Get the leadership edge — SES competition is fierce

By Harley Dennett

January 25, 2016

APS State of the Service 2014-2015 report cover

It’s getting harder to stand out from the crowd, according to the latest figures published by the Australian Public Service Commission. Just don’t expect senior leaders to take time out to help develop you for the next career level.

An astonishing 87% of Commonwealth senior executives rate their immediate supervisor highly. Given how nearly every public sector workplace has moved to a 360 degree assessment model for senior leaders, those voices matter.

Although slightly less so, competition at EL2 and SES Band 1 levels is also high, with some 79% of their subordinates saying they have a good supervisor. Although perhaps they could do a bit more to encourage their staff, given (a still healthy) 66% of those staff give their boss the tick for that leadership task.

Question APS EL SES
I have a good immediate supervisor 80% 79% 87%
My immediate supervisor encourages me 64% 66% 76%
Chart of perceptions of immediate supervisors
Perceptions of immediate supervisors. Source: APSC.

Why do Commonwealth senior executives have such a high opinion of their immediate supervisor? The gloss comes off a bit if you look at the other questions that were asked, particularly since it includes the APS and Executive Level grades where engagement is notably lower.

Question 2013 2014 2015
In my agency, the senior leadership is of a high quality 46 52 52
In my agency, the most senior leaders are sufficiently visible (e.g. can be seen in action) 47 49 50
In my agency, communication between senior leaders and other employees is effective 38 41 42
In my agency, senior leaders engage with staff on how to respond to future challenges 42 47 47
In my agency, senior leaders give their time to identify and develop talented people 28 29 30
In my agency, senior leaders communicate effectively regarding the business risks that we face 49 48
In my agency, senior leaders ensure that work effort contributes to the strategic direction of the agency and the APS 54 54
In my agency, senior leaders effectively lead and manage organisational change 41 45 45
Senior leaders in my agency lead by example in ethical behaviour 51 51
In my agency, senior leaders encourage innovation and creativity 42 43

It’s notoriously difficult to compare jurisdictions if they aren’t using the same questions and measurement benchmarks. But The Mandarin have more to write on that later.

Developing leadership capability

It’s worth noting that less than a third of Commonwealth public servants see senior leaders as taking time out to identify and develop talented people. But there are alternative teachers.

The APSC’s Strategic Centre for Leadership, Learning and Development has programs across the breadth of EL2 to SES Band 3 on leadership practice and development.

The APSC’s leadership and core skills strategy separates management expertise from leadership practice. The latter is something everyone can model, regardless of their span of control. The strategy quotes former head of the service, Dr Ian Watt:

“In my view, everyone in the APS is a leader, whether or not they have staff working for them. Everyone can model the leadership behaviours that help influence and set the tone for the workplace. Everyone can behave with honesty and integrity, share their skills and expertise, encourage those around them, give praise for good work or progress and notice when someone they work with needs particular help or support. And also I want every member of the APS to be able to develop their ability to lead and to manage.”

But developing that leadership capability is essential as the business environment for APS evolves, the commission argues. “This environment is characterised by a drive for improved productivity, a drive for improved efficiency and effectiveness and transformational change.”

Here are the top five leadership skills the commission argues are needed for effective leadership in such an environment:

  1. Political nous;
  2. Strategic thinking;
  3. People and interaction skills;
  4. Anticipating future change; and
  5. Enabling organisations and people to proactively manage change before circumstances force change upon them.

Have your say: what leadership skills do you think are missing from this list?

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