Leadership in the Public Sector: What’s Wanting to Emerge

Out with the old leadership traditions and in with those who dare to lead with their whole selves

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This article is written by Abe Greenspoon, Organisational Health Lead at Statistics Canada and Jennifer MacLeod, Owner and Executive Coach at Jennifer MacLeod Consulting.

Just over a year ago, Jennifer published her findings from 360 feedback on over 100 executives from across the public sector. The trend was alarming: many executives were demonstrating a tendency to comply, to disengage from difficult conversations, insecurity, self-doubt, and an absence of work life balance. This was one story about public sector leadership and it urgently needed to be told.

More recently, based on a hunch, we set out to discover another story that we felt needed to be told. A story about the emergence of a new model for executive leadership in the public sector and some individuals who embody what we see as a better way.

Over the past few months, we have interviewed several senior public servants who we think are changing what it means to be an executive leader. We think they represent the bright future of executive leadership in the public sector. We interviewed Michel Tremblay, Senior Vice-President, Policy and Innovation and Marie-Claude Tremblay, Senior Vice-President, People and Strategy at the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC); John Medcof, Director General, Transferable Skills and Chris Allison, Director General, Digital Academy at the Canada School of Public Service (CSPS); Lauren Hunter, Director, Talent Cloud at the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (TBS); and Laura Wesley, Director General at the Privy Council Office (PCO).

Our conversations centred around the future of work and what would be critical as far as creating, supporting and navigating change. What emerged was a story of executives who exemplify a deep commitment to supporting others, the courage to challenge harmful practices and behaviours, a tendency to directly engage with people on even the most difficult topics, an ability to engage in honest self-reflection, a humility that allows them to empower their staff, and an understanding of the importance of being vulnerable and human.

Our conversations revealed that this leadership is coming from many different places. But from our small sample and research, we identified three lenses for leading the change: a shift of focus from organizations as mechanisms to human systems; a need to redistribute leadership in different ways; and the importance of using rigorous and meaningful data to hold leaders accountable for the health of their teams.

What the public sector looks like from the top

Over the past five years CMHC has undergone a significant transformation from a culture that was bureaucratic and disempowering to one that is empowering and adaptive. This transition began with a conversation about what the future of the organization would look like and how its leaders wanted it to change. Understanding the need to attract talent and evolve the organization, CMHC wanted to position itself as having the conditions for people to work well into the future with the right skills that the organization needed. The foundation of this new culture came from a strategy where employees would be managed for results rather than when, where, or how they work. This required a fundamental change in the contract between the employer and employee.

According to Marie-Claude Tremblay it became about not managing their presence in the office or the time they put into the work, but more about holding them accountable for their commitments. “The changes we made are all to do with creating conditions for managers and employees to trust each other” — “It’s all about trust” she added.

According to Michel Tremblay the organization made a choice to move away from a traditional fear-based culture where cooperation was prohibited through hierarchy. It was about orienting the workforce towards a more agile and flat approach to management as opposed to having 10 ultimate decision-makers at the top. It also included recognizing the need for people to be able to address family matters and work life balance in ways where they would be freed up to choose where they would spend their time.

Research supports that productivity rises significantly when this freedom is given to people. CMHC demonstrated themselves as a pioneer by leading an approach to organizational change that is oriented to serve people’s needs differently and that distributes accountability across the organization. This approach was specifically designed to empower employees to unleash their potential.

A future-proof public sector

While the sort of radical and rapid transformation seen at CMHC is rare in the public service, there’s evidence that automation and technology will force us to move things along. New technologies are quickly beginning to impact the way we’re working in fundamental ways and some public sector executives are getting prepared.

According to John Medcof, we need to focus on building more adaptable skills and mindsets to support this inevitable disruption. He believes that the way we think about knowledge and expertise is changing. He argued that while information is plentiful and accessible, and it’s easy to access knowledge in a particular area, it takes more time and effort to build the skills to support how we engage and manage in ways that are agile, adaptable, flexible and creative. He believes that building skill sets such as curiosity, problem-solving, and collaboration will be critical. These sentiments link well with the work done by organizations around the world looking at the skills and competencies that public servants need for the future.

John believes that the best thing the public service can do to prepare people to be future leaders is to give them the autonomy to truly lead their work. Give them target outcomes and let them explore the ways they might get there. His advice for future leaders: “It’s all about the people. The more we invest in the human aspects of our work, the better the outcomes will be.”

We must also re-think our current systems, where change comes from, and how we hold ourselves accountable to embrace a shift in focus that includes empowerment, trust, and human needs as priorities. For Chris Allison, the public service needs leaders to be asking how work practices and processes need to change for the future. He sees the need for real transformational change rather than small incremental change or tinkering on the margins.

Chris believes that in order to change the system, re-visit the role of government — what it does and what it is responsible for — and from there, we could organize ourselves differently around how work is done. In his view, rather than trying to keep fixing and changing the Westminster system and what it was originally designed to serve, we might benefit more from building what is needed from a system aligned with purpose that is aligned with today’s needs.

Are the old values holding us back?

Laura Wesley also spoke about the need for broad change. She suggested that there’s a need to work in new ways. We need to change working conditions so that people can bring their whole selves to work. She focused on the human system elements of change, saying “At the system level, you can’t deny that there are lots of well worn pathways that have become trenches. At the same time, we need individuals to do things differently. We need to listen and be curious about what is preventing individuals, teams, departments, or other levels of the system from changing.”

Laura thinks that for executives to change, they need time for self-reflection. “As executives, we need to ask ourselves ‘what are we trying to uphold?’,” she says. “We can ask ourselves if the decisions we are taking, or processes we are using, uphold the existing system of government or the values of government?” This question enables us to shift our way of seeing what we are doing, so we can make choices based on underlying principles. This allows us to focus our attention on things that need attending to at that moment.

These comments represent a common thread in our interviews that suggest a need to re-examine the underlying beliefs that uphold our systems and practices. It’s these beliefs that hold in place old values. These beliefs can limit our ability to have the difficult conversations that are necessary for meaningful and sustainable change.

Culture shifts

These comments may also reflect a long-standing history in the Western hemisphere of organizations and systems designed to be hierarchical, power-based, and centrally controlled. Our organizations are made up of individuals or small groups of people being tasked with managing, making decisions, and determining what the future requires.

We have placed responsibility for our work in the hands of “leaders”. Those at the top of the pyramid must come up with the decisions and solutions to the organization’s biggest problems. The assumption here is that power is the monopoly of a small group.

Lauren Hunter didn’t mince words when asked about what she thinks of the current model of leadership in the public service. “People in leadership roles want to own mandates. They rarely want to own problems. A mandate comes with power, a problem comes with responsibility.” When asked about challenges associated with leadership culture, she added, “Government leadership is centered around mandates and the inherent authority that comes with titles, so it’s a difficult shift in mindset to embrace a problem-driven, user-centred approach to leadership. It’s a shift leaders are rarely trained for.”

It’s Lauren’s opinion that the current performance management system doesn’t hold leaders accountable for establishing cultures that look after employees well-being, and instead rewards leaders for the appearance of results at the cost of employee health and retention. According to her, the incentive structure of the current performance system for executives doesn’t take into account two critical points of data: systematic, annual upward feedback from employees for each executive, and external evidence corroborating what problems have been solved.

Attrition rates (coupled with exit interviews) should also factor into the assessment of whether or not executives are creating environments that reflect the Clerk’s vision for public service culture. She argues that it’s illogical to expect a culture shift in executive leadership until the incentive structure and the data gathered reflect the value shift towards healthy, high performing teams and evidence-based, user-centred service delivery.

So what should we make of all this?

We were so grateful for the opportunity to interview people who we believe embody a new model of public sector executive leadership. From what we heard in these interviews, we have drawn a few conclusions about how this new model might emerge and what it might look like.

While none of the executives we interviewed said it directly, we interpreted from their stories and our research that this kind of change, which has been discussed for decades, was unlikely to be led from within in the short to medium-term. Too many people have too much invested in the current system. The current global pandemic demonstrates how important external disruptions can be, as we are now seeing some changes happening at a pace that was unimaginable several months ago.

We also believe that dramatic changes in the prevalent behaviours of those working in the system are most likely to come from changes to the rules and goals of the system itself. For example, we should consider redesigning our performance management system to prevent the people managing it from rewriting and editing the narratives in ways that serve them and allow poor leadership and toxic cultures. Our systems need to shift to emphasize a broad change in the beliefs and values that can enable a different future. Otherwise, we risk continuing the same patterns of behaviours we observed at the beginning of this article.

Furthermore, we believe that the way we have structured our organizations actually prevents the cooperation that is so important for human beings to support and engage one another. The current organizational paradigm defines leadership and the capacity to influence change in a linear and rigid way, which actually sets us up for failure. No one person or select group can possibly be responsible for solving the kinds of complex problems facing the public sector today. Instead, we need to distribute and define organizational leadership in a way that decentralizes power and places greater decision-making authority in the hands of local knowledge and expertise.

Making a new style of leadership the norm

The idea of all powerful leaders at the top of organizations with their hands on the levers of power is no longer sustainable. If you are a leader scrambling to stay in control, it’s time to make a dramatic shift away from a mindset to control situations and others to one that incorporates human values of empowerment, cooperation, collaboration and trust. The fabric of what makes us human and allows us to support one another is not one of machinery and hierarchy. The true nature of our humanity is our interconnectedness with each other and the world around us. So we need to start leading our organizations accordingly.

Learning how to manage and lead forward will require a greater awareness of our humanity as the foundation for all we do. The executive leaders who embody this new leadership paradigm will open up to their humility, vulnerability and fear. They will invite and embrace differences, debate, and dissension as ways to open the door to change. They will encourage innovation and learning and support the inherent flops and breakdowns that allow for them. They will look inside themselves to try to understand their own biases, limiting beliefs, and unhelpful mindsets and to grow beyond them. They will ask for help, admit their mistakes, and learn and grow from their experiences. Ultimately they will model the behaviors and shape the cultural environments that promote wholeness, health and respect.

Abe Greenspoon, Twitter, LinkedIn

Jennifer MacLeod M.ED, PCC jmacleod.in@gmail.com https://www.linkedin.com/in/jennifermacleod/


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Proud public servant. People positive. Complexity conscious.

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