Public sector leaders need to be able to “lead from behind” when necessary, says South Australian Commissioner for Public Sector Employment Erma Ranieri.
While it’s important to be decisive, leaders can’t do everything themselves. Giving staff the capability to use their own skills is just as much a part of the job as making the right decisions yourself.
“You need to let people know why you’re making a particular decision,” Ranieri tells The Mandarin.
“But then sometimes you need to stay out of their way. Make sure you’re there and take out any blockages that might be there. Ask how you get the most out of people to innovate while you’re there supporting them, and how you deal with things like red tape and risk aversion.
“And if they do make a mistake, they should be able to fail fast — adapt and move on. We still tend to award the traditional models of leadership.”
To assist managers in developing these skills, the Office of the Public Sector recently launched the South Australian Leadership Academy.
So far it is offering two courses. The first, known as the Executive Excellence program, focuses on current executives looking to take on bigger roles. Then last month the Next Execs program started as an opportunity for managers “to develop leadership capabilities required for higher level or more complex roles”.
The academy has been a long time in the making, with nearly a decade having passed since the state’s Public Sector Performance Commission, led by Jennifer Westacott, recommended establishing a leadership centre to help develop future mandarins.
It has wide backing, and is sponsored by the Senior Management Council. “We have every agency represented,” says Ranieri.
“They have skin in the game basically. We’re bringing them in to make sure they sponsor the programs as best they can in each agency.”
The hope is that the academy will help the SA public sector develop its own talent. It’s always challenging to find the best people, especially in a smaller city like Adelaide.
While it’s important to have outside people, “having programs like this does say you can grow your own,” the commissioner argues.
“A lot of people join the public sector because it fuels their purpose. There is a bigger calling.
“They want to serve in child protection, police, teaching, making people better. If your purpose is that you’re the clinician who wants to save lives, we should invest in those people.”
Giving public servants access to leadership programs also helps attract and retain people, as they know they will be given the opportunity to grow in their role.
Those who have participated in the pilot programs have found them “really rewarding”, says Ranieri.
“There’s a lot of peer learning. A lot of the speakers are seasoned executives.”
Ranieri herself, alongside a range of other public sector leaders, present to participants on the first day.
“We also have clinicians in there who are leaders in health, in the child protection agency, have backgrounds in social work and corrections. There’s a richness in bringing together all these people who not only are brilliant in their technical expertise but have lots of capacity to be leaders.
“The feedback we get from participants is that meeting so many other people from across the public sector had really opened their mind.”