Martin Bowles’ 6 lessons for a rewarding public service career

By Harley Dennett

October 19, 2017

If you’re not having fun in your job, find something else to do, says the latest secretary to follow his own advice. As Verona Burgess wrote earlier this month, the Australian Public Service’s valedictory orations of departing secretaries hold a treasure trove of helpful wisdom for all levels of public servants.

As Verona Burgress wrote earlier this month, the Australian Public Service’s valedictory orations of departing secretaries hold a treasure trove of helpful wisdom for all levels of public servants.

Martin Bowles’ farewell address, hosted by ACT branch of the Institute for Public Administration, Australia, this week was a standout in its own right.

With less than 20 department heads in Canberra, and some 152,000 public servants, the odds of reaching the secretary grade are not good, Bowles acknowledged. Instead, the former secretary of the Health and Immigration portfolios pitched his advice on making the most of the career you have, having fun and making a difference while achieving your potential — “because you’ll never know where you might end up.”

Below the video of his address this week, produced by contentgroup, are seven of the lessons he picked up during a 40-year career in Queensland, New South Wales and Commonwealth public sector leadership roles.

1. ‘If I’m not having fun, I’m not going to do it well’

If you don’t thrive in your current environment, find something else, Bowles urges.

I was bored, Bowles says of his first few roles in Queensland. “It wasn’t really enthusing me. It was one of the very first lessons for me; if I’m not engaged, if I’m not enthused, if I’m not having fun, I’m not going to do it well.” He transferred to different portfolios until an opportunity arose to make a difference in another way, by running hospitals. “I loved it. I was bitten by a bug and I wanted to know more.”

While his career traversed education, Defence, climate change and immigration, Bowles eventually came back to health and is sticking with it in his post public service career. “You need to wake up one day and know its your time, which I did a couple of months ago. I’ve always been a healthy sceptic, what I didn’t want to be was an unhealthy cynic.”

2. Remember both the big picture and the small picture

While it’s great getting to play on the national stage, Bowles says, those early roles at the coalface of service delivery made him realise how much people care about local services, how it works with everyday consumers. “What you see when you’re out in the state world is you see that consumer very closely, very acutely. What you don’t get sometimes is the big picture.”

The deaths of the four young Australians as a result of the Home Insulation Scheme loom large in his reflections, an example of the cost when public servants lose focus on people on the other end of policy. Noting that public service leaders last a lot longer than most ministers or PMs, Bowles reminded: “We are the brains trust. We are the corporate memory. We are the ones who need to make the tough calls.”

“Keep the consumer front and center of our thinking. Lets flick our head and look at what’s actually happening out there.”

3. Embrace difference, then build them up

Difference is critical to teams, Bowles insists, but not lipservice. Teams that don’t have difference, have less impact on the community they serve. “We are a community that is made of many different types of people. My life is different than your life, no better, no worse, just different. If we can actually put together a team of that difference and makeup of our community what difference we will make to the Australian community.”

“Saying that, you have to develop that team, build their skills, and then trust them — because people do want to do a good job.”

Don’t be frightened to let them go either: “They need to grow too, and some of them might come back.”

(L-R) Rosemary Huxtable PSM, Greg Moriarty, Dr Stephen Kennedy PSM, Frances Adamson, Dr Martin Parkinson AC, PSM, Martin Bowles PSM, Daryl Quinlivan, Kathryn Campbell CSC, The Hon John Lloyd PSM, Dr Heather Smith PSM, Glenys Beauchamp PSM and Kerri Hartland.

4. Listen, but make up your own mind

At one poorly functioning hospital, Bowles was tasked with cleaning house, with central office declaring the existing team ‘useless’. It paid to make up his own mind, Bowles says. Some were simply in the wrong job, and thrived when moved.

“Try to make sure people are in the right jobs. Watch and listen. It’s amazing what people will tell you.” He has numerous stories about what staff have told him in the lift.

Don’t presume others don’t have good ideas, Bowles adds. “We like to think we have good ideas, but there’s a lot of stakeholders and  colleagues … we don’t own anything in the public service. We’re not owners, we’re stewards, trying to deliver the best we can for the Australian community.

5. Don’t shift the blame, and stay calm

Recalling the time he was ‘annihilated’ at Health for a budget lockup gone wrong, Bowles says crucifixions at dawn do not help if things go wrong. It’s the leader who has to balance risk, but then be the shield if things go wrong. It can be the best professional development you ever get, he adds.

“Don’t shift the blame … as I kept saying: I’m the secretary, I’ll get it right next time. We got it wrong. They knew they buggered it up. They didn’t do that again. I didn’t need to say anything.”

“Because things do go wrong, quite regularly in fact. The real thing is how do we get ourselves through it. If you change a culture where people feel they can do things, you can get anything done.”

Fear cultures drive things underground, Bowles warned. “They wont tell you about it, and if you don’t know about it,you’ll get killed in the crossfire.”

PM&C boss Dr Martin Parkinson noted Bowles’ is well known for his calmness, and the impact that has on the people around him. Bowles says it’s a trait more leaders should have: “Always remain calm because people are watching you all the time. If you’re frazzled and always jumping at the shadows they’ll be even more scared than you are. So remain calm.”

6. Have courage, but be authentic

“Done be afraid to challenge that status quo. Your difference is what is needed in the public service, and together you are the public service.

“We have to push hard on our leaders to be inclusive. There’s no reason that anyone shouldn’t want to push some of those agenda, and yes, you might push up against someone who is a little bit hard over, and you’re not going to win: find another job. Find someone who will allow you to flourish and be the person you need to be. If you can’t be yourself, getting back to those differences, and you can’t have those sorts of conversations, it’s not for you.”

Similiarly, learn how to say no, but it can get you in trouble, so be convinced you mean it when you say that.

Be known for your authenticity, he added. “If you fake it people will know. They watch words and action and if words and action vary they’ll say ‘I’ll wait then, it’ll change’.”

Could he make a comeback?

Bowles left the door open for a return: “For the right job, for the right person, in a heartbeat. It’s been a fantastic journey.”

If you’re wondering who that person might be, he cited Greg Combet, Chris Bowen, and Scott Morrison as his favourite ministers to work with. “They were demanding, challenging … interested in what was going on, and absolutely respectful of the public service.”

The IPAA national conference, on the theme “Thinking Differently: Building Trust”, will be held in Canberra next month on November 15. Check out it and other upcoming IPAA ACT events.

About the author
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

The essential resource for effective
public sector professionals