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How can APS leaders become adept at leading through change?

How APS leaders can lead through change

KPMG public sector partners Jane Gunn and Lauren Jackson talked to The Mandarin about how APS leaders will need to think differently and build new capabilities in an environment of continuous change and transformation.


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Leading reform, transformation and change is an increasingly normal part of the everyday role of leaders in both the public and private sectors. But are leaders adapting their leadership style to accommodate this shift, or are they still leading for ‘business as usual’?

Jane Gunn and Lauren Jackson, public sector partners at KPMG, contend that leaders must think differently about how to lead. They must build new capabilities in a continuous change and transformation environment.

“Change, brought on by many factors, but especially technological advancement, is already here and there will always be more to come,” Gunn says. “Our leaders’ ability to lead people through the opportunities and challenges will be central to the APS successfully responding to change.”

The need for transformation

We are all well versed in the challenges posed by emerging customer and citizen expectations, demographic change, digital disruption and a global decline of trust in public institutions.

These forces are requiring fundamental rethinks of organisation and service delivery models, and customer and citizen engagement strategies. Organisations must be able to adapt and change quickly or risk losing relevance.

Gunn notes that the term ‘VUCA’ – volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity – is increasingly used by leaders to describe this changing environment. The APS is no exception. Organisational adaptation is the new normal.

Leading for transformation and reform

Both Gunn and Jackson are seeing strong evidence in Australia and internationally that this situation necessitates a new and different requirement for leadership. “This is not to say that how we’ve led to date is wrong, or that there are not some fundamentals that stay the same. But it is to say that a different environment requires a different response,” Gunn says.

In the UK, where Jackson was most recently based, she supported the UK government to implement a refreshed approach for leadership and skills development for British civil servants with Civil Service Learning, and a bespoke leadership intervention for the National Health Service (NHS) to develop current and future health executives. Both were significant endeavours – given the ambitions and scale of transformation being undertaken by the NHS and Civil Service, together with the complexity of Brexit.

There has been a shift in the focus for leadership skills – and core skills – in the civil service.

“Good leadership used to be about inspiring people from the top and ensuring they line up around the leader’s vision, authority and superior knowledge of what needs to be done,” Jackson says.

Gunn believes that in this context it is more useful to think of leadership as the use of influence to bring about change and adaptation so that organisations and the people within them can thrive. This way of thinking about leadership has three key ideas:

  • When people are being asked to reconceptualise their organisation and their role in it, leaders help people to navigate the ambiguity inherent in the complexity of the reform demands, rather than providing answers or solutions based on expertise or superior positional authority.
  • Leaders are looking out and forward. They are sensing new ideas and changes in the business environment – they are being truly strategic – and ensuring their people are ready to embrace innovation. They are anticipating and helping their people embrace what reform will lead to.
  • Leaders create the conditions for people and organisations to be capable of continually adapting. Almost all reform efforts will only succeed when people can think and work differently. Leading transformation is a very human endeavour. Digital change behaves no differently in this regard – it is driven by people.

The importance of purpose

Central to leadership in reform environments is the idea of being clear on purpose. We believe that leaders in this environment need to redefine their purpose and develop a new “theory of business”. They are creating organisations where people can connect with the purpose of what they do – where they help to articulate what the organisation is about – what it values and what its customers’ value.

And this is where the APS has an advantage, says Gunn. The APS is good at getting its collective head around change. It can problem solve through reform because it is founded in a deep sense of stewardship on behalf of the Australian public. The very notion of ‘public service’ is meaningful work.

“In most cases, public servants are able to find meaning in their work. This supports leaders seeking to reform and change. Focusing on the purpose of the public service helps people to lift above simply execution of siloed tasks. It also helps them to connect better across boundaries with others who share the public service purpose, and helps to deal with the noise created by the uncertainty of change,” Gunn says.

As the chair of the APS Review David Thodey said at a conference in 2018, a recommendation of the review will be a “strong public service that is united in a collective endeavour”. In the public sector, he said, “You need to be driven by a common purpose, a common sense of what you are doing and why.”

The consensus around this is strong – a great basis to lead through public sector reform. In fact, the APS is a great advocate for reform, and is very much on the front foot of embracing change. We are seeing evidence of this across the public service where leaders are embracing new and emerging technologies to ensure citizen-centric change is done well in Australia.

The challenge of hierarchy

Getting people to recognise they have meaning and purpose in their work is just one part of re-scoping how leaders practice their leadership through reform and transformation. Also key to reform is the notion that the value of someone’s ideas and insights is defined by a person’s level in the hierarchy or membership of a particular team or tribe.

“We need to move away from where we judge someone’s value based on their level or rank within an organisation. That way of thinking needs to be disrupted. We have to recognise that good ideas can come from anyone, anywhere. The trick is harnessing innovation when it happens and being agile enough to implement it quickly,” Jackson says.

Digital for transformation

This is where people using digital to transform comes in. Digital communications tools enable an exponential increase in the speed of people’s ability to connect and collaborate with colleagues, partners and customers to understand and respond to their needs and ideas. And the ability to communicate at speed and from anywhere means new ideas are emerging from anywhere, anytime. Now, employees are connected in ways that previous generations simply were not.

What does this mean for building the leadership capabilities of the future? The APS has many skilled leaders – effectively leading reform and transformation. We have observed that, while it is changing, traditional development programs are often focused on preparing leaders for ‘business as usual’ situations such as risk management where quick responses and a directive approach to leading are absolutely appropriate.

These programs don’t necessarily prepare leaders to navigate reform where they are called upon to influence and bring about change and adaptation, and encourage people within organisations to thrive.

“Where we see excellent practice in building leadership capability to lead transformation and reform, we see quite a different approach with a focus on three interrelated areas; new and different skills, different mindsets and the ability to manage their own capacity to be effective,” Gunn says.

New skills needed

We need new skills for diagnosing problems and opportunities and leading accordingly. These include strategising in complex and changing environments, applying different methods depending on the complexity of the issue, disciplined execution of the transformation strategy while encouraging learning and adaptation, connecting people with meaning and purpose, and supporting them through the ambiguity inherent in new ways of working.

Some would also argue the most important is the mindset we bring to the leadership challenges brought by reform.

Gunn and Jackson are both very positive about the APS leadership’s ability to adapt to the changes afoot.

“We have seen clear evidence that when leaders consciously embrace the need to adapt to the changing situation, invest in building new and different capabilities – skills, mindset and capacity – they are better placed to lead the very important work of organisational and institutional reform," Gunn says.

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