15 October 2009
By Jody Goldsworthy
Leadership skills will be vital for public sector managers in the difficult days ahead. They will have to review structures, manage their staff more effectively and communicate a vision. Jody Goldsworthy offers some advice
Public sector leaders are facing a tough future. The looming public spending squeeze and political turmoil that accompanies any general election puts some serious responsibility on their shoulders. They will have to make difficult commitments about what they will achieve.
But here’s the rub – no leader can achieve these goals alone; they must depend on others.
Now consider this: as a senior leader, you are presenting your recently updated strategy to your team. This is your chance to explain your vision for the organisation and win the commitment you will need.
However, according to our research, in the average public sector organisation:
- more than half of managers are unclear about their organisation’s strategy;
- 39% feel they are not rewarded to take the risks required to achieve their aim;
- almost half believe they lack the necessary autonomy – while a quarter feel they are not free to experiment; and more than a quarter resent the fact that underperformance is tolerated.
Team leaders might be wondering just what it is they need to do to carry through commitments. There are three major ways.
The first is to think about how your organisation is designed. Structures, policies and processes are all a kind of communication – a signal of priorities. This doesn’t necessarily mean reorganising for the sake of it. If you dive immediately into the detail of reporting lines, you might well destroy the clarity of the message. Instead, organisational design starts with expressing what does and doesn’t matter. For example, joint commissioning with a primary care trust sends a message that social services and health need to work together for the benefit of the client.
The danger is that the logic of an organisation is often inherited, unexamined and untested. But if chief executives and their senior teams discuss the principles of the design, it becomes easier to make decisions that fit current needs. It also makes it easier then to build a consensus among senior staff as to what the design means for their teams.
So how do you have a debate on organisational principles? It would have to involve describing how the organisation serves its community through an ‘operating model’, encompassing decisions, principles and assumptions. This helps build a shared understanding among managers; it provides the basis for an ongoing dialogue about how the organisation creates value; and it enables radical rethinking of the design of the organisation based on purpose rather than tradition.
The second is how employees are rewarded and performance managed. This is not a technical issue about pounds and pence. What you measure communicates your priorities. If your measures contradict what you say, people are more likely to choose to understand what they want to understand.
One organisation recently removed a measure of customer satisfaction from its performance targets to simplify them. The first question staff asked was: ‘Is customer satisfaction not a priority any more?’ At least staff asked the question; in other organisations people might just assume that customer satisfaction was no longer important.
Employees do not always fully understand their performance plans. Some targets are too broad and, therefore, don’t indicate the individual behaviours and actions required of a specific role; some are too narrow and don’t connect to the big picture.
The major tools to address this problem are disaggregation or translation – either breaking the end results into smaller units, more closely influenced by individual behaviour, or moving down from the end results into the intermediate steps and actions that contribute to them. Pay based on results is not an argument for the uncritical reward of reckless behaviour in pursuit of targets, regardless of ethics and caution.
We can see the consequences of this in the meltdown of the banking sector. Organisations must reward the way things are done as well as the results achieved; they should account for the risks inherent in someone’s approach, not just whether it worked this time. Failure to do so favours luck over judgement.
All this means that human resources departments and managers should be kept up to date and linked in with the strategy. This includes benefits, progression, promotion, performance management, training and development.
The third way a leader can ensure their goals are achieved depends on how they communicate the vision and how they ‘live’ it. This is where leadership fits in. It gives soul and meaning to the other drivers.
Senior leaders rightly spend a lot of time facing outwards, negotiating the promises that secure resources. If this means they become isolated from their managers then there is real danger. The first and most important step is to reveal the decision-making processes, the dilemmas and concerns, the choices and rationales behind the headlines. This creates legitimacy among staff.
It is important to be clear about sacrifices. Strategy is as much about what is not done as about what is done. Too often these are fudged in communication as they carry pain for those whose aspirations won’t be met. Yet failure to do so is a major source of ambiguity and conflict.
Consistent repetition is important. Many leaders underestimate the need to hammer messages home – well beyond the point they assume is reasonable. Messages get lost in translation as they cascade down the organisation or become overwhelmed by routine distractions. Senior leaders must also personally check that the message has arrived, uncorrupted, at the front line. Not everyone gets excited about operational or financial targets.
To get the full commitment of managers, leaders need to get beneath the headline metrics as goals, efficiency targets, inspection ratings and Key Performance Indicators rarely differ between organisations.
Rather, they should consider: what is our challenge? What is our contribution to society? What are the principles and distinctive ways in which we will rise to the challenge and make the contribution?
It is when these three elements are mixed together that organisations will come together to provide for their communities in a way that benefits all.
Jody Goldsworthy is a local government expert at management consultancy Hay Group