Keep the fights in-house: creating a strong executive team

By David Donaldson

Wednesday January 25, 2017

Sitting at the top of the public service food chain is a demanding job. Not only are you in charge of a significant organisation — often with hundreds or thousands of employees — you’re also expected to be able to answer whatever question the minister throws at you.

But steering the ship of state can’t be done without a skilled and effective executive team backing up the secretary.

“It’s never about the individual secretary anyway,” says former boss of the Victorian and Commonwealth public sectors Terry Moran. “There’s not just the deputy secretary, but also first assistant secretaries. It’s about the team of people the secretary assembles to lead the department.”

A good team isn’t just an auxiliary to the leader, but an essential part of running a department or agency well across all its endeavours.

“Commonly secretaries who fail do so because they haven’t managed to assemble a strong, diverse executive leadership team under them in the department,” thinks the former secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet under Kevin Rudd.

“One of the worst sins is to export disagreements … whether to other departments or to the political level.”

There are some key points to consider when putting together an executive team, says Moran.

“The critical thing is that the backgrounds of the people in it are diverse and as many as possible are quite familiar with the business of the department. Therefore the pressure on the secretary to be a specialist on the department’s work, and thus able to be a strategic leader, is conditional on how well the secretary puts together a team. Some are good at that, some aren’t.”

The most important thing is diversity. “Get a diversity of backgrounds and skill bases, qualifications and experiences,” he explains. A range of perspectives allows for more inputs and different ideas.

Though there should be plenty of people with a deep knowledge of the organisation, outsiders with strategic skills who can look at things differently are also vital.

“Don’t just rely on people who’ve come to the surface through the organisation you’re responsible for leading,” says Moran. “Find a good mixture of people who are capable and know the organisation and people who are strategically capable and can lead on the work about where to go next.”

Fostering a culture of openness and resolving debates within the team are additional elements of success.

“The team has to be in touch in real time with the events of the day and what’s happening. They have to trust each other and be mutually supportive,” he says.

“It follows on that one of the worst sins is to export disagreements from within the organisation to outside, whether to other departments or to the political level. They need to resolve all differences in-house and present a united front if they’re to be a good team.”

Team leadership

“I take a very strong view that it is an executive team that provide the leadership for the whole enterprise,” says Gill Callister, the secretary of Victoria’s Department of Education and Training.

Individuals will have their own capabilities and responsibilities, “but if we have a problem that might mean we’re failing then it is all of our problem to solve,” she thinks.

“We need good, robust discussion — but we need to own and live the decisions that we take as a group … ”

That doesn’t mean we should have groupthink — we need good, robust discussion — but we need to own and live the decisions that we take as a group and we need to live and model the values that we expect will deliver the most high quality input in the education system.”

You constantly need to keep an eye out for groupthink while ensuring disagreement is handled respectfully, she told The Mandarin in previously unpublished comments from an interview last year.

“We don’t want to all hold hands and sing kumbaya, but I think you get better ability to either disagree or put different ideas if people feel that’s in the context of a respectful and safe relationship.”

Nonetheless, it’s up to the leader’s judgement whether to consult on some decisions.

“I do take a whole of leadership and whole of enterprise approach to leadership and management, which is not to say I shy away from making decisions. I am pretty decisive and I said to people when I started, I will make decisions, I will nearly always consult first and get your views. Occasionally I won’t,” Callister explains.

“I will hope though that we reach a decision that is best for the organisation and what we’re trying to do. And generally if you consult with senior people and work something through — and it doesn’t have to be a long time — you’ll often get a better perspective on the way forward than just jumping into it. But occasionally that’s not the case.”

Recruiting the right people

“It’s about balance”, thinks Queensland Public Sector Commission acting chief executive Rob Setter.

Senior executives need to combine a range of skills and experience with the right temperament. “You need policy skills, some sort of expertise — particularly with a future focus, rather than just a strong record,” he tells The Mandarin.

“You also need thought leadership — being able to communicate very effectively and provide the evidence for people to come on board. Also being people managers, not just experts and communicators. The biggest thing, the biggest discriminator, is about people management, working with people,” he explains.

Interviews are an important tool for eliciting information about how a potential recruit works that won’t show up on paper.

“Language is everything,” he says. “The questioning techniques in trying to draw out leadership competency is the trick.” Single word answers won’t do.

Sometimes he’ll speak to someone rich in technical expertise who will describe their work in ‘I’ terms: ‘I achieved this…’ rather than ‘we completed this…’. This can demonstrate a lack of experience with or proclivity for being a team player.

“Link evidence they’re providing with the referee perspective. … Who do they offer to validate a story? Even who they offer is insightful in determining who to referee check,” he says.

Setter agrees that diversity is an important tool in combating groupthink. The Queensland government is making a concerted effort to repair the damage done during the Campbell Newman years to the leadership representation of women, Indigenous and non-English speaking background people, where the lack of interest in looking outside traditional networks led to many not even bothering to apply.

“This year we’ve agreed collaboratively as a leadership board on whole of leadership targets”, Setter explains. Agencies have set their own targets based on different base figures.

Though he was until recently a skeptic on targets, he says, the data show that “with no urgency and no focus, we weren’t getting increased diversity”. On the other hand, “when targets did exist previously, less in terms of women, but for Indigenous and non-English speaking background, their proportion of the workforce was higher. 10 years ago it would have been 7-8%; now it’s about 2% [of the whole public service].”

Executives should “actively pursue alternative thought”, and setting an open-minded culture through leadership and conversation is key to achieving this. Ensuring everyone gets a chance to speak in meetings and making sure the right people are in the room is important.

Performance management processes are a useful element for ensuring executives are living up to their duties too. He offers an example from his time as director general at the Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries, where he would invite stakeholders along to annual reviews with his deputies, offering the chance to give feedback and verify assessments of how stakeholder management was faring.

“There needs to be strong evidence in performance processes that demonstrates capacity to lead and work with people, and practice what diversity and inclusion actually mean,” he adds.

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