Major General Sharon Nesmith on seeing around barriers 

Major General Sharon Nesmith became the first female officer to command at two-star level in the British Army in January when she took on the role of General Officer Commanding the Army Recruiting and Initial Training Command. She talks to Berenice Healey about the challenges of recruitment through a pandemic, the British Army’s journey towards inclusivity and how to inspire young people.

Taking on the role of recruitment and initial training at the highest level for the British Army would be a challenge at the best of times but doing so ten months into a pandemic presented Major General Sharon Nesmith with the immediate priority of sustaining operations in a Covid-19 context.

“The most important thing was to be able to create a safe environment in which we could continue to operate,” she says. “By that, I mean still recruit, still conduct our basic training for our soldiers and officers so that the army can continue to deliver what the nation asks of us, because we can't do that if we don't have any plan. 

“But, if I'm honest, it has been fantastic to see young men and women being able to get on with their lives. It turns out, in a wonderful way, we were absolutely focused on enabling the army to deliver output, but were also able to allow young men and women to get on with their careers, which has been super.”

The British Army put what it calls ‘force health protection measures’ in place to protect personnel, which Nesmith says are an extension of national directions to ensure people can continue to operate safely. Specific recruitment and training measures included creating appropriate bubbles so teams could continue to work.

“The most challenging aspect was to reassure our workforce that they were able to operate safely, and why it was so important, and to listen to their concerns when they felt a bit uncomfortable about it,” Nesmith adds. 

// Major General Sharon Nesmith. Credit: MOD

Cadetship opportunities

Nesmith’s own route into an army career was via a cadetship at university, a direction she is happy to recommend. 

“It was the best club you could join at the university in my eyes. Not only did I get a brilliant insight into my future career and felt like I was already embarking on it, but I was also given chances to do things that I would never have had the opportunity to do with people that I really enjoyed doing them with. 

“Look through the lens now of how costly it is to embark on a profession that requires you to go to university; to be able to combine all of that goodness with reducing the overhead financially, it's got to be a win-win.”

In the last four or five years I have been more conscious of what I bring to all of that from being female, in a very positive way.

From that starting point, Nesmith’s rise to the top has been driven by a love for her job rather than any personal ambition. 

“I often describe the army as being part of my identity,” she says. “It's in my DNA now because I am so proud of what the organisation does, what we do for the nation, the way we do it and the people we do it with. All of that passion and pride in what we do is what has kept me serving. 

“In terms of progression, every job I've had, once I've got to the stage of feeling comfortable, I then looked over the horizon and thought, you know what, I can do a bit more. It's been much more iterative in terms of progression, and it's the passion and pride that has kept me going.

“If I'm honest, in the last four or five years I have been more conscious of what I bring to all of that from being female, in a very positive way; what I can contribute in terms of role modelling, what is on offer for young women to have a really rewarding and challenging career in the army.”

The importance of role models

While conscious of being a role model herself, Nesmith believes it is important to have women represented across the whole workforce.

“It is about young women being able to see what they might see themselves doing in the future,” she says. “I think it's important to have senior leaders as role models to set an example but also to be the voice at a senior leadership level, executive board setting. 

“What is more relatable is women doing the job that you're about to go and do because then you can look and feel. The other aspect is about having women around you. It's that nurture, support network that can also model to you what is good, and how good feels when we get it right in our inclusive teams.”

It is well recognised that diversity enables better decision making.

That inclusivity needs to extend to research and development and the defence supply chain to be fully effective. 

“We're lots of teams within teams across the defence enterprise, by which I mean serving personnel, our civilian workforce industries that we work alongside, those that do research – all of that, that is the total enterprise. We want diversity across all of that. I do think it makes a difference to team dynamics; it is well recognised that diversity enables better decision making." 

Seeing around barriers

Nesmith identifies two types of barriers women might experience in their military careers. The first is hard, policy barriers that meant when she joined there were roles women could not do. These are now gone, and Nesmith says she is proud that the organisation has made such a significant step towards diversity and inclusion. 

The second, softer barriers are about expectations, behaviours and culture. 

“They might be an inability for someone to see themselves in that next role because they see an expectation from within the organisation of what roles people are good to do. The soft barriers are still there, and I would say don't look at the barriers, look at your way around them. And of course, the army and armed forces are working really hard to address the softer barriers.

“That is at the heart of what we are all about in the army; we do nothing unless we're part of a team. And the only way a team can be successful is by valuing every member in it and working collaboratively. We do a lot of support via network champions, mentors, making sure that we do some of the bystander training so that we can call out when we potentially haven't quite got it right.”

Integrated Review’s ambitions for personnel

Nesmith’s appointment came shortly before the Ministry of Defence issued its Integrated Review and Defence Command Paper that set out technology and strategic policies for the armed forces, but also introduced personnel cuts. In the light of that, does Nesmith feel the army has what it needs to fulfil the government's ambitions?

“The army's transformation from the Integrated Review is all about the people. My focus in terms of people is: Do we have the people to deliver that radical transformation? Yes, we have some talented young soldiers – recruits, officers and officer cadets – that are just champing at the bit to be able to transform, to be the more agile, more integrated, more expeditionary army that we're looking for. 

“That is not to say that we don't need to recognise that the expectations of the future workforce are different. The young people that are joining today will have different expectations, and we need to make sure that we can do that together.

We have an army personnel transformation programme that will do that. That is about making sure that we offer career pathways that are attractive and a little bit more agile, that we have talent and management methods in place so that we are able to maximise the talent of all within our workforce.” 

When I was joining the army, I wouldn't have recognised the skills I was going to be given, but my goodness, when I look back, I have been set up for life through continuous learning.

Nesmith’s enthusiasm for her role and the opportunities a career in the armed forces offers young people is undeniably infectious, and she understandably has a positive message for young people considering a military career.

“What has energised me over my career – whether that had been a three-year career or a 30-year career – is a very clear, motivating sense of purpose which everybody in the team is focused on, of which I'm very proud. Secondly, it is about working as a valued member of the team and the opportunity that you have within that; there are opportunities for all. 

“When I was joining the army, I wouldn't have recognised the skills I was going to be given, but my goodness, when I look back, I have been set up for life through continuous learning. I can say now with hindsight I have done all of that and had a lot of fun on the way, while really enjoying the company of the people that I deal with.”

// Main image: Major General Sharon Nesmith is the first female officer to command at the two-star level in the British Army. Credit: MOD