Frontline leadership the key to culture, says South Australia's top public servant

By Stephen Easton

July 31, 2019

Jim McDowell

“Decide what you want to do, figure out how you’re going to do it, plan to do it and try and do it.”

This is the leadership advice to frontline managers from the head of the South Australian Department of the Premier and Cabinet, Jim McDowell.

Following the release of the SA government’s new action plan for a happier, healthier and more effective public service, which has a strong focus on leadership development, McDowell dispensed some of his thoughts on the art of managing people via The Advertiser.

The most senior leaders are probably doing relatively well, in his view, but McDowell believes “first line leadership” needs to improve through new training and development initiatives for hundreds of public servants.

“Your first-line leaders do one thing that nobody else does; they touch the whole workforce,” he said. “They quite often and regularly set the culture and expectations of an organisation.”

McDowell said these frontline managers would get opportunities to improve their skills in leading small groups, time management and how to get the best out of people. He said they should stop thinking, “It’s what I do that counts” and instead ask the question: “What I can help other people to do that counts?”

“For me, first-line leadership training is the key cultural decider in an organisation.”

New whole-of-government leadership and management-training programs are being developed, under the public sector action plan produced by the Commissioner for Public Sector Employment Erma Ranieri.

The aim is to have by next June “high quality, sector-wide programs available to build leadership capability across the sector,” including “content related to capability gaps” delivered through the existing South Australian Leadership Academy.

A new leadership capability framework is also expected to be developed by mid-2020. This will replace the current leadership-capability frameworks for senior executives, middle managers and frontline managers in SA government agencies, to provide consistent guidelines for recruitment, talent management and leadership development.

Read more: ‘We heard you.’ SA public sector survey leads to plans for health, happiness and high performance

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