service leaver’s ability to find and deliver solutions, especially in situations where there is no clear process. Above all, they prize the commitment that comes from taking ownership of a situation, engaging people to produce a collective solution and ‘giving your word’ when you say you’ll do something.

What tips would you give to Service leavers?
Without doubt, networking is vital for a successful transition. When I was leaving the Armed Forces, all my contacts were military based, but because I did not want to work in defence, I networked heavily to learn and build a wider community. There’s simply no harm in asking people if they would meet for coffee, and if they could offer some advice. These days, LinkedIn is the number one networking tool, and your algorithms are driven by your comments, active engagement, content creation (blogs, articles) and similar contributions. The more you do, the more you’ll get to seen.

Remember to ask only for advice, never for a job. It sounds obvious, but people do fall into the trap. When you leave someone after a coffee, just ask them if there is anyone else they think you should speak to. This will help you to grow your network, and you never know which connection will lead to an opportunity.

Interested in working for Highways England?

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