Lloyd on leadership: what makes an effective public sector manager, anywhere

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday August 11, 2015

Management is about using your authority, maintaining order, solving technical problems and being accountable for decisions, but leadership is another thing altogether, according to Australian Public Service commissioner John Lloyd.

Welcoming the latest crop of graduates from the Queensland University of Technology’s postgraduate public sector management program, who work all over the country in all tiers of government, the commissioner said effective management was “vitally important” but only “part of the story”.

“Leadership is the important other part,” he continued. “Skilful leadership is important for dealing with complex issues. People at many levels of public employment, not just the Senior Executive Service, exercise leadership.”

Lloyd then went on to explain what those important leadership qualities are, in his view:

“I look for a proven capacity to see the big picture, to see the links to other policy areas and to embrace change that advances policy objectives both in your own subject matter and beyond.

“An ability to establish a sound working partnership with colleagues so the team, group or division works in a constructive manner to achieve its goals.

“A person who assists in engendering a collegiate culture amongst staff. This is often exemplified by someone being prepared to work on corporate committees or contributing themselves or staff to task forces and working groups.”

APS leaders also needed to be “credible and competent” when representing their agency, he said, with a “good grasp” of the imperatives that drive the businesses. not-for-profit organisations and state and territory agencies they deal with. And they must be decisive.

“Consultation is often required but this can be overdone,” said Lloyd, adding that public sector managers often have to “make decisions and get on with it.”

“This may mean that not everyone agrees with a proposed course of action,” he said. “Too often inertia in the interests of seeking agreement is worse.”

He added that managers also need to listen with an open mind, and tackle dysfunction head-on.

“Many agencies run into trouble when we are aware of dysfunction or poor performance and it is left to be addressed at a later date,” said Lloyd. “It is our responsibility to make things work.”

The commissioner also returned to the complex topic of stress. The genuine health condition is not necessarily a consequence of having a busy, challenging job, but that can be the cause in some cases. In March, Lloyd suggested the issue could be misunderstood and overhyped.

“Life and work involves challenges for time management,” he told the aspiring public sector managers. “Lots of balls in the air is a feature of senior work in government. Keep on top of it and make sure you empower those who work for you to share the load.”

Last of all, resilience is a key trait for successful public service managers, the commissioner said. They must not be easily deterred by criticism, and capable of telling decision makers that there are better ways of doing things.

Last year, QUT Business School won a six-year contract to become the single national provider of the graduate certificate in public sector management, which has existed since 1991 to train middle managers for all levels of government. It is “owned by the governments of Australia” according to QUT, and offered in all capital cities, with about 400 enrolments each year.

The university claims a “surge in enrolments” since taking over delivery of the program.

“We’ve seen a fantastic response from departments and agencies across government, with an especially strong demand from the Commonwealth,” said the business school’s director of government partnerships, Matt McNeice.

“This is a customised corporate program, owned by the public sector, developed with them and aimed at helping public servants reach their full potential.”

A changing of the guard in a changing world

About half of those currently in senior executive roles in the nine Australian governments will retire in the next decade, Lloyd pointed out.

“This represents a significant ‘changing of the guard’,” Lloyd told the graduates.

“Now that you have completed this program, I hope many of you will consider taking up the challenging roles as the next generation of government leaders. The public sector needs leaders who will meet the challenge of increasing community expectations in a fast-changing and more complex world. Leaders who can help us steer our way through an uncertain and changing landscape.”

Lloyd is confident the Commonwealth bureaucracy can rise to the challenge, focusing on the external in the digital transformation of the way government services are conceptualised and delivered, and the internal in the need for a “high-performance culture” to pervade the public service.

He also said APS reforms would be made of four elements:

  1. “The service is likely to be less complex with a capacity to manage costs more effectively. There will be a sharper focus on core functions and costs.”
  2. “Second, the APS will be more agile. It will have the flexibility to respond quickly to new challenges and possess a stronger governance framework around risk.”
  3. “Third, in its core and critical areas the APS will become more expert. We will have to acquire a deeper expertise to address complex issues. It will be important to retain a high performance culture.”
  4. “Fourth, there will be more choice. The APS can inspire confidence in its capacity by creating options for Australians to choose their services and providers.”

This, he said, would lead to “more energising” work experiences than bureaucrats have found in the past.

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