Chapter 10: Developing leadership
- There was no systematic approach across the APS to ensure that all leaders get the development they need at various stages in their career. There are patches of excellence, and areas of neglect.
- How the APS best develops the leadership capability of employees in future will be an area of focus for the APS Reform Committee and the Independent Review of the APS.
- Leadership and management were top priorities for capability development across the APS.
- APS employees required more managerial support to implement new learnings in the workplace.
- APS managers needed to focus on incorporating feedback and development opportunities into their day-to-day engagement with employees.
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
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
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.
Band 2 Leadership Development—Community visits
In 2018, as part of the APS Band 2 Leadership Development program, senior leaders spent time in Wagga Wagga listening to community leaders speak about their challenges and experiences working with government. Insights from the program are influencing how these senior leaders approach their work. These include:
Listening and learning
- Talking with and listening to community members helps you make better decisions.
- You do not really get to know a community unless you are prepared to spend time listening to the variety and diversity of voices.
- There are many diverse perspectives and voices in communities. To deliver effectively, we need to listen to them all.
- We can learn much about stewardship from Indigenous culture and heritage.
The experience of communities
- Communities do not wait for government to help, there are many people and organisations doing things to improve the lives of citizens.
- Communities are frustrated by their experience of governments not asking what is needed.
- Navigating government services is complex. We need to use human-centred approaches in service design keeping the Australian people front of mind.
- There is a disconnect between what agencies are trying to push down in terms of policies and implementation and what citizens and communities are trying to push up. We need to understand and address the disconnect.
Working across boundaries
- Networking across government sectors is essential to deliver better policies and services to citizens.
- Learning from other agencies helps deliver joined up services for citizens.
- Getting out of your comfort zone makes you realise how transferable your skills are across the government sector.
- There are commonalities in the problems and opportunities agencies face and we are more effective when we work together.
- It is important to remember the wider context of our work. It is not just about the work of our individual agencies, but how the government combines to deliver to the Australian community.
- It isn’t good enough to think whole of APS. We need to work across jurisdictions—all levels of government.
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, https://contribute.apsreview.gov.au/submissions
80 Refer to statistical appendix for evaluation data.