Building diverse executive teams: public service leaders share strategies

By David Reynolds

August 19, 2016

Finding the right diversity balance within executive teams across Australia’s public sector is a hot topic in all boardrooms and a problem faced by all tiers of government.

As someone who has been recruiting at an executive level for the past 20 years within government, I am regularly asked by clients the following three questions:

  • How do we find the right balance?
  • What can we do now to prepare for tomorrow?
  • And, what works and what doesn’t?

To further my education in this area, I put these questions to three leading government executives.

“The key is employ people which reflect the organisation’s customer or client base … ”

One senior position-holder in the Queensland government (who wished not to be named), who has led organisations within the public, the NGO and private sectors says the public sector should look to the private sector when it comes to examples of diverse workforces.

“The key is employ people which reflect the organisation’s customer or client base, as showcased by many organisations in the private sector, particularly those that provide human services or consumer services,” she said.

She says most public sector workforces she has seen in Australia have a lot of work to do to move towards their diversity goals.

“Although the intention is always the opposite, certain tacit forces can operate to alienate people from diverse backgrounds”. Having said that, she noted that the Queensland government previously had one of the highest rates of Indigenous employment of any public sector in Australia – and much of this had to do with recruitment practices that did not intimidate the applicant.

One of the greatest challenges she says, is that although women may not be well represented in some areas of government, in other areas like human services – where women dominate the senior executive ranks – it can be more beneficial to see an even gender balance of men. Men form a large number of human sector clients and an understanding of how to relate to them is invaluable.

Culture-focus outgrowing targets

The acting chief executive of Queensland’s Public Service Commission, Robert Setter, said finding the right balance has to be led by the Leadership Board, made up the directors-general across each agency.

“The Leadership Board is committed to employment targets to ensure that the future workforce closely represents the community they serve,” Setter said. “The directors-general have their own targets built into their performance agreements, but are working collectively to drive overall systemic change.”

“The average [age] of our workforce is 47 and increasing … we need to consider flexibility for this workforce.”

However, Setter says the issues are not just about numbers and data, ultimately it’s about culture.

“The Board are driving serious reform around an inclusive culture across the sector,” he said. “The setting of diversity targets is not new, and indeed there were previously targets in place which had lost prominence over time.

“The difference in the current approach is two-fold. There is a clear movement away from a one-size-fits-all approach with unique needs of agencies being taken into account.  The second paradigm shift is the recognition that diversity and inclusivity are equally important.

“You can’t have one without the other as not all diverse organisations are inclusive and not all inclusive organisations are diverse.

“We know we can do better than we have, particularly in the employment of people with disability and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“We have seen a consistent and somewhat alarming declining employment trend in these groups over the past 10 years, which in part can be attributed to a loss of purpose and shared commitment — this has now been rectified.”

There is also a focus on the government’s Employer Value Proposition (EVP) to determine what is unique about working for the Queensland government and what is required to attract a more diverse range of talent in a competitive labour market.

“Employment branding, including how we interact via social media will also be part of the solution,” Setter said.

“The Board recognises that addressing unconscious bias is a critical element for better diversity outcomes and agencies are working with Professor Robert Wood, director of the Centre for Ethical Leadership and a professor at the Australian Graduate School of Management, to identify practical bias disruptors.”

System leadership is not just about central agencies; it is distributed and playing to the strengths and core business of line agencies.

The Queensland government is actively looking at issues relating to mature workers in the public sector too. “The average [age] of our workforce is 47 and this is increasing year-by-year,” Setter said. “We need to consider flexibility access for this workforce.”

The government is also focused on employment security and policy setting emphasises equipping all employees for the future, and positioning them to be the best they can be.

“Diversity is not just about social justice; it is critical for driving innovation.” Setter said.

Government organisations need to set the example

New South Wales’ public service commissioner Graeme Head says while public sector satisfaction rates in NSW are high, there is also a higher expectation of the public service than the private sector when it comes to matters such as diversity.

“We are having conversations around what is diversity and what are we doing about it,” Head said.

“When we are working on complex issues, we need diversity for productivity, engagement and innovation. Diverse backgrounds, capabilities and life experience help drive innovation.”

To strengthen their process, they are working to two specific targets, with 12 key priorities, and they include gender equality and to double the number of Aboriginal people in senior executive roles from 2015 to 2025.

“It’s clear the old models of recruiting through long essays don’t produce success … ”

The first step? Creating a talent management pipeline to see what is achievable and what is required to maintain the desired state. The analysis is being undertaken on a case-by-case basis within clusters to understand successes and areas for development.

The analysis found that:

  • Two thirds of the workforce is female with only one third in senior leadership roles
  • Their aspirational target was to have 1.8% of Aboriginal representation across the organisation by 2025. The analysis found that they had already achieved COAG targets.

“We are looking at our inflexible work practices and the drag on productivity and what we need to do to turn it around,” Head said. “Currently, roles can be inflexible in their design; we need to focus on capabilities required for leadership roles.

“We need to look at specifics in creating strategy around skill-sets and also examine the current culture we are hiring into. We also need to have a deeper understanding of the required skill-set for Senior Leadership roles. For example, leadership roles in Transport have typically been stereotyped for males.

“Current research on disability employment in leadership has showed us as declining in performance. We are undertaking significant work on the obstacles to employment for people with disabilities.

“We have established a Disability Service Employment Committee and are currently working with a private sector advisory group and other stakeholders who have had success as well as a number of peak bodies looking at best practice.

“There is a focus on eliminating unconscious bias with job designs to be reviewed and modify the recruitment process. This includes:

  • Multiple capability assessments in high volume recruitment – ie. policy and program management roles.
  • Creating blind process and remove bias – ie. no name or age listed on applicant’s profiles and assessments.
  • We are currently trialling different methods and upskilling relevant stakeholders.
  • We now use a robust and rigorous bulk recruitment and assessment process for policy and program management roles and for graduates. This enables us to reduce time and expense as well as reducing unconscious bias.
  • We are now creating banks of talent and using more targeted recruitment strategies using social media. We have a strong use of social media to promote our EVP and be explicit in EVP and brand which includes offering and promoting values of serving the community and offering choice.”

Head said the process has been very enlightening despite it only been in early days.

“Our targets are new so its early days, but it’s very clear that we need to focus on creating better engagement,” he said.

“It’s clear the old models of recruiting through long essays don’t produce success and aren’t conducive to meeting our diversity targets.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article inaccurately quoted Natalie Siegel-Brown in relation to the Queensland government. The Mandarin acknowledges that these quotes were not accurate and they have been removed. The Mandarin apologises to Ms Siegel-Brown.

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