When a promotion is given but doesn’t seem warranted – The Select Committee

By Chris Johnson

Thursday July 15, 2021

What does it do to the effectiveness of an organisation when someone is promoted after making a huge and costly mistake?
What does it do to the effectiveness of an organisation when someone is promoted after making a huge and costly mistake? (fizkes/Adobe)

If a leader makes a big mistake – disastrous even – and subsequently gets further promoted, what impact can that have on the wider organisation? How is the culture affected? What about staff morale, bad publicity, and the potential impact on the effectiveness of the leader concerned?

We asked our brains trust The Select Committee to address this very question.

Specifically, we asked them:  

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What does it do to the effectiveness of an organisation, including within the public sector, when someone is promoted after making a huge and costly mistake?

Responses from our panel members are all insightful and informative. Lucy Turnbull kicks it off describing how ‘failing upward’ can weaken the cohesive glue of an organisation.

Geoff Gallop applies it directly to the promotion of agency heads and says when such promotions are made, a message sent down the line about what standards are acceptable when it comes to the implementation of government policy.

And Terry Moran brings it home with an explanation of how APS leadership once relied on merit-based selection, but how the rigours of the system have broken down in recent times.

These are all fascinating comments and well worth reading in full, here below.

Lucy Turnbull AO

Lucy Turnbull

Lucy Turnbull AO is an urbanist, businesswoman and philanthropist with a longstanding interest in cities, and technological and social innovation. From 2015-20 she was the inaugural Chief Commissioner of the Greater Sydney Commission, tasked by the NSW state government to assist in delivering strong and effective strategic planning for the whole of metropolitan Sydney. Lucy was the first female Lord Mayor of the City of Sydney from 2003-4. 

The phrase ‘failing upward’ was not created in a vacuum. It happens from time to time. Sometimes people appear to be promoted despite mediocre ( or worse, disastrous) prior performance.

It is just a fact of life. It happens in the private and public sectors. And in public life. When it becomes a problem is at the point that respect and regard for an organisation’s leadership is diminished — and the judgement calls that the newly promoted person made in their new, elevated role, are called into question. Something like ‘gosh s/he mucked up before. It is happening again! Let’s just duck for cover as much as we can and not be part of this’. 

That weakens the effectiveness, morale and cohesive ‘glue’ or culture of an organisation — and the respect for the CEO, board or senior person that promoted the person. – Lucy Turnbull AO

Geoff Gallop AC

Emeritus Professor Geoffrey Gallop AC was the 27th premier of Western Australia (2001-2006), he is the former chair of the Australian Republican Movement, and was director of the Graduate School of Government at the University of Sydney. Today he is a Member of The Global Commission on Drug Policy based in Geneva and is a member of the Friends of the Corporate Mental Health Alliance Australia. He chairs the Research Committee of the New Democracy Foundation.

Geoff Gallop

There’s always going to be complications when a government promotes to the top of an agency someone whose management of an important program or project has involved cost overruns, bad publicity and less than adequate outcomes overall.

It does happen and for a range of reasons, some of which may never see the light of day – perhaps secrets in the cupboard?

Three implications immediately come to mind, each of which can seriously undermine the effectiveness of the agency as a delivery arm for government.

Firstly, there’s the message sent down the line about what standards are acceptable when it comes to the implementation of government policy. Public servants do take note of these things and government-sanctioned cultures do emerge.

Secondly, there’s the likely impact of all of this on the morale of the agency. It may even be the case that an unsuccessful candidate for the job is still working within the agency, unhappy and a pole of attraction for other malcontents.

Other ministers might not be too happy either, given the pressure to explain to their electorates and to their own public servants. All of these things matter to the effectiveness of government.

Thirdly, there’s the time and effort that will be needed to explain the decision to stakeholders in parliament and what is sure to be a hungry and unforgiving media. Note too that it’s not the sort of issue where blame shifting can be employed – this will be a decision for which the government has to accept responsibility!

These are all good reasons for not promoting such a person. From a ‘system’ point of view it is also possible that such an appointment puts the new agency head in a too-dependent relationship with the minister and the government. Loyalty is all-important but not when it dents the capacity of a public servant to speak truth to power.

On the other hand, the loyalty generated may be a spur to greater commitment, and the lessons learnt from previous failure a guarantor of better performance in the future.

As the story about success goes:

“What is the secret of your success?” an ANZSOG student asks of a departmental head.

“Two words,” the successful mandarin replies – “right decisions”.

“How do you make right decisions?” asks the student.

“One word,” the mandarin says – “experience”.

“Yes, but how do you get experience?” follows up the student.

“Two words,” the mandarin responds – “wrong decisions!”.

In order to develop the skills and capacities related to effective management, room for mistakes needs to be available. Experience of failure may be the basis for greater wisdom and success in the future rather than a clear sign that promotion is unjustified.

Bad performance today may or may not be a good predictor of bad performance tomorrow. Giving someone a second chance in these circumstances may be a stroke of genius … or an act of madness!

Character is important in all of this as well, and may very well be the basis upon which to judge whether or not bad performance today is the beginning and end of the story.

Human resource managers note too, no easy answers, it’s one of those matters for judgment from which decision makers cannot escape. Geoff Gallop AC

Terry Moran AC

Terry Moran AC was, as Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Australia’s most senior public servant, from 2008 to 2011. His current roles include: Chancellor, Federation University; Chair, Centre for Policy Development; Vice President, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research; Director Menzies Foundation; Ambassador, Teach for Australia.

Terry Moran Select Committee
Terry Moran

Over time the professionalism of Australian Public Services has been sustained through reliance on merit-based selection using formal selection criteria crafted to support a process which would identify the most capable person for the job.

At the APS executive level, this system has been guarded by the Public Service Commissioner and predecessors. The commissioner also has a significant role in the process leading to appointments at the level of departmental secretary. The origins of such arrangements date from the British Northcote-Trevelyan Report of 1854 which influenced thinking in the colonies, particularly Victoria.

Piece by piece the rigour of this system has been dismantled in recent decades, despite research which indicates that formal evaluation against stated criteria yields the most reliable decisions when compared with decision making based in intuition or social fit.

Over time some departments have acquired homogenous executive leadership teams preferencing generalists and economists. In practice this means more and more selections based on networks and personal familiarity.

For some departments, this is reflected in a limited spread of capabilities and some unrecognised ignorance of the business areas which the department funds or guides.

David Thodey nailed these issues in his report stressing the need to rebuild capability. To do this requires a respect for specialist expertise at all levels in departments and a conscious effort to develop or recruit it.

It is an irony that David Thodey’s report was released in the same month (December 2019) as the first reported COVID case from Wuhan.

He wasn’t just on about rebuilding capability, but also about investment in public capability at local level to coordinate effective services. We are paying the price for not having done this. It’s worth remembering that Thodey and his panel feared acute risks for policy, regulation and delivery if their recommendations were ignored.

It could now be argued that without the contribution of state health departments (and the professionals within them) our national experience of COVID-19 would have become a disaster. The Commonwealth Department of Health is now overwhelmingly concentrated in Canberra, diminished in expertise and seemingly uncomprehending of the complexity of health systems outside the walls of their Canberra castle.

The problem is broader than the department of health. The robodebt disaster has been swept under the carpet and the initiative suggests serious deficiencies in the responsible department. The adequacy of the department’s business case, implementation planning, systems design and management arrangements must now be properly evaluated. Akin to age care, this debacle requires a royal commission. The misery and deaths caused by the department require nothing less and with it the weeding out of those responsible.

In due course, a royal commission into the handling of the pandemic should also be embraced.

Perhaps through these means the APS may eventually be reformed. – Terry Moran AC


When your minister is under a cloud – The Select Committee


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