School of hard knocks: experience counts in public sector management

Wednesday, February 17, 2016 - 12:11

By AIM Senior Research Fellow Dr Samantha Johnson

‘If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.’ Lewis Carroll

As a management consultant, I work with managers from across a broad range of government organisations who share similar frustrations and challenges.  I hear of these almost every single day. 

Challenges at the top of the list relate to managers with teams of people faced with the dilemma of doing ‘more with less’.  

A close second is dealing with the challenges of vague strategic direction.  Managers are told to do things differently, to be agile and innovative, to work smarter not harder etc etc.  But they don’t know what that means or why they need to do so.  On top of that, they don’t seem to have the time to engage in such vague exercises of thought and reflection.

Then there are the niggling little daily problems they face, like dealing with difficult people and drowning in a sea of emails.

Man, who’d be a manager!  I apologise if I’ve ruined your day.  Let me try to recover it for you.

If these challenges reflect your professional life, you’re a winner.  You might not feel like it, but you are.  Dealing successfully with challenges such as these offers managers significant professional development.  While you’re sweating over these on a daily basis, whether you are aware of it or not, you are gaining the most significant development growth that a managerial position can offer.  

So you may feel like you’re on the road to nowhere, but you are really on the road to professional managerial success.  The trick is, I guess, to find the time to keep a diary of activities and reflections while you work through these challenges.  This can then be used to map out your professional growth and become the basis of your next application for a promotion.

On top of these challenges, psychological studies into what makes a manager develop and become highly successful, identifies the following situations as offering opportunities for significant managerial growth:

  1. Unfamiliar responsibilities: Handling new or different or broader responsibilities.
  2. Proving yourself:  Needing to prove to others that you can handle something new or particularly challenging.
  3. Creating change or developing new directions: Needing to start something new, make strategic changes, reorganise something or respond to rapid changes in the environment.
  4. Inherited problems: Needing to ‘fix’ problems that you have inherited; it may be a difficult or non-performing staff member, or something else that requires attention.
  5. Reduction decisions: Being part of a decision to end a process or project, to stop something that has been underway or end another person’s involvement in a project or activity.
  6. Problems with employees: Needing to address a staff member who lacks experience or capability, is incompetent or is resistant to direction.
  7. High level of responsibility: Working with deadlines, pressure from above, high visibility and responsibility where success or failure are clearly evident.
  8. Managing business or corporate diversity: Where the scope of the job is large, where there is responsibility for multiple functions, groups, projects etc.
  9. Job overload: where the size of the job requires a large investment of time and energy.
  10. Handling external pressure: Managing external influences, such as negotiating with unions, stakeholders, working in a foreign location (posting) or responding to serious community concerns.
  11. Influencing without formal authority: Where success requires influencing peers, stakeholders or other key people over whom you do not have formal authority.

In my experience, these are common situations for middle and senior managers in government.  They cause frustration, anxiety and sometimes despair.  But they are real and they are here to stay.  The current environment does not appear to be offering public sector manages an easy ride.  And things are likely to get tougher.

So your ability to cope and even thrive in this reality is important.  My advice to you is this.  Firstly, don’t do it alone.  Lean on your managerial colleagues.  Get yourself a senior manager mentor or an executive coach. 

Find opportunities to take a little time out every now and then to share experiences and strategies with others who experience similar challenges.  And keep an eye on capability development, for your team and for yourself.  The irony of the current environment for public sector managers is that, as things get tougher, staffing numbers decline and workloads increase, capability is more important than ever before.  And yet this means taking time out of the office.  It’s about working ‘on the business’ instead of ‘in the business’.  It’s hard but it matters.

What road are you on and where do you want to end up?  Despairing over these challenges may be understandable, but is not helpful. You’re on the road to burnout. Swap lanes and turn off.  Get on the road of opportunity, growth and development.  Reframe these challenges as opportunities.  I know that I’m a die-hard idealist and optimist and that can be damn annoying.  But give it some thought. 

If you are a middle or senior manager in the current environment, embrace it.  You’ll come out as one of the best public sector managers we’ve ever seen.  Managing in tough times breeds greatness, not managing in quiet, stable eras.  Or so they say.  If you’re a manager in the public sector today, buy yourself a diary and capture your success, because whether you know it or not, you’re doing a good job and learning a lot.  Make the most of it.  You are on the road to success and one day you’ll be sitting at the top, teaching the next generation of managers how to cope with adversity.  You’re better than you think.  You’re a manager in the public sector today and that’s a formidable role.