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Home People & Capability Are you a 21st century-proof public manager?
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PEOPLEZeger van der Wal
TAGS Management, skills
Volatility and complexity will play an increasing role in the public sector manager’s work, argues Associate Professor Zeger van der Wal. He outlines the five attributes public servants will need.
Imagine being a public manager in Australia today. Global events like Donald Trump’s election, Brexit, and the assertive rise of Asian powers are fundamentally changing your international operating environment. At home, ever more assertive stakeholders scrutinise your performance impatiently and sometimes unrealistically, demanding public agencies to deliver value for money while demanding involvement in policymaking without sharing accountability burdens. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Increasingly, you operate in a VUCA world, characterised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, as the popular managerial acronym goes. The VUCA world offers many challenges but at the same time exciting opportunities for achieving unprecedented levels of public service excellence, together with citizens and vanguards of change from other sectors. But how do you turn various new challenges into opportunities for innovation and excellence?
Consultants, think tanks, and academics alike have begun to address this question. A recent OECD report on 21st century skills featured on The Mandarin recently. Still, many attempts to sketch the future of public management stay fairly abstract and macro, and seem far removed from your daily struggles. In my recent textbook for senior participants in graduate and executive programs, The 21st Century Public Manager, I translate global macrotrends and microtrends to your everyday working environment, based on decades of research evidence and over 100 best practices from across the world. Ultimately, I argue 21st century-proof managers will need to be:
How do agencies recruit, groom, and develop such managers? The design of training and management development programs for 21st century public managers need to take into account that a decade from now, typical public service careers will look dramatically different from today. Sector switching and job switching will increase, with five years in one organisation considered a lifetime to younger generations. While retaining and incentivising high-potentials, organisations will need to continuously invest just as much, or maybe even more, in senior employees who have to stay employed into their late sixties, while staying motivated to walk the extra mile. Of particular importance here are recent private sector successes in the area of reverse mentoring, where 25 year olds teach 55 year olds how to launch policy campaigns on Twitter, while the latter teach the youngsters how to deal with opportunistic politicians and balance family life with a career. Studies show both generations feel more motivated and useful as a result.
Thus, to produce maximal return on investment, training and development programs need to smartly target junior as well as senior high-potentials. This is even more important as newer generations consider investment in their future-readiness and career development through training programs an increasingly important incentive for performing well and committing to their employer — in fact, for staying around at all. Trainee programs and “candidacy training” are important, but organisations must also become more inventive in retaining high-potentials. Experience in various countries shows that many of these individuals leave within their first few years on the job for better opportunities elsewhere, or because of disappointment with a system that is not as ‘new’ and ‘cool’ as it brands itself. The recent ‘paleo pear’ video embarrassment shows we still have some way to go.
Dr Zeger van der Wal is associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, and author of The 21st Century Public Manager. He travels the world giving keynotes and workshops about public management in the 21st century. Zeger is a E-MPA ANZSOG Faculty Member, and will be visiting Canberra, Wellington, and Auckland in November 2017.
Dr Zeger van der Wal is Associate Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, and author of the highly acclaimed book The 21st Century Public Manager. He travels the world giving keynotes and workshops about public management in the 21st century. Zeger is a E-MPA ANZSOG Faculty Member, visiting Canberra, Wellington, and Auckland in November 2017.
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Great article. Insightful of the forth coming, or in process changes in leadership skills that are critical for advancement in the 21st Century. Notably even the ADF are appreciating that your identified skills are gaining priority for operating in the strategic environment for their senior leaders. So it isn’t only civilian public sector leaders that aspire to senior leadership that are on notice about the skills that are becoming the priority for success in the environment through 2020 and beyond.
Thanks and good point Leanne. Some of these skills most certainly apply to military management and leadership as well, with the exception being that increased horizontalism, stakeholder voice, and leadership/authority turbulence will impact less so (or at least, at a slower pace) than civilian sectors, simply because of the command and control hierarchical structure. One interesting question is whether the challenges and skills identified in the book do also apply to the private and non profit sectors. Many readers seem to think so. Will there be more sectoral convergence in the 21st century?