What does it mean to be a good manager? Listen, act, be accountable

By David Donaldson

Friday March 18, 2016

I love my work!

Individual managers taking the initiative to lead in their workplaces is key to a successful public service workforce, says Australian Public Service commissioner John Lloyd.

“So much depends on individual managers following through on what the government and APS senior leadership are aiming to achieve,” he stated in a speech published Wednesday, in which he also made the case for making it easier to fire public servants who underperform.

Part of being a leader and manager is being accountable for fixing problems.

“Managers are accountable,” he argues. “If you see a problem in your team and you choose not to do anything about it, you’re not being accountable. And this means you’re not being a manager.”

Lloyd laid out his view on what comprises the core features of public service management.

“I expect you to: see the big picture; listen to and put forward new ideas; embody the APS values; and call out poor behaviour,” he explained. “That is leadership.”

According to the commissioner, management is all about:

  • using your authority
  • maintaining order
  • solving technical problems, and
  • being accountable for decisions, people or the use of resources.

Performance management: ‘we are not good at this’

The APS needs to improve how it manages performance, argues the commissioner.

“Make no mistake, we are not good at this,” he said.

“APS employees consistently report in the employee census that their agency struggles to manage underperformance. Only around 20% of employees ever agree that their agency deals effectively with it.”

The commission is currently working with agencies to develop advice about what to focus on when reviewing performance frameworks.

Industry research shows the provision of fair and accurate feedback can make a difference of nearly 40% to employee performance, he noted. “When honest feedback is absent at a workplace, employees are left in the dark as to what’s required of them.”

Lloyd outlined “what good performance conversations look like”. Amongst other things they:

  • are forward looking,
  • connect employees to their organisation and other relevant stakeholders,
  • highlight the impact an employee’s performance has on the organisation’s success, and
  • are honest and informed about how people are actually performing.

And his advice to employees going into a performance meeting was that you should reflect on:

  • your strengths
  • your development needs, and how to best meet those needs
  • whether you are performing at your best, and why
  • how you have contributed to your organisation’s success
  • how you can contribute more in the future and improve your performance, and
  • your career goals.

“We are aiming to reframe the way managers and employees approach performance conversations. Everyone stands to gain from them when they are good. They shouldn’t be a box-ticking exercise,” he stated.

Talent management critical

Improving talent management will be a key focus of Lloyd’s work this year he said, noting the APSC updated its talent management guide last year.

“This means identifying high potential people and preparing them for business-critical roles. Let me be clear, talent management is about far more than just a training program. It is a long-term investment to make sure we have the right people in the right roles.”

The APSC’s approach to talent management is based on three principles, Lloyd said:

  • that talent management is owned and led by the business leaders
  • that assessment of talent is objective and valid, and
  • that talent management is systematic and dynamic — it changes in response to what is happening in the organisation’s environment.

But, he argued, talent management does not mean favouring the people you like, nor neglecting solid contributors who have found their niche or do not want to go further.

“Talent management does mean investing more in those with the potential to contribute more,” said Lloyd. “It means keeping valuable people highly engaged by giving them work that stretches them. We should be doing this at most levels, not just higher up.”

Increasing mobility of staff would make the workforce more responsive to change and help broaden skills and experience within the APS, he added. To this end the APSC is working with the Business Council of Australia and other peak bodies and jurisdictions to facilitate secondments into and out of the APS.

“The capacity for the rapid deployment of staff is critical to a modern public service,” he said.

“Once in the APS, we want to make it easy for employees to move within and across agencies, and to and from the private sector. Currently movement is technically possible, but can be difficult in practice.”

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