Leadership at scale: mentors who taught Dennis Richardson the craft

By Harley Dennett

November 24, 2016

Musing on his career and the lessons for leaders of government organisations to a forum run by the Institute of Public Administration Australia (ACT branch) this week, Dennis Richardson looked back to three mentors who helped him shape his toolkit as a leader.

Very early in Richardson’s foreign affairs career, the head of mission at the Australian High Commission for Kenya in Nairobi went missing. He wasn’t actually missing, he’d just stepped out of the office and the country to address an issue: the attempted coup in neighbouring Uganda. Richardson assures that there were a lot of Australians in the country at the time, so there was significant risk, and ultimately Idi Amin’s 1970s post-coup military dictatorship did lead to considerable loss of life.

When the high commissioner got back to the office he explained to Richardson that in a crisis, always go to the source of the trouble. Richardson took from the dramatic circumstances to never stand back, hold back, or skirt around the edges.

During another dramatic, celebrated moment of Australian history in 1991, Paul Keating challenged Bob Hawke for the Labor leadership and prime ministership. Richardson was Hawke’s chief of staff. After Hawke and his loyal ministers made calls, as one does in these situations, from 6pm to 1.30am, the then prime minister requested his papers for next day’s meetings which included the premiers conference [now COAG] commencing at 9am.

“He had someone walk into his office to challenge him for his job, spent 7 hours on that, and had the intellectual discipline to move from that to the premier’s conference the next morning,” Richardson explains.

“He took great pride in never going into a meeting unless he was totally prepared for it. He had the most disciplined capacity I’ve ever met to be able to move from one issue to another maintain focus, and not be distracted by what had come before.”

Richardson’s final pick for leadership mentoring came at a time in his career that most professionals would have seen as their pinnacle — as Australian Ambassador to Washington — a moment for dispensing wisdom, not receiving it.

He was in Afghanistan’s Uruzgan Province with then Chief of the Defence Force Angus Houston and national security advisor Duncan Lewis for inter-governmental meetings. Afterwards, to his surprise, Houston invited the pair to join him in meeting junior and middle ranking ADF officers.

“Duncan had been in the ADF, I had not. Angus and I, we are good mates but we haven’t always agreed. This meeting took place. This was all about the protective security to soldiers, probably the most sensitive issue when you’re on deployment. The tension between providing appropriate protection against mobility, etc., and there was a very frank discussion around that.

“And the lesson out of that is the capacity as a leader to create an environment where people feel able to raise the most sensitive things with you.”

Reaching the masses with authenticity

Internal communication remains Richardson’s one big leadership challenge that still frustrates, he says, and one he never quite figured out the correct solution for, if there is one. At Defence it’s nearly impossible to cut through he admits: “We work hard at it, but a lot of it is invisible.”

Large or small, leaders in all government organisations need to be able to cut through the layers of bureaucracy and reach as many people as possible. But the larger you go — Defence being one of the largest and most top-heavy in government — you just have to get used to being handed the proverbial unmentionable sandwich as “a regular part of your diet,” he admitted to the amused audience of public sector heavyweights. “Just when you think you’re getting through, something happens and you realise how far there is still to go.”

An open fan of town hall style meetings with staff, Richardson has held around 100 such gatherings during his tenure as the Defence APS boss. Earlier, as ASIO chief, he tried meeting every incoming and outgoing employee. That became too difficult to maintain as the spy agency expanded, but was profoundly educational about the roadblocks that never reach his desk in normal context.

While Richardson is aware of the growing acceptance of social media as a tool for leaders, it’s not for him. “It’s inauthentic,” he says, at least in the method employed by those around him, where staffers manage and engage in the principal’s name.

Instead he falls back on the time tested approach: consistency of message and keep in their face. He sets a similar standard for his SES as he demands of himself, with benchmarked minimum number of meetings with the group, division or team under them.

Hardest job in public administration

Despite the weight of positions that included PM’s chief of staff, Washington ambassador, chief spy and now Defence boss, Richardson doesn’t have difficulty sleeping anymore, and doesn’t think he has the hardest job in government. Far from it.

“The Band 1 has a tougher job than me,” he says. “If the government imposes cuts on an organisation then the CEO is making those broader judgements and the branches and divisions are dealing with people. That deeper engagement that falls to the Band 1s and the EL2s and the team leaders.

“My working hours are no longer today than they were 30 years ago. I simply spend different things with my time, [and there’s] less emotional pressure.

“Your first job as an SES you’re expected to be a super-duper manager from day one, you’re expected to produce the same work as you were as an EL2. If you can get through that you can get through anything.”

He’s nicer to those facing that situation now, he says, having a better understanding than he once did. But admits: “I tend to be a bit too robust in expressing myself, but people get used to it after a while … or they pretend they do.”

Band 2 is about the furthers you can go on pure merit, he says. Beyond that, it’s personal chemistry and other environmental factors.

Eventually he came to the realisation that he could work as hard as possible, “seek to do the right thing 24/7 and I could still end up being sacked in disgrace … once you’ve come to terms with the fact your career could come to an end through no fault of your own, you don’t stay awake at night, you’ve crossed that Rubicon.”

What’s next for Dennis?

For a man who used to read Time and Newsweek magazines from a tender age in primary school, was watching ABC News three times a day from age 11, and would write to embassies seeking inside information about global events even before he was out of high school, Richardson won’t find it easy to let go.

Yesterday, Richardson officially took on a new gig: patron of the RSPCA ACT. He’s keeping his role as a director of the Canberra Raiders. Beyond that, he’s as tight lipped as one might expect from Australia’s former top spy, simply declaring that there are “many things” still to do.

Top photo: Dennis Richardson/IPAA ACT. Video produced by contentgroup.

Upcoming IPAA ACT events

  • Only one major IPAA event still in the 2016 calendar: the annual address to the public service from Dr Martin Parkinson, secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet on December 6. This is an opportunity for IPAA members to put questions directly to the head of the APS, unfortunately already booked out, but members and government employees can request to be put on a waitlist.
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