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‘A safe environment to fail’: when secretaries go to school

Victoria has been doing something a bit different for its executive talent development — and it’s catching on.

With new secretary Chris Eccles shaking up the Department of Premier and Cabinet, and senior leadership changes at secretary level across the Victorian Public Service, one of the things that won’t change is their leadership of the most involved executive workforce and succession program in the country.

It’s the opposite of the development programs that sequestered executives like a daycare centre, ignored and then picked up when they’re ready. All nine members of Victoria’s secretaries board, including the police commissioner and public service commissioner, get involved in assessing and developing high-potential candidates. The success can be measured in the more than 30% improvement in performance following the program completion, and about half of all participants are promoted.

Leanne Ansell-McBride
Leanne Ansell-McBride

The programs are run by the Victorian Leadership Development Centre, also owned by the secretaries board. VLDC CEO Leanne Ansell-McBride says the key factor of its effectiveness is the commitment of the secretaries themselves, endlessly busy people, who make time because it pays off.

“The difference from all other jurisdictions is that our secretaries truly work as a collective to drive the development of the people,” Ansell-McBride told The Mandarin.

“If secretaries don’t have capable deputy secretaries and chief executives in agencies, their life is far worse. They can be less busy if they’ve got competent people around them. So they’re investing the time to ensure they’ve got competent people ready to step into their roles. It’s why most of our programs have such a high level of impact [improvement and promotions].”

Each member of the nine-person board isn’t just volunteering to assist the people in their own department or portfolio agencies, although they do play a direct role in their development. The commitment also requires secretaries and commissioners to relinquish some of their best staff to other agencies and adopt staff from other areas of the public service or police to expand their skill sets.

“The secretaries arrange time with those people, enabling those people, releasing their good people, then to support them during the placement,” Ansell-McBride added.

“Often it’s about giving people the breadth of skills that they need. If I look at the secretaries for example, the majority of them have had the experience of being in a central agency and in a line agency delivering a highly visible service. So we seek to shift the people around to give them the experiences that we actually need so they are ready for those senior roles when they’re up.”

Recent examples include moving senior police officers into Treasury and Finance to get that central agency exposure, and DPC executives into police to get operational experience leading large numbers of direct reports.

Secretaries also rotate through the cohort throughout the program, giving candidates exposure across the public sector.

‘Two days in the life of a secretary’

As has become the norm, at least in Australia, the programs cover director up to chief executive roles and are tailored to meet the specific skills gaps in the leader’s repertoire based on an upfront assessment they call “two days in the life of a secretary”. Ansell-McBride said it’s about putting them outside their comfort zone: “We put them into a secretary role they know nothing about.”

Leaders are given a scenario and tasked to come up with a strategy for their department as the secretary. Then they’re thrown in with their colleagues, playing secretary of other departments, who collectively have to come up with a whole-of-government strategy, jostling their own department’s priorities. At conclusion, the leaders on trial present their solution to a “cabinet committee” played by the actual secretaries. Proving that the job of a secretary was never going to be easy, the simulations also include conflicts with ministers, auditors-general and other stakeholders in the middle of solving their whole-of-government scenario.

“… they’ll get feedback about what they could have done differently so the next time they face that situation they’ll be successful.”

“It is a safe environment to fail,” Ansell-McBride said. “If they mess it up, it’s not the real world. Instead they’ll get feedback about what they could have done differently so the next time they face that situation they’ll be successful.”

Rather than using those tools purely for selection for leadership programs, as occurs in some jurisdictions, in Victoria they use it to drive development. Their success is measured 18 months or two years later at the completion of the program if they’ve achieved development goals and embraced the opportunity to build skills. Those measures are reported to the full secretaries board.

Eccles, who in his previous role as secretary of New South Wales Premier and Cabinet was involved in the decision to establish the Public Sector Commission and Leadership Development Centre in NSW, will now take on leadership of the next cohort in Victoria following the machinery of government changes bringing the number of secretaries down to seven and two commissioners.

New Zealand was the first jurisdiction in the region to set up this type of public sector executive development, and their Leadership Development Centre assisted the Victorian secretaries board to adapt it from a 40-secretary model to the much smaller 13-person set-up reflecting the number of departments it had at the time. Victoria in turn has been assisting NSW and others follow suit.

What are they looking for in the next generation of leaders? Ansell-McBride says adaptability will be key.

“That ability to cope with high levels of ambiguity and complexity, and change and adapt is a critical skill,” she said. “The ability to work collaboratively, and outside the traditional public service domains, with external providers, non-for-profits and the private sector in delivering the services that we need is an absolutely critical skill.”

More at The Mandarin: The new-look Vic DPC: Chris Eccles’ roadmap for restructure

Author Bio

Harley Dennett

Harley Dennett is editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's held communications roles in the New South Wales public sector and Defence, and been a staff reporter for newspapers in Sydney and Washington DC.