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Leadership development focus

The 2017 OECD Skills for a high performing civil service report notes that leadership development is the highest priority for OECD countries. Executive leadership training and coaching was a training priority for 23 of the 35-member countries in 2016.77

Data from the 2018 APS agency survey indicates that leadership and management is a top priority for capability development across the APS. Specific leadership development areas include resilience and change management. Leadership development for APS 5, APS 6, and EL employees is a priority for some small agencies.

Agencies suggest that a number of factors drive this demand, including the need to operate effectively in an environment of continuous change, complexity and uncertainty. A recent report by Harvard Business Review underlines the importance of leadership development in organisational transformation. The study found that organisations where leadership development is viewed as critical to success are 29 times more likely to have a successful transformation than those where leadership is viewed as not important. The same report found that organisations that view learning and development as critical to business success are continuing to deliver top performance compared with their peers.78

Submissions to the Independent Review of the APS have emphasised the importance of leadership in the future due to the competition for talent that will occur.79 General themes are centred on identifying the right leadership attributes and nurturing future leaders to achieve success. Key characteristics discussed include a more inclusive leadership style where alternative viewpoints are sought, delegation is undertaken effectively and measured risk taking is encouraged. Additionally, the development of soft skills, such as responding calmly, thoughtfully, respectively and dealing with underperformance, is vital for senior officials. Submissions recommend rotating public servants across the APS for further development and undertaking training to develop transformational leadership capabilities and behaviours.

As discussed in Chapter 9, Leadership and stewardship, results from the 2018 APS employee census indicate that specific leadership development areas for the APS include skills in developing the capability of employees, and collaboration.

Leadership development approach

A range of activities over a career are most likely to result in improvements in leadership skills. This includes coaching by managers, mentoring from a more experienced leader, being part of a peer or professional network, and having different work experiences such as taking on a new role or completing a secondment. It also includes formal education, such as through university programs, executive education courses, workshops and seminars.

In the APS, leadership development is managed within agencies, with various approaches used to building this critical capability. The APSC also offers cross-APS leadership development for SES and EL employees. For some agencies, this complements their own leadership development efforts. For others, access to APSC programs is their main source of formal development.

Overall, there is no systematic approach across the APS for ensuring that all leaders get the development needed at various stages in their career. There are patches of excellence, and areas of neglect. Recent SES talent management processes indicate that the approach to development is somewhat ‘hit and miss’ (discussed further in Chapter 11, Talent). This is unlikely to produce the quality of leadership the APS needs as it strives to serve government in a more dynamic operating environment. The question of how the APS best develops the leadership capability of employees in the future will be an area of focus for the APS Reform Committee and the Independent Review of the APS.

Observations from APS leadership development programs

Capability shifts

Each year, around 400 SES and EL employees from across the APS participate in cross-APS leadership programs. Evaluation data indicates that before they begin their leadership development, participants report less confidence in their enabling, influencing and collaboration capabilities. This aligns with the areas of capability need emerging from the 2018 employee census results.

Participants report strong capability growth in these areas at the end of programs. In interviews with participants six to nine months after completing a program, participants describe sound improvement in many areas of their leadership practice. In particular, this includes skills in influencing others, engaging with diverse perspectives and building resilience.80

Leadership transitions

The programs with the greatest capability shifts appear to be at key leadership transition points: the move to the SES level (SES Orientation and SES Band 1 Leadership), and the shift from being a technical specialist to taking on a formal leadership role (EL2 Leadership Practice). This is not surprising. Transitions require an individual to leave behind their deep competence in a familiar role, and step into a new role where fresh skills and behaviours are required. The need to reach a new level of competence often drives learning. Although challenging, leadership transition points can be a point at which people are most open to development.

The program with the greatest shift in capability is the Women in Leadership program, with an average shift of 42 per cent. This program challenges women at middle management level to work more effectively with the social and organisational gender dynamics that may impede them from stepping fully into a leadership role. It is interesting to note that for this program, only 57 per cent of participants say they will get the support they need to implement the learning. This is much lower in comparison to other leadership programs.

Strengthening community engagement

In 2017, the SES Band 2 Leadership Program was updated with a strong focus on understanding the citizens the APS serves, and the community’s experience of working with government. Two groups of Band 2s visited Nowra to engage with various sectors in the community. In 2018, two groups visited Wagga Wagga. The questions posed by Dr Martin Parkinson in his 2017 address to the APS helped frame the visits:

  • How well do you know the public you serve?
  • Are you ready for disruption?
  • What’s your big idea?

The visits resulted in increased awareness of the need for deep engagement with the community when formulating policy advice and designing services. There was greater recognition of the importance of working collaboratively across government sectors to achieve the best outcomes for citizens. Band 2s benefited from observing the outstanding leadership of community leaders in regional Australia.

Chapter 2, Transparency and integrity, discusses the importance of citizen engagement in establishing public trust in the decisions of the APS, including advice to government.

The role of managers in leadership development

Cross-APS leadership programs span a six to 12-month period with touchpoints over the period including workshops, coaching sessions and peer activities. Participants are expected to test new skills between sessions, with practice and feedback. These are important ingredients for developing more effective leadership skills.

In this regard, managers play a vital role in developing the leadership capability of their employees. One measure in the program evaluation data that consistently scores the lowest is ‘support’ from the workplace to implement program learning, including from managers. Between 20 and 40 per cent of participants indicate they do not have the support they need. This presents a risk that a significant proportion of those attending APS leadership programs will not build the required skills. There is also potential for some wastage in the investment.

This finding aligns with the 2018 APS employee census results. There are generally lower ratings for supervisors developing capability through coaching, providing development opportunities, and encouraging experimentation. It appears that a significant element in improving the leadership capability of the APS will be shifting the perceptions of managers about their role and equipping them with the skills to incorporate development and feedback into their daily engagement with employees.

77 https://www.oecd.org/gov/pem/Skills-Highlights.pdf (accessed 16 October 2018).

78 Harvard Business Publishing, 2018. The 2018 State of Leadership Development: Meeting the Transformation Imperative, Research Report.

79 Submissions include: Martin Stewart-Weeks, Australia and New Zealand School of Government, Australian Risk Policy Institute, Australian Trade Training and Assessment, Interaction Consulting Group, Grey Swan Consulting, Melbourne School of Government, Brendan Sargeant, Patricia Kelly,

80 Refer to statistical appendix for evaluation data.

Last reviewed: 
30 November 2018