If you could wave a magic wand – public sector leadership for 2021

By and

December 18, 2020


The new chair of the Victorian Environmental Protection Authority, Kate Auty, sums up the gritty nature of leading in the public sector: “There are just things that need to be done to get the outcomes: sometimes you’ll be gripping in your stomach and you need to take that stride or step. You won’t know you’re there until you’re in that place.” This year, we were definitely in “that place” many times over.

Just as the grip in the collective stomach starts to ease, 2021 is nearly upon is. Given what we’ve learned this year, what do public sector decision-makers need to focus on next to lead the sector effectively in the coming year? We asked a range of leaders what they’d like to see shift, what they are planning for their own leadership, and what they’d change in public sector leadership if they had a magic wand.

From the kinds of leadership styles that should be elevated, to the systemic changes, pragmatic actions, culture shifts and investments that need attention, the advice showcases the diversity of issues on senior leaders’ minds as they head into 2021.

It starts with you

Straight-talking Auty, who stepped into her new role this year as Victoria went into lockdown, recommends leaders create their own theory of change; understand what part of the problem they can solve.

“My theory of change is to start where I am, so just begin,” she says. “Then it’s to organise, collect allies, take responsibility, explore and exploit my network, encourage others and be open to others’ critiques about what I’m doing.”

This sets a good grounding for her when the crises start to roll in.

Senior public servant Lyn Harvey applauds the greater integration and collaboration wrought by COVID.

“I am both hoping and hopeful for a meaningful and mature national discussion around some of the wicked problems facing the world.

“2020 has proven we can come together during times of crisis; I am hopeful that the open and respectful communication that allowed that to happen, continues.”

Personally, as a leader, in managing her team of 20, she has learned the value of showing vulnerability as a visible leader.

“Visibility is vulnerability. Vulnerability helps build trust. Trust is the foundation-stone of progress. Successful leaders are trusted by their peers and by their teams.”

NSW auditor-general Margaret Crawford also encourages leaders to show up fully, especially when times get tough.

“It’s easy to disappear. The key is to stay connected, put yourself out there; be authentic. Be bold,” she says.

Boldly rally behind others

2020 has shown us anything can happen and we can do anything to respond. Empathise with your people. How are they coping or dealing with the challenges?,” Crawford continues.

Time taken to support the next generation of leaders is time well-spent, she says: “Promote them brazenly… Be clear that the future is for our taking/making.”

Like Crawford, Queensland integrity commissioner Nikola Stepanov advocates for boldness – and courage.

“I actively speak out about inappropriate things that have happened to me or others, mainly because I am a strong female voice in a regulatory environment.”

She wants to see an end to the club-like culture in the public service; the “natural inclination a public service decision-maker [has] to employ or promote those people who are more familiar to them or their upbringing or culture … I often say that a person might benefit from choosing their friends or partners as if they are blind. The same, I think, might be true of choosing appointments.”

Crawford, too, wants to see greater recognition for leaders who don’t necessarily have the obvious background or job title to go with their mindset or capability. “It’s way too hierarchical,” she says. “Leadership is all around us at all levels. My magic wand would tell more stories of leadership at all levels.”

Invest in your team

There are also hopes of pragmatic shifts to empower leaders and teams, given the unprecedented pressures of 2020. Senior public sector consultant Adele Drago-Stevens believes leaders must: “Understand and act in line with what is urgent and important. This year has seen everything become urgent. Asking some questions, directing work in line with genuine priority, and delegating more, will help better use of resources, and sustainability for public servants.”

Harvey advocates for investing in teams with tools to be more strategic and influential in the way they communicate and get buy-in, especially for program delivery.

“My aim is to give my team the toolbox to look at things from a different perspective and sit comfortably with the discomfort that comes from being visible in a new place,” she says. This is welcome news to emerging leaders like Tracy Cui, assistant director of energy policy in the ACT Government, who has both private and public sector experience and says that after such an exhausting year she’d like to see an “enabling career ecosystem” develop around emerging leaders, with clearer career development pathways.

Inspire, innovate … and just keep going

Dr Beth Woods, director-general at the Queensland Department of Fisheries, Agriculture and Forestry, is excited about the potential for innovation. “I am keen that we turn disruption into an opportunity to create exciting future opportunities.” She believes that effective communication from senior leaders is the key to “inspire and liberate” their teams, to find innovative solutions to emerging problems.

Stepanov says that beyond anything else, the most critical priority for senior leaders is: “Regaining or keeping perspective about how lucky we are to have jobs as public servants and all the amazing benefits that come with that like regular income, paid leave, superannuation. My magic wand is waving around madly to make a wish that we all just keep trying, every day, in any way that we can.”

Julia May and Sarah Anderson are facilitators of a series of national masterclasses for public sector leaders to support strategic influence and leadership impact (in partnership with The Mandarin).

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