Looking to grow? Turn to the public sector for leadership development

By Stephen Easton

Wednesday June 1, 2016

You’re far more likely to find programs to help you maximise your leadership potential in the public sector, according to the ground-breaking Survey of Australian Leadership commissioned by the Department of Employment.

The SAL reveals leadership development is far more common in government entities than the private sector — just as it shows there is more innovation going on in the government sphere, contrary to the popular view.

The study’s report says leadership development practices in government tend towards one-size-fits-all more than individual assessment.

Nonetheless, it confirms they are having the desired outcome, leading to more effective leaders, which in turn leads to improved performance, higher employee engagement and more innovation. It’s an area few other studies have ever looked into.

Only 4% of the multi-site public sector organisations covered in the giant survey have no leadership development programs in place. In contrast, the figure is 15% for their private sector counterparts, and 14% overall for the 818 organisations surveyed.

The report comments that — “paradoxically” — leadership development programs are not loved by their participants, based on evidence from the United States where “the leadership development industry is subject to growing criticism” for offerings based on outdated or unrealistic models.

The research team considered five types of leadership development activities:

  1. Formal leadership qualification programs provided externally through technical colleges, vocational institutes and universities.
  2. Leadership seminars and workshops as well as online webinars, courses and workshops, often offered in-house.
  3. Leadership assessment programs, such as 360-degree feedback assessments, developmental assessment centres and leadership simulation programs.
  4. Special developmental assignments, such as job rotation programs, learning by observing (‘shadowing’) and action learning.
  5. Mentoring programs, such as in-house mentoring, executive coaching, advisory and support networks.

Leadership workshops and mentoring were a close tie for the most popular, followed by special developmental assignments and formal qualifications. Leadership assessment was the least common of the five while others not on the list were reported by 10% of respondents.

The far more encouraging figures for the public sector reveal that 92% of respondents hold leadership workshops and 72% have mentoring programs. Special assignments to develop leaders are utilised in 56% of public sector workplaces surveyed and 52% facilitate formal qualifications.

Leadership assessments like 360-degree feedback take place in 41% of the public workplaces while 29% have other programs not covered by the five categories.

The survey identified a positive relationship between leadership development and two self-reported measures of leadership effectiveness.

First, there is self-efficacy, defined as “a person’s judgment that he or she can successfully exert leadership by setting a direction for the work group, building relationships with followers in order to gain their commitment to change goals, and working with them to overcome obstacles to change”.

The other measure, self-reported leadership capability, refers to how leaders feel about their “self-confidence, self-management, behavioural flexibility and interpersonal understanding”. According to the report:

“Specifically, formal leadership qualification programs, special developmental assignments and mentoring are positively and significantly related to the self-efficacy of workplace leaders.

“In addition, formal leadership qualification programs, leadership seminars, special developmental assignments and mentoring are positively related to their self-perceived leadership capability.”

The authors explain that self-efficacy, rather than leadership capability, appears to be the “key mechanism” by which leadership development programs influence organisational performance, but they provide no explicit conclusions about the relative values of the five activity types.

There is an exception to the general trend in the case of mentoring; it is actually more popular in under-performing workplaces than high-performing ones. But the researchers keep their conclusion simple:

“It is important that leadership development is provided to workplace leaders.”

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