Great leaders can steer nations through tremendous turmoil, transform fledging companies into global icons, and inspire real and sustained action. Four self-development principles from the career experiences of the 27th Secretary of NSW Treasury.
I have encountered visionaries, but also experienced my fair share of the woeful and the mediocre. In a career that’s zig zagged from finance to education to the public service, I have been led and been fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to lead.
Across those four decades, the speed of change has intensified with the explosion of global connectivity, the digitalisation of the workplace, and the rise of social media. It has also transformed the expectations of customers who want better service, seamless delivery and personalised transactions.
Governments, as one of the most significant deliverers of services, have had to take action in response to these changing conditions—a challenge I encountered first hand during my time as the NSW Customer Service Commissioner. The most significant lesson was that ultimately, customers want a frictionless, connected service experience, and one that is on their terms.
Against that global challenge we set about delivering, revolutionising how government delivers services. The experience of developing Service NSW from the ground-up required significant and permanent change to how the government delivered services, truly placing the customer at the centre of what we do. Shifting that paradigm meant uprooting siloed services and replanting them on centralised platforms and building entirely new infrastructure, both digital and in bricks and mortar.
Most importantly, we focused strongly on the so called ‘soft issues’, the culture or what we called ‘the DNA’ of the new organisation. True leaders understand of course that culture related matters are actually the “hard” issues to address.
Principles for customer-centric leadership
Leaders come from all walks of life, with different personalities and approaches to managing their teams. However, there is a constant I have observed among the leaders I have worked with—their ability to manage themselves effectively, in addition to the individuals in their teams and the progress of their goals. Importantly, they practice self-reflection to become better leaders.
Self-reflection is an invaluable tool and something I aim to consistently apply in my own leadership practice. It is vital for leading change because it forces you to exercise empathy. In particular, I reflect on the following four qualities and regularly give myself a scorecard. How am I truly measuring up?
- Curiosity: Curiosity to learn and grow in your field and as a leader of people is essential. Curiosity allows the mind to be open to absorb information from all ranges of sources, to wander in unexplored places and stumble across unusual solutions. In my experience, the best outcomes have emerged in situations where someone has had the courage and curiosity to ask: Why? or Can this be done a better way? In fact, many of the breakthrough discoveries throughout history have come through constant curiosity. So, how curious are you? Are you constantly seeking a better way to do things?
- Taking calculated risks: The best leaders I’ve encountered are masters of risk. This doesn’t mean risk-aversion; it means taking calculated risks to build momentum for real and sustainable change. Risk taking is something I think about often; because to significantly improve customer experience with government, it’s important to understand the key risks and plan the mitigants to address them.
- Stepping out of your comfort zone: Change is inherently uncomfortable for many people and as a leader, it is your responsibility to manage that experience. For many leaders, at least initially, stepping out of your comfort zone and doing things differently is a frightening prospect. This might mean relying on others with more experience or expertise in certain areas and being more flexible in your approach to decision-making and problem solving. Fortunately, practice makes the uncomfortable more manageable and it can also provide your biggest learning opportunities.
- Congruence in word and action: Authenticity and integrity in leaders really matters. They are both qualities defined by action: doing what you say you will do when you say you will do it. Carolyn Taylor writes in “Walking the Talk” about the importance of leaders being congruent in what they say and do; in both word and action. In my experience, when leaders achieve that, it often translates to an enviable level of commitment and engagement among their teams who are then primed to take the leaps of faith asked of them and believe in the journey of change that is laid out in front of them.
In my current role, my personal objective is to marry these principles with the vision and strategic priorities of NSW Treasury and the NSW Government.
Our vision is to be recognised as world class among treasuries globally—an ambitious objective that takes technical skills as a given and then hinges on strong leadership from all corners and levels of the department.
To help us get there, my focus is to entrench a culture of leadership so that staff put these principles into practice each day and choose leadership rather than having it handed to them. This is a risk worth taking. The better our leaders become at practising leadership and reflecting on the principles of leadership, the quicker we will realise our vision and the more effective and sustainable it will be.
But most importantly, the people of NSW will benefit because a world-class Treasury places people at its centre, ensuring they have access to the services and infrastructure they need, underpinned by a strong and sustainable economic and financial position.
Michael Pratt AM is currently Secretary of NSW Treasury, and has previously been NSW Customer Service Commissioner.