Sarah Pearson on leadership: how to inculcate innovation into the public sector, take risks, create impact, and remain an optimist

By Martin Stewart-Weeks

Monday September 2, 2019

Sarah Pearson, DFAT Chief Innovation Officer

THE BIG INTERVIEW by Martin Stewart-Weeks: An in-depth Q&A with a key player in the Australian public sector or political space. The series starts with the Sarah Pearson toolkit for influence and getting stuff done.

Generosity and visibility. These are the two leadership attributes that Sarah Pearson — Chief Innovation Officer and Chief Scientist at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, a role which includes leading the department’s innovation incubator, the innovationXchange — tries to live out in her working life.

It might sound surprising that a department like DFAT, one of the traditional institutional pillars of the federal public service (along with Treasury, Defence and PM&C) should even have a Chief Innovation Officer, let alone one that combines the role with Chief Scientist.

But Sarah’s journey into the public service offers some hints about not only why DFAT has such a role, but why she is its first incumbent.

Prior to DFAT, Sarah led the Canberra Innovation Network, the capital’s start-up incubator and accelerator that has helped over 1000 entrepreneurs turn ideas into businesses since launching in 2014. She was also the Pro Vice Chancellor for Innovation at the University of Newcastle.

Before that, she was the CEO of ANU Enterprise and, in earlier lives, led open innovation globally for Cadbury and had a significant career as a scientist and researcher, including a period devoted to breast cancer research. She’s a McKinsey alumnus and holds eight confectionery and breast cancer diagnosis patents.

Now she’s a federal public servant, bringing with her a culture of exploration, experimentation and collaboration. Ideas like agile, exploiting more porous boundaries between the public service and expertise and energy from outside the sector and, gradually, recognition of the value of trying new things are all, slowly, taking hold.

In her professional journey, which included seven years raising her two boys full time, two things stood out to her from observing the leaders she found most impressive. Her first boss put her in harm’s way, so to speak, when he actively encouraged her to seek out a partnership with another university researching breast cancer diagnosis. He was constantly on the lookout for ways he could push his team into areas of work he thought would stretch and test them but bring new insights and achievements.

Especially in her more recent work in the start-up world, Sarah has become used to a form of leadership which is highly visible, engaged and hands on. It’s a style that suits her own personality and it’s a style she sees, in spades, from her DFAT boss, Secretary Frances Adamson. But it’s not a universal or reflexive trait across the sector where, from Sarah’s perspective, there’s still too often a tendency to privilege hierarchy and positional power and authority.

For Sarah, the best leaders bring themselves and their humanity to work and, as a consequence, are more likely to find that’s what their teams do as well. It’s the basis on which good leaders call forth the kind of experimentation and collaboration from which solutions to difficult problems are likely to emerge. But leaders have to set that personal and persistent example. People listen to what you do, not what you say.

Some other lessons in leadership include the need to always show people how new ways of working and thinking can help them solve problems that matter to them. Influence often works best when you work out who influences the people you want to influence. Leadership’s soft power, she has found, is often wielded in oblique nudges and unexpected connections.

Sarah uses her own charismatic leadership to “invite” people’s commitment and contribution to a shared vision. But none of that denies that, like all leaders, there are “buck stops here” moments when decisions have to be taken and authority exercised.

As a serial boundary-crosser herself, perhaps not surprisingly DFAT’s Chief Innovation Officer is a big advocate of the virtues of “getting out more” from within institutions, including the public sector.  She believes that public servants, and the Ministers and communities they serve, invariably benefit when new perspectives are gained by moving outside narrower and more familiar contexts.

What frustrates her most? The combination of political, community and especially media impatience with experimentation where there are failures along the way which can so rapidly close down the search for new and better ways to do things.

The public service isn’t necessarily a permanent career for Sarah, which she claims gives her a licence sometimes to be more outspoken and active in pushing boundaries and championing change. If you’re climbing the career ladder and worrying about your next move, it can inhibit courage and counter-cultural thinking when that is needed.

What does bother her, though, is not whether the public sector is capable of changing culture and behaviour to line up with some of the big shifts in the political, social and economic context – it clearly can and, in many different areas, it is.  The real question is whether it can change far and fast enough.

Martin Stewart-Weeks and Sarah Pearson, DFAT Chief Innovation Officer

How did you become a public servant?

I had been working in innovation in the UK and I could see just how much Australia could be transformed through innovation, through taking innovation further. So I wondered if I can do that through government, particularly national government, because I could have a national impact. I could imagine Australia being this ideas factory and then working with global multinational … that was 2009 … I looked through whatever the job list is called in the public service and came across a role in the Office of the Chief Scientist. And I thought, if anyone could drive change across Australia, surely a be the Chief Scientist. So I got a got a role there. And I’d have to say I found it very frustrating.

I came from global leadership role in large multinational [Cadbury] across driving strategy and making stuff happen. And so I did actually find a public service incredibly frustrating. Because I couldn’t make things happen fast enough. But anyway, I stuck that out and I learned a lot. I ran PMSEC (PM’s Science and Engineering Council) and made lots of great contacts and learned about government, which I had no experience of that before.

When you moved into the public sector, was your sense that leaders were less visible, not using a walking around approach?

I would say that. For instance, having worked in start-ups and start-up spaces where you’re very visible and even the way you know, some of the large corporates have been going into open plan approaches which we had in the start-ups in the start-up spaces, so very accessible. But this piece about the leader being visible was really important. Frances here (Adamson, Secretary of DFAT) is fantastically visible. And she’s an awesome leader.

I think in the public service there is a little bit of a hierarchical piece, you’ve got to have your office and all the rest of it if you’re certain level. So I think there’s a little bit more of an emphasis on hierarchy than I experienced in the corporate world.

What about taking risks, trying new things?

Frances always talks about … she will back people to take risks. And if you go around the public service, there’s lots of people with entities that are experimenting and doing things in a new way.

Is experimenting and failing right? Well, that then means you got to go out to the community. So what does the community think about failure? And Australia? Australia is not usually tolerant in my experience.

And then we have media who are very intolerant of failure. So when you put all of that together, that is a soup or an environment, that as a public servant you live in which you sense that…

How does that make you feel as a senior public servant?

To be perfectly honest, it makes me angry. Because we should be here for Australia. That is the role of the public service, and is the role of the ministers to be here for Australia.

I think media should be doing that too. We should all be working together. How do we make Australia an amazing country? It’s a beautiful country with a lucky country. Everything’s working nicely thank you very much. But to be honest, we got our heads in the sand because there is such a transition coming and we’re not ready for it. And we’re not helping ourselves.

How do you change that mindset?

Whenever you’re driving change, you need to demonstrate success. You have to start change with success. So you can see what experimentation and risk can deliver something, that’s the first thing,

The second thing is help people understand risk. It’s not an on/off switch. It’s not like you either do something risky, and it could be disastrous, or you don’t do anything risky, and it’s okay. There’s a whole range of risk that you can take. And there’s a whole range of managing risk. And one of the things about the agile technique, for instance, is you start small, You could take a big risk, but you do it small. So then you can stop it, you know, if you need to, quickly, and adapt it.

How is the Innovation eXchange creating a crucible within which you can test ideas and approaches that can then seep out into the rest of the portfolio? 

So we worked in basically science, technology and innovation in the aid sphere for the first four years. And the way we approach that was through trying to access new ideas from around the world. So the open innovation approach ran 11 global challenges, accessed 3000 ideas, invested in 40 of them in 56 countries.

And from that, we’re now scaling up some of those ideas. And some of them we’re actually translating to other parts of different parts of DFAT and also scaling them other governments overseas, so they can take them to government routes to market or taking them to market through commercial partners such as GSMA’s, through the mobile network operators.

So that is working. The things that we’ve learned and the ways to do it, we’re in the process of skilling other people in DFAT to do that, scaling other people in DFAT to do that. That’s still early days.

People, yes, struggle with the word innovation, they think is means something bright and shiny and paradigm shifting.

When you want to influence people, and outcomes, what do you do? What’s the Sarah Pearson toolkit for influence and getting stuff done? 

I think the first thing probably is, I am a charismatic leader. And somehow I managed to draw people in with that. I’ve needed a certain amount of personality to draw people in. I think visionary, I think big picture. And I communicate that big picture. So the big, hairy, audacious goal and what draws people on. So I think knowing where you’re going and being able to portray this as somewhere exciting and worthwhile that you’re going that influences people and draws them draws them in.

I think, you know, as a scientist, you could have data, more information, evidence It’s got to be something that is not just, you know, someone out there being charismatic, just saying look at me, come and join me on this.

And my experience is a competition is a good way of influencing people to do something, I remember I was in a leadership position where I was struggling to get a certain member of a leadership team to take on something I wanted to be taken on. So I approached all the other leaders, and so they then influenced that leader.

What it is, is understanding who you need to influence and who influences them. If you don’t personally influence them, who else influences them. So influence those people that influence the person you want to influence,

The other things for influence are making sure you’re speaking the language. So for instance, within Cadbury, I needed to influence the commercial teams, the marketing guys and gals. And so I worked a template with them. Okay, if I bring you an opportunity, what things will make it work for you? Well, they want to know, does it fit with a brand, how long will it take, what’s the probability of success,  is it over 100 million otherwise, forget it. So working out a way to communicate it.

Do you see yourself as a cultural catalyst?

If you look at the stats in the public service, a large majority of public servants have spent most of their life in the public service, and quite a lot of them in the same department.

And so that then breeds the propagation of a certain culture, which doesn’t really change very much, unless you’re infected, as you say, with culture from outside. You can do it several ways, you can  move out and then come back in again. Or you can collaborate with other people, or you can bring people like me in and drop us in it for a little while.

Are you welcome as someone who is a catalyst of new culture? 

It depends on the person really. I’m not here to stay, I’m not looking for a career in the public service. So I’m not here trying to maneuvre things that I can work my way up the tree, I’m here to make a difference.

So it’s actually probably quite easy for me. Because I can probably do things that other people wouldn’t feel they had the permission to do, because they’re worried about what it means for their career.

And I’d strongly recommend that we have a bit of that in the public service, have people who are willing to come in for a while and then go out, just inject a bit of something different for a while without the constraints of thinking, gosh, you know, where’s my next role here going to be in who do I need to please?

I originally joined because I have a commitment to Australia. I want to make Australia a better place, whatever better means, through my lens of innovation that impacts on social and economic outcomes. And the public service is an obvious avenue to do that. So I would absolutely encourage people who want to have a public impact to consider the public service.

I would say go in with their eyes open. And find mentors who can help them find the places where they can have that public impact, and not get stuck in some part of public service where you may be a little bit further away from that impact. And we need to think through the “horses for courses” in the public service, because some people really want to be in the back room.

And even if you stayed in it forever, there are plenty opportunities to have an incredibly diverse career within the public service. I would still recommend any public servant spend time outside, even if it’s to get an experience of a startup, for instance, or a large multinational, just to get a sense of what that’s really like. And I think public servants need that to be public servants. And it’s very difficult to serve the public, if all you’ve done is worked, in my view, in the public service.

Are you an optimist? 

I am a natural optimist, because I need a lot of energy to do what I do, and you only get energy by being optimistic; pessimism just drains the energy from you.

In terms of how the public service is going to be able to adapt. I think my only negative comment is whether we can change fast enough. I think there are some really great examples of change happening across public service, really, really great examples and really great people in leadership who are driving that change. I don’t know yet. how fast the world around us is changing versus how fast the public service can change. And it’s not just the public service, you know, it’s industry as well.

Very simple question, how did you become a public servant.

Goodness it has been quite a windy path to becoming a public servant. I did become a public servant about 10 years ago, for a very short period of time, I was in England, and the family wanted to come to Canberra.

I had been working in innovation in the UK and I could see just how much Australia could be transformed through innovation, through taking innovation further. So I wondered how I can if I can do that through government, particularly national government, because I could have a national impact. I could imagine Australia being this ideas factory and then working with global multinationals…

Remind me of the time frame?

That was 2009

So pretty much a decade.

I looked through whatever the job list is called in the public service and came across a role in the Office of the Chief Scientist. And I thought, if anyone could drive change across Australia, surely a be the Chief Scientist. So I got a got a role there. And I’d have to say I found it very frustrating.

I came from global leadership role in large multinational across driving strategy and making stuff happen. And so I did actually find a public service incredibly frustrating. Because I couldn’t make things happen fast enough. But anyway, I stuck that out and I learned a lot. I ran PMSEC (PM’s Science and Engineering Council) and made lots of great contacts and learned about government, which I had no experience of that before.

So this was really your first serious, serious engagement inside the walls of bureaucracy.  When you think back on that period, so it is a decade ago, what kind of attributes did you find in some of the leaders that you found at helpful.? What are some of the things that you can recall that you picked up from some of those early leaders that you had interaction with?

I think that I picked up that one of the brilliant things within the public service is you do, because of the brand, you do have access to opportunity that you don’t have without the Commonwealth public service brand. You know, people will listen and collaborate and work with you. People will want to deliver things with you. And they’ll also want to be heard and listed to, so I did learn that the brand, the government brand does open doors. And that’s if you want to make things happen that’s really valuable.

I imagine there wouldn’t have been all that many people you interacted with at that point, who would have had that view of the public sector as having a brand?

I don’t think they would because I’ve come from Cadbury, and Cadbury the brand meant you just talk to someone, you pick up the phone, talk to someone say I’m from Cadbury and they say what would you like? So I had experienced the power of a brand.

Let me just take you back to before the public service, so Cadbury and some of the other very interesting things you’ve done in your life. And if I was to ask a similar kind of question around the leaders that you found in that period, so let’s forget the public service for a moment, we will come back to public service, obviously, we’re interested in that. But in your pre public service career, where would you go for a quick summary of some of the attributes that you found particularly valuable or influential in some of the leaders that you interacted with in those days.

Back in academia, an attribute that I saw from the leaders there was a generosity of leadership, which is actually a terminology we use here in DFAT right now. And I think it was wonderful to work with. it was a male academic in a leadership position, who took care of people underneath him and showed them opportunities. I think if leaders can help their teams and people around them to go for opportunities, that can be marvellous. He was the head of chemistry at the university I was working at. I’d been there just a few weeks.

I’d been out of academia for 10 years raising kids. I could have done any research I liked and that’s a great opportunity, from the perspective of choice. I did actually start by doing some other activities to get my head around being bac in academia., The head of the department said he’s heard about this fellow down at  Monash (University) doing research into breast cancer diagnosis using synchrotrons, he was a zero particle physicist, you work with synchrotrons, why don’t you get together and do something.

So that came from essentially a leadership instinct to. push you in a direction that he thought might be valuable for you?

Yes. A really generous gesture which was beautiful. I hadn’t had a lot of great experience seeing leaders, but that was one of them. And the other one is a standout.

I was concerned about moving to Cadbury for all sorts of reasons. I’d been in the in the male world for a long time in physics, and Cadbury, particularly the long term R&D facility, including the head of that facility, were females, and I was thinking “how is this going to work?”

She was a wonderful female leader. And it gave me a lot of understanding and learning lessons from how to be a woman in leadership as well as the challenges of leadership. So, for instance, she told me about some of the challenges from a cultural perspective. So she was on the global leadership team across the whole of this large multinational – 45,000 employees in 42 countries.

Anyway, she talked about the leadership team meeting that they’d have to try and build some connectivity across that leadership team, because they’re all the others are men except for her. And they’d go go-kart racing. That was what they do for team building.

Now, I love go kart racing, I think I would have had a lot of fun, but it wasn’t her thing. And that really taught me a lot. There’s a really important piece here about women in leadership and making sure the cultural pieces are really thought through as humans. And we need to think through the way that we have done them and not just assume that’s going to be right for the future.

The other piece was that she was driving a new leadership style that Cadbury wanted to bring into place, which is not the hierarchical approach the past, but actually more of a mentoring approach to leadership.

All of us had to be mentors of some description within the long term R&D facility so we could be seen as more visible mentors as leaders. And when it came to work, health and safety, which in large manufacturing company, that’s very important, we were visibly once a month walking around the office doing a world health and safety inspection with the you know, the piece of paper. So that visible leadership piece, I think, really struck a chord with me

Just a quick question on that, because I know my experience has been and I’ve spoken to a number of senior leaders about this, that often in the public sector people often sense that the leadership in organizations is not as visible as it might be, Was that your sense as you moved across into the sector, that there was a perhaps a lack of that kind of visibility, that leaders be less visible, and not using a walking around the kind of way of managing and leading?

I would say that.

For instance, having worked in start-ups and start-up spaces where you’re very visible and even the way you know, some of the large corporates have been going into open plan approaches which we had in the start-ups in the start-up spaces, so very accessible. But this piece about the leader being visible was really important. Frances here (Adamson, Secretary of DFTA) is fantastically visible. And she’s an awesome leader.

I think in the public service there is a little bit of a hierarchical piece, you’ve got to have your office and all the rest of it if you’re certain level. So I think there’s a little bit more of an emphasis on hierarchy than I experienced in the corporate world.

But the last amazing lesson I got from this wonderful leader was one night. It was dark, it’s only my boss and myself who were there. She was there emptying the dishwasher. Now that wasn’t visible. It’s not as visible. And yet, I saw it. And it just haven’t had a massive impact on me around that. servant leadership

So what does that tell you? What was what was the thing you took away from that little vignette?

I think several things. One is that, as a leader, you’re not in a hierarchical power position, you’re actually in a serving position. And you’re actually an equal human with everybody else, including emptying the dishwasher.

And I think that’s really important. I know, I say that to my staff.I want people to bring their humanity to work and humanity.

Let me just chase that a bit further, do you find people hear that message, but sometimes find it difficult to activate, and they don’t instinctively feel comfortable bringing what they might consider to be a more human touch to their work?

I think it depends on a number of things. It’s not just saying something, but you’ve got to lead as a human. So I think if you’re not acting as a human, yourself, other people don’t feel like permission to be a human.

And then I think the culture that you set is key.  I was really amazed at Canberra Innovation Network how leadership, the culture of leadership drives the culture of the whole community. So I woke up one day, a lightbulb moment.

I was just contemplating. We just had some event, big community event where it was clear, it was all about open and connected and collaborative. And I thought, gosh, this is amazing. Have we done this? And then I thought, well, we set the tone for that, as the leadership team, we’ve set that tone, everything we say and do. sets that tone I think, from your perspective about culture, your question about humanity, you’ve go to be a human to allow people to be a human,..

..which means other people will follow if they if you set that tone.

And if you’re consistent, and that has all the flow on effects, like if someone makes a mistake, you know, how you deal with it? I was saying in a talk yesterday about risk aversion. If you fail at something at home, you if you fail at something in your life outside of work, you don’t just curl up in a ball and think that’s the end of everything. Well you might for a bit, but not for very long.  Why do we get so uptight about that at work? Why don’t we bring that explorative, experimental, approach, that admits that yes, I might fail some things.

It’s a big theme in the conversation around public service, this thing that somehow or other public services tend to be risk averse, like failure, they don’t deal with failure very well.

And there are all sorts of reasons for that.

As a leader, what are your reflections on that and as a leader yourself, and we’re going to shift the conversation in a little bit. What do you do about that? And what can you practically do to bring the temperature down you know, bring the resistance down? Because it’s a, it’s a very strong kind of reflective position as a public service, you know, risk averse, don’t like failure. can’t try anything new. What’s your response to that?

Well, first response is it’s changing. So there is hope

That’s a good thing to hear!

Frances (Adamson) always talks about, she will back people to take risks. And if you go around the public service, there’s lots of people with entities that are experimenting and doing things in a new way.

Yesterday, I was at one of the departments where their Secretary was talking about wants people to be able to take a risk. So people are at least talking about it. Which is really good. That’s interesting – in the world of academia, they’re talking about you can collaborate with industry. But will you get promoted? They talk? Yes, the promotion, they’ll be two boxes to ticket. But there’s still the culture of not promoting people who have experienced with collaborating externally. And it’s the same in the public service, I think the cultural piece still needs to be changed.

That is very multifaceted, right from the fact that you’ve got ministers, who’s heard that the survival of their party depends on them doing things that are sees to be right. So what is right? Is experimenting and failing right? Well, that then means you got to go out to the community. So what does the community think about failure? And Australia?

Australia is s not usually tolerant in my experience.

And then we have media who are very intolerant of failure. So when you put all of that together, that is a soup or an environment, that as a public servant you live in which you sense that…

…gives you a sense of real constraint…

…absolutely.

Do it make you nervous? What does it make you feel as a senior public servant?

To be perfectly honest, it makes me angry. Because we should be here for Australia. That is the role of the public service, and is the role of the ministers to be here for Australia.

I think media should be doing that too. We should all be working together. How do we make Australia an amazing country> It’s a beautiful country with a lucky country. everything’s working nicely thank you very much. But to be honest, we got our heads in the sand because there is such a transition coming and we’re not ready for it. And we’re not helping ourselves.

So these kinds of atmospherics don’t help the cause. And as a leader, what do you do about that? How do you try and ameliorate some of those conditions, let’s say just immediately within your own pretty impressive sphere, you’ve got a very big patch to play in here at DFAT as the Chief Innovation Officer and Chief Scientist. But what do you do to try to push back a little bit on that, create some space?

Whenever you’re driving change, you need to demonstrate success, You have to start change with success. So you can see what experimentation and risk can deliver something, that’s the first thing,

The second thing is help people understand risk. It’s not an on/off switch. It’s not like you either do something risky, and it could be disastrous, or you don’t do anything risky, and it’s okay. There’s a whole range of risk that you can take. And there’s a whole range of managing risk. And one of the things about the agile technique, for instance, is you start small, You could take a big risk, but you do it small. So then you can stop it, you know, if you need to, quickly, and adapt it

It’s not something a traditional public service has been in the agile approach, if I can use that word in a fairly generic sense, do you think? Have you found that as you’ve come in, obviously fairly familiar with that? Because of all your work in startup and when you were running the Cambria Innovation Network. Do you sense that in the public service the notion of agility, to start things more quickly, to turn things off? Was it natural?

Well, in places, yes but you just wouldn’t label it that. I remember, right. Back in the day in the Office of the Chief Scientist, we had an absolutely urgent report to prepare for the Prime Minister, and we were using agile techniques, but agile wasn’t a word used, but we were working in that mode.

So I think under pressure there’s some really great examples of the public service working like that. But is it ubiquitous? No. Is it natural and normal? No. But there’s certainly again, to be optimistic, there’s an appetite for it. I know that we are we’re driving some of that across DFAT right now. And there’s an appetite people coming saying, you know, help us learn how to do this. We’ve got some great leadership that are trying to drive that from a change perspective, there’s a major change programs are running, they wanted it through an agile process. So I think there’s definitely an appetite and there’s a move towards it. But is it is it right now? And is it across all areas, no, it’s not.

But that’s going to have to become a bit more of a default way of operating?

I was reading, it might have been in the Mandarin today, New Zealand and are looking to change law so that they can. So the interesting they’re taking that forwards, will Australia follow that? The APS review work that way?

What we’re doing here is we’re going to work we’ve actually just restructured the Innovation eXchange  to be more a flat team with ginger teams around specific topics, and we’re doing campaign boards, all that sort of stuff. And it will be a bit of a test bed, and if it works we can take that across the department.

Just while we’re on that, are you finding that the Innovation eXchange is creating a crucible within which you can test ideas and approaches that can then seep out into the rest of the portfolio? That’s the plan, right? Yes. I’m just wondering how you’re seeing that beginning to work out. I know, that’s a wee bit of a side trip.

It is. So we worked in basically science, technology and innovation in the aid sphere for the first four years. And the way we approach that was through trying to access new ideas from around the world. So the open innovation approach, Ran 11 global challenges, accessed 3000 ideas, invested in 40 of them in 56 countries,

And from that, we’re now scaling up some of those ideas. And some of them we’re actually translating to other parts of different parts of DFAT and also scaling them other governments overseas, so they can take them to government routes to market or taking them to market through commercial partners such as GSMA’s, through the mobile network operators.

So that is working. The things that we’ve learned and the ways to do it, we’re in the process of skilling other people in DFAT to do that. scaling other people in DFAT to do that. That’s still early days.

But interestingly, the piece that’s really taken off, is this new ways of working. So from the innovation perspective…innovation is a challenging word. People . Yes struggle with the word innovation, they think is means something bright and shiny and paradigm shifting.

We’ve been changing that discussion, that narrative and saying, “,look, you can be innovative, we are calling it “change that outperforms the norm”, so anyone can join in on that. And of course, that then leeches if you like, or moves into the way you work to you can work innovatively. And that’s been something that people have really understood. Across the APS as a huge amount of pressure. So they’re looking for new ways to do things better so that they can do it faster. So yeah, we’re helping people.

It will be interesting to see what the IPS review comes out with. Like you, I read the New Zealand store with great interest because often there’s somewhat of a symbiotic relationship between these two countries on the either side of the Tasman as to whether we start to pick up this notion that maybe we need some sort of legislative reframing, which is clearly where the Kiwis are going,

Let me change the topic slightly, so less about leadership and more about your perception of the broader world in which you work.

If I was to ask you for some reflections on any major interesting area policy could be your own, where you’re working now, or just more generally, where you feel that policy making and policy development is really having an impact, really making some progress. Where would you look for some examples to make you feel reasonably optimistic that we’re kind of getting to grips with, it could be around climate change? Where would you look for a piece of policy work that stands out and is motivating. Where would you go for that example?

For me, this is partly going to move into a conversation about pessimism, optimism about a whole future of public policy making which is the game you’re playing. We’ve talked about leadership, we’ll talk again about it in a moment. This is the sort of bigger canvas,, as you look around the world, where do you look for pieces of work that give you some inspiration that actually we’re coming to grips with a really nice piece of policy work that you’re doing.

Look, I think this New Zealand story I came across today, that was inspirational, the thought of almost turning a public service on its head and saying, ‘you’re not about the silos of education, Home Affairs, you’re actually about, we want to have an impact on something, you know, we want to help homeless people, you know, there’s there’s something that we really want to change”, and then having ginger teams around that. I think, for me, that gives me a lot of hope.

You don’t necessarily need to transform the whole the public service, but just a simple thought of saying, here’s an outcome we want to drive, who do we draw in to do that? Wouldn’t it be cool if you could draw in people from inside and outside the public service to do that. The New Zealand piece this morning was really interesting.

I get excited, actually about what Australia is doing in the Indo-Pacific.

I’ve heard you speak about it a bit before. Clearly things are shifting there both in terms of the reach and the style of the way we seem to be going about a lot of that work, much of which is from the work that you’re leading.

I it’s because the politics, and the geo-strategies are changing so dramatically. In the Indo Pacific, it’s a really fascinating and pivotal time for Australia in the region. And, you know, we’re not by world standards, not a big country. Obviously, we’re an advanced country, which is great. And we’re secure, safe and all those good things. But finding our place in this region at this point in time, I think is a fascinating time to be part of it. So I think so I think our focus in that region is justified

The policy focus on the Pacific specifically is also fascinating time to be in this space. Because the Pacific is very different to the Indo part of the Pacific. But it gives us in DFAT a really interesting space to play in, because of the similarities.

So I think that’s, that’s good.

I think the way that we are friends and if you like partners, in both the Pacific and the Indo part is really brilliant. I’m really proud of that. I was in Vietnam a few weeks back, and I’m really proud of the work that the embassy in Hanoi has really been pushing with the Prime Minister and others in Vietnam, To the degree that we are considered really strong friends.

It does have a policy piece, I think. It’s not just about a policy and trying to achieve something in particular, it’s actually achieving a range of things, so it is achieving a friendship with another country, which then gives you permission to talk about a whole range of other things with that country beyond the foreign policy.

The thing that occurs to me as you’re speaking, and it’s really exciting is this notion, though, that effectiveness is a function of both longevity, this is a long term game we’re playing here. These are not things you can dial up with a couple of meetings and a few summits.

You need So and you need more than one day

Exactly, apparently, relationships tke more than one day. There’s an insight! But you need to frame this stuff fairly big.Which I think is quite interesting.

And think big.

What does that mean for you?

Well, you’re not just going in with one program and deliver that program tick the box. It’s not transactional. It’s very proactive and strategic in terms of what you’re trying to achieve, and much bigger than the one thing that you go in with

So that is exciting. And I think from that, from DFAT’s  perspective, you know, we were Foreign Affairs and Trade, and then aid came into that he came into this. And I think I’m personally excited about the marriage of those elements

It’s a powerful convergence…

Obviously, there’s fine lines, you need to walk in all of those, because aid has to be aid, and trade has to be trade. But The combination of the three is incredibly powerful. And that excites me.

In the innovation space, you can go in and be friends through aid. So let’s say, with the innovation, we’re building up a national innovation system within Vietnam, or at least we’re partnering with a Vietnamese government to help them do that. That’s great, from an aid perspective, that’s helping lift people out of poverty, because you’re growing their economy. It’s a foreign policy piece, because you’re becoming good friends with them, they see that we’re a modern economy and a modern country, we mature, we’re worth listening to because we get the future. And then from a trade perspective, you build up their economy, we’ve got trade partners.

So in one hit you’re reaching all of those big policy pieces.

Let me go back to leadership for a bit. There’s a few questions or just want to cover and then we’ll there’s a particular one, I’m, in fact, I’m going to ask it to you now, but I’m not going to ask you to answer it because I want you to just let it noodle away. And I think I partly know the answer this – are you broadly speaking in relation to where the public service is going optimist or a pessimist?

So you might just park that for the moment.

When you’ve been in leadership positions in which you are now obviously and you want to influence people, and outcomes, what do you do? Where do you turn? What’s the Sarah Pearson toolkit for influence and getting stuff done? Where do you normally reach?

I think the first thing probably is, I am a charismatic leader. And somehow I managed to draw people in with that. I’ve needed a certain amount of personality to draw people in. I think visionary, I think big picture. And I communicate that big picture. So the big, hairy, audacious goal and what draws people on. So I think knowing where you’re going and being able to portray this as somewhere exciting and worthwhile that you’re going that influences people and draws them draws them in.

I think, you know, as a scientist, you could have data, more information, evidence It’s got to be something that is not just, you know, someone out there being charismatic, just saying look at me, come and join me on this.

And my experience is a competition is a good way of influencing people to do something, I remember I was in a leadership position where I was struggling to get a certain member of a leadership team to take on something I wanted to be taken on. So I approached all the other leaders, and so they then influenced that leader.

It’s a sort of second order, rings of influence.

What it is, is understanding who you need to influence and who influences them. If you don’t personally influence them, who else influences them. So influence those people that influence the person you want to influence,

Which means you’ve got to have a kind of mapping capability, right? To understand them in their context.

It’s not just the peers, you need to influence that could be people in their teams that you need to influence, so you could say “hey, do you think you might need an innovation strategy? Wouldn’t it be so much easier if you had innovation strategy?” And then you talked to so they can be talking to their boss, and then you talk to the the other bosses and they say, “well, would you like an innovation strategy for your area?” and they go  “yes, please.” This is it from the bottom and from the side attack?

And then I think, showing the success, if you can show the success.

Yes, you’ve mentioned that.  Nothing does succeed like success because people love to feel that there’s momentum, and you can build confidence for bigger things. It sounds to me I’m hearing partly a pull mechanism, which is the vision, you’re drawing people to you.. But then there’s a series of what I’m interpreting are sort of nudge techniques.

I don’t suppose you do very much directive leading that you will do sometimes have to do that kind thing, I am the boss.

I save that for the last resort.

I tend to see a little bit differently. I will be the charismatic, draw everyone in, leader. But at the end of the day, buck stops with me. And when they were really difficult decisions, that’s me.

That brings back obligations and authority.

Yes, exactly.

The other things for influence are making sure you’re speaking the language. So For instance, within Cadbury, I needed to influence the commercial teams, the marketing guys and gals. And so I worked a template with them. Okay, if I bring you an opportunity, what things will make it work for you? Well, they want to know, does it fit with a brand, how long will it take, what’s the probability of success,  is it over 100 million otherwise, forget it. So working out a way to communicate it.

So that basically means that the answer you’re bringing them has to fit the questions they need to answer.

Yes, yes.

Which takes me to the next piece, which is if you’re trying to influence people to change their behavior, find what they’re trying to do and help them do it better. And then give them all the credit.

You can go further, you know, if you don’t mind who takes the credit; have to be prepared to a certain absence of ego, despite being charismatic, and every now and then you’ve actually got to just say, no it doesn’t matter as long as long as we get there.

If you were thinking about legacy, which is way too early, because you’re barely started., But more broadly, what is the kind of legacy that a public leader ought to be leaving. What’s the “leave behind” when a public leader moves on or retires or decides not to be a minister anymore? or public servant anymore? What is that essence of great public leadership?

Obviously public leadership is new to me…

…that’s why we wanted to explore this as someone relatively new to the public sector…

…, but the things I’d like to leave behind would be, some of them would be programmatic. So you want the program to have had an impact when you leave.

And the other will be cultural. I think, you know, you bring people like me into the public service, because I’m from a different cultural background.

So you have a sense you’re here partly is if I can put it like this, like a cultural virus…

…a catalyst…

…yes, a catalyst, I didn’t mean to suggest you were a kind of disease! But you are here as a cultural catalyst?

If you look at the stats in the public service, a large majority of public servants have spent most of their life in the public service, and quite a lot of them in the same department.

And so that then breeds the propagation of a certain culture, which doesn’t really change very much, unless you’re infected, as you say, with culture from outside. You can do it several ways, you can  move out and then come back in again. Or you can collaborate with other people, or you can bring people like me in and drop us in it for a little while.

Do you think generally speaking that stuff is done well, is is easy, does it happen naturally. Or do you think we’ve got a way to go in making? I mean, what you’re talking about a little bit is the kind of classic conversation about slightly more porous boundaries. What’s your sense now that you’re inside and you’ve come in from the outside, isit an easy thing to do? Is it Are you are you welcome as a as a bringer of new culture? Or is it a little difficult, I don’t know, I’m literally

It depends on the person really. I’m not here to stay, I’m not looking for a career in the public service. So I’m not here trying to maneuver things that I can work my way up the tree, I’m here to make a difference.

So it’s actually probably quite easy for me. Because I can probably do things that other people wouldn’t feel they had the permission to do, because they’re worried about what it means for their career.

And I’d strongly recommend that we have a bit of that in the public service, have people who are willing to come in for a while and then go out, just inject a bit of something different for a while without the constraints of thinking, gosh, you know, where’s my next role here going to be in who do I need to please?

The great segue to I’ve got two more questions.

Let’s say you are your where you are now. And magically, you have an opportunity to have a conversation with Sarah Pearson 15 years ago, possibly 20 years ago, who was thinking then, “do I really want to have a public service career, should I even think about going into government and public service?

What would you say to her? Think about another young-ish person, let’s say they’re in their mid to late 20s or early 30s. Okay. So they are bright and sparky, they’re not quite sure whether the whole government thing is for them? Should they even think about it as an option? They’re thinking about their next career step and they’ve come to you? And they said, Sarah, where should I look? Would you say to them, actually, what you want to do you want to ever think about whether you should have a stint inside the public service? Would you say that? And if you would, why would you advise that? And if you wouldn’t, why would you advise them not to?

A fascinating question, and obviously is impacted by the human that you ask. I mean, I, as you know, I’ve had a very eclectic career, and I have enjoyed having an eclectic career. It’s probably meant I haven’t got as far as perhaps I could have done if I’d had a non-eclectic career. And I tell you what’s been absolutely fascinating. I feel very fortunate. So I’m sitting here thinking, would I tell someone to join the public service and stay in the public service of the rest of the life? Well, I would have to say no, because that hasn’t been my career.

That’s one option. For you, that wouldn’t be your style of career building. Let’s say it wasn’t quite that severe. Should they even think about it as an option? And if they should, why?

I originally joined because I have a commitment to Australia. I want to make Australia a better place, whatever better means, through my lens of innovation that impacts on social and economic outcomes. And the public service is an obvious avenue to do that. So I would absolutely encourage people who want to have a public impact to consider the public service.

I would say go in with their eyes open. And find mentors who can help them find the places where they can have that public impact, and not get stuck in some part of public service where you may be a little bit further away from that impact. And we need to think through the “horses for courses” in the public service, because some people really want to be in the back room.

Exactly. I shouldn’t suggest for some reason that that some sort of lesser kind of calling.

And I’m not saying that they’re not having a public impact, it’s not quite so obvious. And people like me, I need to have my hands on it.

But it would be an option you’d canvas with a youngish professional.

Yes, I would.

And even if you stayed in it forever, there are plenty opportunities to have an incredibly diverse career within the public service. I would still recommend any public servant spend time outside, even if it’s to get an experience of a startup, for instance, or a large multinational, just to get a sense of what that’s really like. And I think public servants need that to be public servants. And it’s very difficult to serve the public, if all you’ve done is worked, in my view, in the public service.

I think it’s a great observation.

I’d absolutely recommend people get into public service, but get out and back in.

The other thing that public service could do is work out how to work with people outside the public service. There is a traditional role, which is you’re using consultants…

…which has some difficulties today, of course,, it can be not all that comfortable…

…ell, just to think creatively, I know whenever people have left any of the entities that I’ve headed up, I’ve always explained it that this is great, now the tentacles are going out; I wouldn’t say I’ve used that as well as I could.

We don’t activate that as well as we could.

That’s a great observation. I put myself in that category. To some extent, I often say to people, I still feel I’m a bit of a public servant. I haven’t been inside the public service for 15 or 20 years. But I feel I mean, that’s sort of broader sector.

McKinsey are a classic example of how to do that, that whole, the whole model of “up or out” is based around that. Because when you go out, you’re looked after incredibly well on your way out, because they know you’ll be someone interesting to them.

You can take the person out of McKinsey, but you can’t take McKinsey out of the person. Bits of it with you. So why not activate it?

So last question, because it’s sort of the in a sense, it’s the kind of unfair, but important question about the future. So now that you’re here, you’ve been in the system for a while, broadly, in terms of the public sector, as an institution and its capacity to do all those things you’ve just talked about in the last hour, are you an optimist? About its ability to do all those great things you talked about? Or are there any things at all that make you feel a little concerned about how that’s going to work out?

I am a natural optimist, because I need a lot of energy to do what I do, and you only get energy by being optimistic; pessimism just drains the energy from you.

So I am naturally an optimist. I would have to say I’m optimistic

In terms of how the public service is going to be able to adapt. I think my only negative comment is whether we can change fast enough. I think there are some really great examples of change happening across public service, really, really great examples and really great people in leadership who are driving that change. I don’t know yet. how fast the world around us is changing versus how fast the public service can change. And it’s not just the public service, you know, it’s industry as well.

… or possibly even your other old friends in university.

Yes, so the university sector, absolutely. I mean, if you look around at how quickly technology is changing the world around us, that just gives me pause around the optimism. But at the end of the day, we’re humans and the humans are changing, the humans see the need It’s just a question of whether we can do that fast enough.

I think it’s a good place to end because in a way it kind of leaves it open to the institution to work out whether it can do that yes. And you’re dead right I think to look more broadly because I don’t think it’s just a public sector challenge. But getting those two speeds right, inside and the outside, is pretty dramatic.

I think the trick will be what needs to change fast and what doesn’t.

There’s some parts of government that you wouldn’t tinker it with because it’s working well it always will and it actually needs to work that way.

But then what are the bits that we do need to tinker with, what are the things we need to do in a much more agile way than we do now. So I think that will be the trick, to be able to do it fast enough.

It would be tempting to go to the blanket piece and go everything needs to be agile, we’ve got to change everything…

… but that’s neither realistic nor necessary. I think I’m hearing you say?

No, in Cadbury I was the open innovation champion. We’re going to be open, and people were going “no, my God,  we’ve got the secrets we can’t deliver on this secret stuff,” so do it strategically, what needs to be secret what needs to be open? What needs to be agile and what needs to stay as it is?

We are a bit pendulum-like sometimes I think, it’s all one or the other. You’re looking for something I think a wee bit more nuanced. We’ll leave it there.

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