If govt wants innovation, learn to manage the brilliant, difficult workers

By Harley Dennett

March 17, 2016

Air Vice-Marshall Warren McDonald

National security agencies are seeing a shift in thinking of what their cyber-equipped innovation-driven workforces should look like.

Nostalgic poster depictions of adult boy scouts — square jawed, fit and charismatic white men — are making way for gradual acceptance that the future workforce must comprise of diversity beyond the presently acceptable factors like ethnicity and gender.

Brilliant, but difficult workers who may have personality disorders, criminal records or health concerns such as obesity, are more often driven out of government organisations than welcomed and managed. That must change, say a new generation of leaders in these national security organisations, if they are to meet the challenges of the future.

Defence force’s structure, for example, doesn’t support someone who “lays on the outer”, says deputy chief of Air Force, Air Vice-Marshal Warren McDonald (pictured). Speaking at the Air Power Conference in Canberra yesterday, McDonald laid bare his concerns that disruptors — the very people most likely to have the innovation inspiration organisations are looking for — are neither embraced nor managed well by the highly proscriptive workforce and career structures in Defence.

Australian Federal Police commissioner Andrew Colvin echoed similar concerns of workforce homogeny in an address to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute last month.

“I went off with a little understanding of what it must be like trapped in a framework that buries people with that intelligence”

The rank and file have been attempting to get this problem on the agenda for some time. Defence White Paper consultation forums last year heard from public servants in Defence and other national security agencies that brilliant people who nonetheless “couldn’t manage a meat raffle” had no choice but to become an ineffective or potentially damaging manager or seek employment in the private sector if they wanted a salary to match their experience and skill.

Air Vice-Marshal McDonald said our history was full of innovative people who would probably have sat on the spectrum:

“As we get into the innovation space, we’re going to have to become comfortable with those people. You look at Alan Turing, cracked the enigma code, but he must have been difficult to manage. Look at other people in history that have brought forward many innovations, put up many ideas, they must be difficult to deal with, and you need a framework that can do that.”

It’s up to leaders inside organisations, including Air Force, to build that framework McDonald says, with the understanding that “we need to manage these people very carefully and very cleverly because they do exist inside the organisation.”

A more difficult conversation than usual

Air Vice-Marshal McDonald told the Air Power Conference of his own enlightening, but ultimately unsuccessful, experience working with a Squadron Leader who was a capable, intelligent person, a member of Mensa, but probably on the spectrum:

“His trouble was interpersonal skills and he was the Squadron Leader in a small unit and above him was a Wing Commander. His trouble was highlighted in his annual report by the Wing Commander, quite brutally, bare, so much so that the Squadron Leader — not to litigate his annual report, but to understand it — packaged it up an email and sent it out to his subordinates. We’re all know of 360 degree reporting, but this put an end to it. He was asking for feedback.

“So when it came up on the computer screen, I thought of one word: “brave”. Then I thought how many people are going to sit down and talk to him. So I thought with the honesty that had been delivered that it was my duty to do so. So I made an appointment, and sat down with him.

“He had the annual report on the desk and he asked me, ‘am I the person in this report?’ I answered the question with a question. I said, when you see me walk in on Monday morning, up the corridor, do you think ‘how on Earth am I going to talk to this person? What will I say? Why can’t that person connect with the level at my end? Why do I have to have a rather mundane conversation?’ His response was yes.

“We talked a little bit more in that conversation, and he went on to be a hired professional. I went off with a little understanding of what it must be like for someone like that trapped in a framework that does tend to bury people who have that intelligence. That’s a challenge for the Royal Australian Air Force, that’s a challenge for Defence.”

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