Martin Bowles puts people management first to move from tactical to strategic

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday June 21, 2016

People are the key to organisational success for Department of Health secretary Martin Bowles, who dispensed some of the lessons from a varied public sector career that began a long way from Canberra in a speech on leadership this morning.

After addressing public servants at the latest IPAA ACT secretary series, Bowles told The Mandarin his leadership style was unashamedly people-driven. He focuses on developing people, listening to them, seeing their potential and building a culture of strong teamwork and innovative thinking around a positive, encouraging environment.

“If you get those basics right, you get a much better policy outcome, because people will be thinking, people will be trying to challenge and they’ll be doing all sorts of different things,” he said.

“If you can build skills, develop people and trust people, they’ll back you when things are tight.”

Public service leaders must have the courage to admit their mistakes and accept the blame, he advised, but also to say no to powerful people — something he said is best done in more diplomatic words and always with a good alternative ready to go.

Bowles was appointed not long after a capability review found the department a hardworking, well-oiled machine that was extremely reliable when called on to deliver on complex reforms and new projects, but nowhere near where it needed to be in terms of a strategic approach. A culture of “results over people” enforced through a command-and-control leadership style was taking its toll on senior staff who worked “long hours and under immense pressure to deliver” and the reviewers found a strong view it couldn’t go on for much longer.

“I think any reflective activity about your organisation, particularly around the capability of your organisation, is always positive,” Bowles told The Mandarin, commenting on the independent review program run via the Australian Public Service Commission. “The thing then is how do you use it in a really positive way to drive cultural change and improvement.”

Ideas factory for the bigger picture

In this morning’s speech, the latest in the Institute for Public Administration Australia (ACT Branch) secretaries series, he said the department was in reasonably good shape but had to do a lot of work in the past few years to move Health from its tactical focus to a genuine strategic role, as steward of a complicated mass of interlocking healthcare systems that stretch across the nation.

He said it was important for policy departments like Health to create and tend to a “garden bed of ideas” — if not, where else will they come from? — and argued this was only possible through careful attention to the people who form the workforce.

“So I actually think the capability review process has been enormously positive for me in Health, and enormously positive for my job in Immigration when we did the same thing there. What we’re actually doing now is a ‘health check’ on the organisation to reflect on the reflections, to make sure we are still on the right pathway.”

And he confirms that he, at least, is not working too late and is getting enough sleep. “I’m a relatively calm person; I don’t get too worried about too many things.”

Authenticity in one’s own leadership style

As well as a “hotbed of ideas” Bowles wants Health to be an organisation that is empowered to think differently, challenge the prevailing norms and work towards a truly united national health system. Looking back on his first 20 months in the job, he says he is proud of creating a true “team approach” where staff don’t try to outdo each other, instead knowing when to take the lead and when to lead “from behind” and let others play that role.

It’s clear that Bowles is a very different style of leader to his predecessor, the highly respected Jane Halton, and he acknowledges the value in different approaches, telling The Mandarin there is “no one way” of doing anything. He told the audience that workforce diversity was “one of the most vital things for the public service, going forward”.

“If you can build skills, develop people and trust people, they’ll go to the ends of the Earth for you, and back you when things are tight,” Bowles added, explaining that in his view, leadership also involves providing genuine and thoughtful career advice to staff, even to the point of strongly challenging their own views on what path to take.

The point of developing your people is not to keep them forever,  says Bowles, and a good leader must also have the courage to let them go if they want to. All of this is part of his view that the best leaders “listen and watch more than they talk” to build a strong team, and then give it the space and the environment to do the best work they can.

“You need to be authentic,” Bowles warned. “If you’re not authentic, people will see through you very, very quickly.”

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