Give staff space to make mistakes: Jane Halton

By David Donaldson

Tuesday June 13, 2017

It’s the responsibility of managers to give their staff the space to make mistakes and learn, says former secretary of the Department of Finance Jane Halton.

Though you can’t put people in a risky position or a situation that will ruin their confidence, “I do think we do have to give people the opportunity to be tested and sometimes make mistakes and do it in a way that’s safe,” she tells Andrew Leigh MP on the recent episode of his podcast.

With lower levels of the public service being given less responsibility nowadays, it can be hard to get this chance sometimes.

“When I did my valedictory [speech] I talked about the great privilege I’d had, which was to stick my feet in the fire, get a bit burnt, and then to walk on more solid platforms.

“And I think as a manager that is one of your challenges, to actually give people an opportunity to make mistakes. Everyone makes them. And I used to say to people: you make mistakes, please don’t make the same one twice — that worries me — but you’re going to make mistakes,” Halton explained.

‘I used to believe that there wasn’t a glass ceiling’

It is still the case that women find it harder to get ahead in the workplace, she said.

“I used to believe that there wasn’t a glass ceiling, and there is. I very clearly know the first moment my head hit it.”

She cites problems like women waiting their turn to speak while men are more at ease interrupting, as well as men tending to have more confidence to apply for a job where they don’t meet all the key selection criteria. Women tend to suffer impostor syndrome more than men — something even Halton finds herself entertaining occasionally.

“I have to slap myself about and say stop it, don’t be stupid.”

Women “don’t get listened to in the same way”, she thinks. And she agrees with Madeleine Albright’s famous remark that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”

When she was young there were no female departmental secretaries — and it was rare to get a glimpse into the world of the secretary at any rate — so there were no real role models to look up to. She evidently figured out how to be a leader, eventually serving 15 years as secretary of Health and then Finance.

“One of the things I always say to people is never put on someone else’s mask, because everyone’s going to know it’s not yours. So one of the things I had to figure out was what was my voice, what was my face when it came to leadership. I’ve got a reputation for being pretty robust, but also calling it quite straight for what I see,” she notes.

“My approach to leadership was always lead by example, encourage my people and try and find an environment where they had a voice. I really worked hard at bringing women up through the system.”

Halton also advocates for the 40-40-20 gender split, with 40% men, 40% women; the remaining 20% can be anyone. “You can see and feel the differences” where women comprise 40% of a workforce. “You need critical mass and I don’t think 30% is enough,” she added.

“We aren’t there yet. And sometimes we like to think that we are, but we aren’t. And in many ways I think Australia’s got quite a way to go.”

Quitting is okay

She is a big advocate of mentoring, revealing there are perhaps 25 people she meets with every now and then to give advice and act as a sounding board.

Mentoring allows her to provide perspectives on what some of the barriers might be and the implications of what her mentee is thinking of doing.

In the interview, Leigh said one of his most common pieces of advice to his mentees is that if you’re thinking about quitting your job, “it’s going to be okay.”

He tells them “that they’re talented enough that they can make a jump and that normally if you’re on the fence — and indeed there’s a randomised trial to support this — that you should take the jump.”

Halton agrees, saying that if you know what you want to do, why you want to do it and what you’ll get out of it, “go for it”. “You can always come back,” she adds.

Sometimes it takes a bit of a push to convince someone capable of going for that next position — or even a little subterfuge, “saying go and act in that job for a while, and then after six months saying, you’re doing the job, apply for it.

“Certainly when I got to Finance, having learned the lessons after twelve and a half years in Health, I had come to the conclusion, you can just move, you’ve got to do it.”

Thinking space is vital

Perpetual busy-ness is “one of the grand challenges” of our time, she argues.

Emails, phone calls, briefs — “It’s like a machine that just always drives you along.”

“I do think people need to think quite consciously about the opportunity to free the mind,” she says.

“We know that the mind is more creative literally if it does nothing. You will think about that idea just because various neurones in your head will start firing and you’ll just connect up a bunch of ideas. Now if you’re constantly on the treadmill, you actually squeeze out the capacity for your brain to do what it wants,” Halton thinks.

Former US secretary of state George Shultz’s solution is blocking out one hour a week for quiet reflection and nothing else. Halton’s answer to this was having a Monday morning meeting with the whole team “just to kind of chew the fat” about current circumstances.

“That’s not quite the zero going on, but it is an opportunity to freestyle across a range of issues. And also give everybody an opportunity to have a say.”

Otherwise, her thinking time is while she’s out running.

“I think the challenge for people is that in whatever way that works for them, block off an hour on Monday morning. Whatever it is that works in your context, just create a little bit of time for it,” she reckons.

“Constant busy work is the enemy of creativity.”

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