‘Get the people-side right.’ Allan Hawke on the nitty gritty of what leaders need to do to get a high-performing organisation

By Allan Hawke

Wednesday December 18, 2019

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Allan Hawke wades past the leadership fads and fashions that have not worked in Australia to dive deeply into a few timeless lessons that bring out the best employee-engagement levels in organisational workforces.

Some time ago, Mandarin Premium kindly ran an article about my stand against performance pay.

It’s heartening to receive comments that my scribblings based on 32 years in the Commonwealth public service, including as secretary of three departments, chief of staff to Prime Minister Keating and high commissioner to New Zealand are of value to current and aspiring leaders.

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Since “retiring” in 2006, I’ve conducted 21 public sector reviews, chaired a range of public and private sector boards and been a non-executive director — all of which has honed my perspective on leadership fads and fashions.

This article raises some more timeless lessons in the light of the 2019 Australian Public Service Commission Census.

My Results Through People leadership credo is based on a fundamental belief that you must get the coin’s people side correct before you can deliver and sustain superior performance on the coin’s results side.

This is far easier said than done, in my experience.

Indeed, I find it intriguing that so much is written and done about financial and operational performance indicators while people metrics are generally ignored. It’s particularly perplexing that executives are rarely held accountable for their people leadership when all else follows from that leg of the three legged stool.

A high-performing organisation:

  • Achieves high levels of engagement, fairness and quality of life for employees as it serves its clients1, communities and stakeholders;
  • Excels at innovating and creating new products, services and operational processes that meet — even exceed — “customer” expectations, ensuring productivity improvements and longevity; and
  • Delivers sound levels of operational and financial performance.

Note the implicit causality in that list. That’s because the best place to start is with the organisation’s people and what they need to perform at their best so that the whole organisation can deliver high performance.

My focus here is on the nitty gritty of what leaders need to do to get the people side of the coin right through three foundational premises and a couple of mini case studies to illustrate what I’m on about.

Australians have a unique work ethos

Australian workplaces are different from other cultures in the way that they value relationships. What we Australians identify as “leadership” is unlike that of any other nation.2 How, and most importantly why, provides the essential bedrock for what to do. Those fundamental underpinnings are missing or not elucidated in many organisations.

It seems to me that a lot of what now poses for management involves making it harder for people to do their jobs. Management is a 19th century concept to do with control and compliance through the punish/reward, stick/carrot dichotomy — that’s not the way to create the climate for success in Australia!

Most people don’t want or need to be “managed”. Like “feedback”, “change” and “transformation” — these words are perceived as pejoratives by Aussies.

The default position usually involves trying to graft US, UK, or other derivations on to our workplaces. These proprietary “change/transformation” programs usually involve a one-size-fits-all template to solve a problem you may not have, and are destined for failure in Australia. It’s no accident that their proponents tend to avoid anything to do with the execution of their grand plans. That’s not to say we can’t learn from and adopt/adapt overseas practices to our way of working.

Four factors seem to account for most engagement variance in Australian workplaces:

  1. Does your supervisor get the balance right between people and results?
  2. Does your supervisor provide the support you need?
  3. Do the challenges at work stretch you to higher levels of ability?
  4. Is it clear how to grow your career in step with your workplace’s future needs?

These four factors relate directly to my three foundational premises.

Foundational premise 1

Use the distinctive Australian workplace culture to achieve genuine engagement with employees

Engaged employees achieve better performance in relation to each of absenteeism, cost, “customer” contentment, job satisfaction, productivity, safety incidents, and staff turnover. Their executives lead differently to their counterparts who oversee poorer performance. Those with the better record focus their attention on the people-side to build effective work groups and outcomes. The practical question for top leaders is how to get visibility of that executive leadership.

It’s disturbing that disengaged staff often comprise an incredible 50% or so of the Australian workforce, although you may have to go to some lengths to discover the prevailing situation with your team as described below.

Engaged employees put more of themselves and their discretionary effort in to their jobs and workplaces. Disengaged employees are emotionally disconnected and less productive.

That’s why employee engagement is a — if not the — critical piece of the Results Through People jigsaw for Australian leaders.

Foundational premise 2

Make time to demonstrate that you really care about each of your people, including by supporting them in shaping their careers

My second foundational premise is that the old social contract of “a job for life” is defunct. There are no longer secure jobs —  just secure people who understand that they must plan and manage their own career. Indeed, some don’t even contemplate the notion of a “career”; they commit to a job only for as long as it delivers what they want.

This premise highlights both the opportunity and the threat for leaders striving for high performance. The opportunity is to achieve a genuine productivity-dividend by attracting and retaining high-calibre people. You do this by being the kind of leader who genuinely cares about every employee’s career, is willing to call them by their preferred name, and to treat them as individuals.

Leaders who aren’t willing or able to put in the hard yards of getting it right for each of their people may wonder about the loyalty of their employees, their lack of trust in management and declining performance indicators. There’s a strong correlation between trust and a positive workplace culture that offers stability and support. Higher levels of loyalty, trust, commitment and job satisfaction are associated with higher performing organisations.3

A practical question for leaders here is how to carve out enough time to invest in these high-quality working relationships. Those who succeed heed the classic “One Minute Manager” approach, whereby “the best minute I spend is the minute I spend with my people”. Getting your diary sufficiently under control to do this well helps to build trusting relationships, facilitates commitment and people willingly going the extra mile to deliver the outputs/outcomes sought.

Foundational premise 3

Help them to make a meaningful contribution to the mission, values and vision of your organisation, so as to build and sustain high performance

The third foundational premise is that people like working for places where they feel they can make a difference — whether that’s in their own job or in identifying with the values, purpose and future of their workplace. In one study, 40% of respondents scored this “make a difference” element as “most important” while only 16% nominated money as “most important.4

Indeed, it’s these factors that attract many people to public service. We should, therefore, expect and see very high levels of engagement in public service workplaces. Yet staff-engagement responses often tell a different story, making me wonder whether some executives are either conditioned to accept mediocrity or are so rooted in Theory X authoritarian practices that they just don’t get it.

Purpose (or mission) is a necessary — but not sufficient — condition for building and sustaining a high-performing organisation. Values that are articulated, lived and upheld, plus a compelling future (or vision) stoke the fire inside people. That’s much more effective than the prevailing shoal of supervisors who believe they must light a fire underneath people to cajole them into doing their jobs.

Case studies

The two mini case studies outlined below might help leaders to act on my three premises.

It will not have escaped you that this is the same Results through People causal logic again. Getting the three foundational principles right for each of your people is the key to high performance individually and for the organisation.

Case study 1

The first case study to illustrate this approach draws on my first year as secretary of Defence in 1999-2000, when the senior leadership group created:

  • To defend Australia and its national interests as the mission;
  • Six values and four unbreakable rules — the breaching of any of which was a sackable offence; and
  • A force for good — a force to be reckoned with — a force to win as the vision to work towards.

Back then, I was taken by Professor Lynda Gratton’s “Living Strategy”, which argues the essentialness of placing people at the heart of corporate purpose — a striking parallel with putting people first in my Results Through People philosophy, where they belong in any 21st century enterprise “built to last”.

Gratton makes a convincing case that commitment, pride and trust are critical to long-term success and are an unmistakable source of competitive advantage.

In the exemplar she quotes:

  • 80% described themselves as highly committed;
  • 90% said they were proud to be part of their company; and
  • 80% trusted their manager.

During my three-year term as secretary of Defence:

  • Commitment to people’s area/quality of work done improved from 91.7% to 95.9% against the 80% benchmark;
  • Pride rose from 63.8% to 75.6% against the 90% benchmark; and
  • Trust increased from 71.9% to 80% against the 80% benchmark.

Disaggregating the responses by Navy, Army, Air Force and civilians (and sub-elements of those four tribes) provided insights into the quality of leadership in each of those units and areas where course-correction was required. The staff survey assessments gave me and my co-leader Admiral Chris Barrie (Chief of the Defence Force) visibility of the way that senior leaders engaged their people and a means of holding them to account for their leadership or lack thereof.

Subsequently, I found staff-engagement surveys are a better approach than simple staff-attitude surveys, because they allow a deeper dive into workplace issues.

Case study 2

I turn now to a more recent and ongoing study of a state government’s annual People Matter Employment Survey (PMES).

The table below records the eight factors that define high-performing organisations in the Australian context: commitment, pride and trust as per those Defence categories, together with accountability, job satisfaction, loyalty, personal development and respect. If, after reading and reflecting on this article, you are convinced of the merits of analysing and acting on people metrics, I invite you to print the table and consider what you would do about the findings.

Table 1: Average Positive 2016 – 2019 Survey Results

Survey response rate % Commitment % Pride

%

Trust

%

Accountability

%

Development

%

Job satisfaction % Loyalty

%

Respect

%

Action on survey results %
Region
2016 43 79 72 51 57 74 82 68 75 49
2017 62 71 63 39 48 63 77 61 70 36
2018 71 77 68 45 53 67 81 64 75 40
2019 63 73 65 37 46 73 78 60 76 35
Area A
2016 19.5 67 50 24 42.5 56.5 70 51.5 69.5 22.5
2017 65 74 63 47 55 55 82 64 74 44
2018 60 68 52 26 40 48 74 50 69 26
2019 51 64 50 23 34 65 73 45 69 21
Area B
2016 55 80.5 71 44 53 66 84.5 63.5 73 38.5
2017 70 74 69 44 60 75 82 63 74 38
2018 84 83 79 53 64 72 87 74 80 47
2019 70 81 80 50 61 77 86 72 82 50
Area C
2016 48 74.5 71 42 51 72 82 66 76 38
2017 53 69.5 67 40.5 48 62 75 66 71 26
2018 60 72 64 36 48 64 78 57 70 26
2019 61 71 66 34 44 72 77 62 71 28
Area D
2016 63 76 73 61 64.5 78.5 85 71 79 61.5
2017 66 69 62 39 47 61 72 63 65 38
2018 83 77 73 51 54 71.5 83 69 77 44
2019 87 77 66 34 47 72 81 65 78 33
Unit E
2018 80 89 85 70 67 74 83 74 94 54
2019 45 85 89 68 60 83 85 72 94 63

 

In my view, leaders must be vitally interested in whether employees can see for themselves that action will be taken on the survey findings. The last column of the table clearly signals some areas that require redress.

The percentage who respond to a survey is one indication of how engaged people are (see the table’s first column). An 80% return rate should be the objective — no small ask in this case, when you contemplate that last column.

The table shows the four-year trend, giving the region’s board, CEO and executive group some significant insights into what’s going on and where corrective action may be required when they contemplate the disaggregated figures for operational areas and other units — considering how each component is going against colleague sites and other comparators.

Analysing employees’ perceptions of the eight factors provides valuable input that supervisors can use to develop and implement strategies for improving the workplace experience of their people and lifting their group’s performance.

In my experience, executives influence each of the eight high-performing factors through the specific actions they take and the example they set.

  • Recognising employees for their work (the breakfast food of champions) promotes commitment.
  • Continuous open information sharing strengthens and sustains trust.
  • Leaders and supervisors treating others in the workplace with respect models the way for others to follow.
  • Praising good work while addressing bullying and inappropriate behaviours enhances accountability.
  • Ensuring employees have a current development plan that is discussed, agreed and regularly reviewed with their supervisor supports job satisfaction and personal development — the supervisor’s job is to help each staff member work towards realising their aspirations and potential.
  • Acknowledging employee perceptions through a visible response to the survey answers reinforces employees having their say — that they are being listened to and that action is being taken — building trust and confidence in their supervisors and pride in their organisation.

A consistent high level of these behaviours by executives fosters a collaborative and communicative team.

We need to hit the pause button here to contemplate a generic learning: In my experience, the only way to extract real accountability is to include a column between the area/site/unit and survey response rate that names a single individual as the Action Officer. Naming a position creates a climate of alibis about why no one is personally responsible — and nothing ever happens to address employee concerns. Naming the person either galvanises them into action or leads to questions in their superior’s mind about their capability and future fit in the establishment.

In this case study, operational area and unit leaders were invited to review the findings in conjunction with their site leaders, to ask why they are what they are, and to consider what to do about them. Each area leader will be required to front the CEO/board about their action plan to address the 2019 PMES and trends of concern and record the action taken in their monthly board reports.

In preparing their action plan for consideration, submitters were encouraged to compare their findings with other sites: think about why that is, ask better practice comparators what they do differently and consider whether they might adopt/adapt those approaches and practices in their own workplace.

Some supervisors have trouble deciding how to go about all this. To that end, the following guidance was provided.

For the future, three preparatory steps should precede the PMES period:

  1. Communicate with employees the survey’s intention. Focus on “why” their thoughts/opinions/experiences are being sought; the benefits of completing the questionnaire (ie., to build understanding and trust); and how to interpret some questions, references and terminology. For example, who are the “senior executives” when asked: “I feel senior executives lead renewal effectively”; or whether the question refers to the whole region/area/unit/site when asked to rate how “my agency inspires me to do my best in the job I’m in”. How people interpret these questions often defines how the question is answered. More importantly, how a supervisor focusses their efforts is critical for a worthwhile response that values the effort each employee is putting into it.
  2. Follow up with your team during a survey period. Providing statistics on the percentage completed at the end of every week for the survey period reinforces the desire to hear what they have to say.
  3. A consistently communicated “thank you” to every individual in your team for taking the time and making the effort to complete the task. Respect for people’s time and effort makes a difference short and long term in people feeling valued.

Once the survey replies are to hand, another four steps follow:

  1. Share the answers immediately once they are available, in a personal communique to the entire team (not just supervisors), highlighting notable items and attaching the full region/area/unit/site response. Staff should feel respected and trust their executives are not hiding anything.
  2. Workshop the survey reactions with the team in person — set a date well in advance of receiving the replies, thus allowing time for small group work in breaking down some of the lowest-performing areas and validating the responses received (without judgement, just explanation and further detailed expansion). These ideas can be grouped into key areas such as education, collaboration, communication, performance and planning — allowing the team to then prioritise and describe some actionable solutions/improvement initiatives to address the issues raised. The action items should come from within the team. They cannot be high-level grandstanding statements that will struggle to get traction and produce measurable benefits.
  3. Publish the action plan without delay following the face-to-face workshop(s) — preferably in a one- or two-page summary document. No one is going to read a lengthy document full of fancy words. They want to see something they can act on themselves — something that you want them to pin up on their office noticeboard and their workplaces to follow as a guide in their everyday actions.
  4. Ensure visible monitoring of the action plan and, where necessary, correction to the implementation measures.

In developing the action plan, start by sharing the draft with your immediate reports, because getting middle management buy-in is critical to success.

As mentioned, each and every action item needs a set date and a single owner identified by name. Once all team leaders/executives have considered the plan and their views have been accommodated, circulate the draft plan to the entire team to read, digest and respond to, and adjust the draft again in the light of the responses/reactions. It’s vitally important for staff to feel they have had a chance to provide input to the plan, followed by the opportunity to review and adjust the draft after its initial publication. Some readers may think I’m labouring this point, but my experience tells me just how important the steps in this paragraph are to success in this area.

Standards are the bedrock

The major takeaway from these case studies and other learnings about what distinguishes genuinely high-performing organisations and individuals from the also-rans is the quest to “set the standard”.

Conceptually, this sounds simple, and we know it when it we see it. Setting the standard is, however, very difficult to define and operationalise — being dependent on meaningful performance indicators and an obsession to measure progress towards your ideals.

On becoming coach of the Green Bay Packers5 , Vince Lombardi captured it beautifully in his opening address to the players:

Gentlemen, we are going to relentlessly chase perfection, knowing full well we will not catch it, because nothing is perfect. But we are going to relentlessly chase it, because in the process we shall catch excellence. I’m not remotely interested in just being good.

Nor should any of us aspire to just be good!

Setting the standard requires deep thinking and action. To excel (individually or as a group) requires extraordinarily hard work. Usually, the simpler it seems, the harder is the effort that has been put in behind the scenes. It’s no mean feat to get the people-side of things right, and we do well to remember that the best available evidence to inform us on what needs to be done comes from the people who serve on the frontline.

Executives must be perceived by their people as feeling that achieving high performance is vitally important. Enthusiasm about the importance of the work, combined with a conviction that what they are doing adds value to the purpose, contributes to high performance. If you expect the best of your people you will often get it.

Any comments/questions would be gratefully received at [email protected]

References

  1. Many citizens receive services from the public sector that are monopolistic in nature; it’s useful to consider and operationalise where possible such services as if the person had a choice of going elsewhere for that service – to delight the consumer.
  2. Ground breaking work by Dr John Evans and colleagues led to the Australian Quality Council’s 1994 paper called “Cultural Imprints”. Innovation and Business Skills Australia Ltd sponsored a review of this work by some of Evans’ colleagues, the subsequent report called “Australian Cultural Imprints at Work: 2010 and Beyond” was published in March 2011. IBSA’s approval to cite some of that Report’s findings which can be accessed at www.ibsa.org.au is appreciated.
  3. Australian Institute of Management/Monash University study
  4. TMP monster.com.au survey.
  5. A USA National Football League team.

I’m grateful for my long-term colleague Jen St Clair for her contribution to this article.

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