Skip to content

What Deputies need to know: A conversation with Deputies Leadership Program co-directors Kathryn Anderson and Martin Stewart-Weeks

17 April 2024

News and media


The step up to Deputy level is one of the most difficult career changes a public servant can make. It brings broader responsibilities, new strategic demands and the pressure of working at the political-administrative interface.

ANZSOG’s Deputies Leadership Program is designed to challenge and guide early-stage Deputies to be effective and resilient leaders who can build cultures of integrity, trust and collaboration.

It is co-led by Kathryn Anderson, a former Deputy Secretary in the Victorian Public Service and current partner at Cube Group, who draws on thirty years of public sector experience to help organisations solve complex problems and deliver greater impact, and Martin Stewart-Weeks, ANZSOG Practice Fellow for Digital Government and Leadership, who has worked as a strategic thinker, organisational consultant, policy analyst, facilitator and writer, and draws on over 35 years’ experience spanning government, the “for purpose” or social sector and the corporate sector.

The pair spoke with ANZSOG about the 2024 iteration of the Deputies Leadership Program, the philosophy behind it and the unique challenges that come with the Deputy role. This is an edited transcript of the conversation.

What are the biggest changes and challenges that Deputies face when they step up to that level?

Kathryn: When senior executives step into a Deputy role they’re already experienced, whether within the public sector or outside. But being a Deputy is a role with an increased span and a multidimensional nature. So – and we talk about this in the program – there’s a focus naturally on delivering their business, whatever that might be, and that inevitably involves a system of stakeholders within and outside their organisation. There’s also a very particular role in supporting their secretary. And then there’s their crucial and increasingly important stewardship role that could involve community sector or industry players as well. So the dimensions of the role really broaden out at that level.

Martin: Deputies are expected to be effective at managing both a strategic AND an immediate delivery function. You can’t do one or the other. You’ve got to be able to manage and hold in your head a really strong sense of strategy and the longer-term game, if you like, that you’re now substantially on the hook for. And you’ve got to be able to worry about the delivery of things that have to happen tomorrow, next week and the week after.

The other change is your visibility. Deputies often say that the transition into the role comes with a realisation that, more than ever, everyone is looking at what they’re doing. They really are up there as exemplars and they live in a world where people listen to what they do, not just what they say. I think for many Deputies that’s quite confronting -the level of always-on visibility and people watching them closely for the way they behave is quite different from what they might have experienced before.

Kathryn: Part of what we talk about in the program is that kind of self-management, being really mindful about how you show up, because you’ve got a very significant ripple effect, not just in the more formal decisions that you make, but your demeanour every day. People are reading things from that and that’s something that can take a little getting used to. It’s an extra level there.

To succeed in a position where you are so visible, and have such a different range of responsibilities, what kind of personal qualities do Deputies need to develop?

Kathryn: There are a whole lot of qualities and we talk about those a lot in the program, but I think one of them is self-awareness. Being really clear, understanding yourself, your own leadership style, and the way you communicate.

You need that understanding of your own strengths and weaknesses, to help ensure that you build a team around you that collectively can bring all of the right set of skills to bear. No one has the absolute full package of qualities and skills, so you need to have that awareness of where your strengths are, also where you might overplay those strengths. We’re really trying to help you to understand your own style so that you can effectively lead.

Martin: Deputies often talk about how they hold themselves together with everything that’s going on. It’s a very immediate and personal challenge.

And yet there’s an imperative to remain sensibly and practically optimistic in amongst all the pressure. And by that I mean, I get a sense from Deputies that it’s really important for them to give their own teams confidence that ‘we can do this’. They’ve got to be optimistic and great problem solvers, so they can weave through the context and constraints they face to make things happen and deliver great outcomes even if the circumstances inevitably will be quite difficult and choppy.

Those are difficult things to do at a personal level, never mind professionally. But resilience, optimism and problem solving are hallmarks of a Deputy’s “package” that provides both strength and capability to do the job well.

One focus of the program is the frank discussions about the Deputy role between participants, yourselves and the high-level guest presenters who’ve ‘been there, done that’. How do you create those spaces for candid conversations?

Martin: It’s Chatham House and everyone knows that. We don’t record any of the conversations. So if you miss them, you miss them. We also spend a fair bit of time tapping into our participants’ sense of personal reflection about their own well-being. We allow that conversation early and we constantly revisit the sense about how they’re tracking. They get into the habit of being open and generous with each other, because we set that almost as an expectation right from the start.

Any good leadership program spends time letting leaders talk about who they are as people, and how they are evolving their own practice of leadership. It’s not just teaching, and it’s not even even lots of great conversations, although we think we curate a pretty decent collection of those. It has to start and be grounded in their own sense of who they are as people, and who they think they are as evolving leaders.

Kathryn: We always try to create that kind of safe environment where people can be frank about their own experiences – our speakers certainly are. We’re all here to support participants success, and I think that is pretty clear in the conversations that they have. They acknowledge some of the challenges of the role, but also focus on some of the incredible opportunities people, at this level, have to make things happen, to lead and guide big changes and to influence positive outcomes.

This program is very much about peer learning, so the opportunity for participants to talk to each other, and realise “I’m not the only one experiencing some of these challenges”.

This year, we’re running the full program in person for the first time, and we will make the most of that by building in a lot of opportunities to learn together, but also some informal time, where people can connect in a different setting.

Martin: My sense is that the working environment for Deputies is becoming more intense. So the value of a program like this is becoming even greater. It offers a moment to step back a bit, connect, and just think a little bit more deeply about who they are, what they’re trying to do, how they stay alive, and then how they thrive, has become even more important now than it was two or three years ago.

Why are things getting more intense for Deputies? What are the driving forces behind that?

Martin: One is the state of the world. We’re in a very hectic and intense period of transition, almost anywhere you look, whether it’s politics, or geopolitics, or energy, environment. The change agenda is pretty full across socoety and the economy. No policy area misses out. And everywhere you look there are big transitions that we’re all trying to make. That’s terirtory that most Deputies play in.

The other thing is, particularly at the National level, but not only, is that we’re involved in some quite big pieces of work around longitudinal reform of the public sector at the moment. Substantial programs of structural, cultural, practice reform at their own institutional level, which of course, for a Deputy, is often a big part of their work.

Kathryn: The reality today is that government is not involved in anything that’s easy, you know, that’s all sorted. These are complex, difficult problems that crowd the agenda for government, and hence the public sector. And as well, many jurisdictions in Australia and New Zealand are experiencing tightened economic times.

We talk a lot, in sessions with Robbie Macpherson in particular, around the sort of adaptive leadership and systems thinking that sort of taking yourself out in order to lift up and out of the day-to-day demands, which can be quite frenetic, and think strategically about how you want to lead, not just what you want to do.

More broadly what are the big challenges for the public service as a whole over the next 10 years, and how do public services need to change the way they work to deal with those?

Martin: The federal government has decided that the second Long-term Issues Briefing paper will focus on the future of government services and the way they align more effectively with communities. That’s instructive, because if you look around the world there is actually a very big conversation about how you marshal the resources for better services and fresh policy thinking and delivery.

That requires governments to think deeply about what they are going to do and the relationship they have to these new forms of service delivery. It may be that some of what they need to do is create both capabilities and opportunities for organisations and resources at the local community level. We’re going to have to think quite creatively about how we use the resource base we do have, including new technologies, – which will be at least part of the solution although it’s not a simple answer – to start thinking quite differently about the relationship between people, communities, and the services that they need and want.

Kathryn: One of the huge challenges for government, and some have grappled with it more deeply than others, is how they conceive a customer or the community and their relationship to it in terms of service design, not just service delivery but service design. Governments are still very much grappling with what it means to share power, resources, decision-making in that space to improve outcomes for Indigenous peoples, for example.

What Martin and I have tried to do including this 2024 program is underpin the program with First Nations perspectives, and part of that includes obviously having First Nations speakers participate at different points in the program so that we can keep coming back to some of those perspectives over the program and challenge participants around how in their work they relate to and consider First Nations perspectives and their working relationships.

I think the other key issue facing government/public sector organisations is how do you attract and retain the people going forward that can really deliver productively for government? In many public sectors, it’s an ageing workforce. It’s still a fairly homogenous workforce culturally certainly at the most senior levels. So I think there’s a lot of work, and many public sectors are grappling with this, but certainly a lot more to be done to shape a public sector that not only reflects the community that it’s serving but that has got the right kind of skills and thinking to tackle some of these difficult issues going forward.

Deputy level is often a time when public servants start dealing regularly the minister’s office. What would you tell them to focus on in managing that relationship?

Kathryn: One of the things we talk about in the program is being very mindful of, and respecting, the different responsibilities of different roles. Ministers have a very particular set of accountabilities, public servants have a different, related, set of roles and responsibilities and ministerial advisors, although they don’t have that sort of formal role, nonethless play a very important part. You need to foster that constructive relationship by being really mindful and respectful of the different roles. Easier said than done. But if I’ll say one thing, that’s it.

Martin: To build on that, one of the pieces of advice that always pops up is – from a bureaucrat’s point of view take the time to understand who these ministers and their advisors are. Don’t make assumptions, even thought that’s tempting. Take time to work out who they are, what they want to do and what they want to achieve. And that isn’t always clear or simple for them especially when they start. Take it slowly, but take it in a very human level. And you’ll find that that investment of time and energy and respect will probably be a good basis on which to move forward.

Getting the relationship between the public service and politics and politicians has always been an important feature of senior public sector leadership. It’s a feature, not a bug. There’s no question that in recent times the complexity and intensity of the relationship has increased. Sometimes, frankly, for the worse but often more positively. Because when it works, it is a relationship that can be incredibly productive. But when it doesn’t it can really trip you up in a bad way.

What is it that you want Deputies to take from the program? And what do you want them to be able to do differently when they return to their jobs?

Kathryn: I guess a sharper understanding of the breadth of their roles and a clearer understanding of how they lead to deliver positive impact. An important outcome that Martin and I really strive towards is that participants come out of it with a stronger peer network, because that really matters. They’ll have more people who they now know better, who they might pick up the phone to and test an idea, or they’ve got someone who they know shares their experience, and that they can feel an openness to talk about what’s going on.

Martin: Two things I’d add. One of the things we want people to come away with, and certainly the evidence so far suggests we’ve been fairly successful, is to recognise that leadership is a practice. Part of what we’re trying to do over the program is to help leaders get a more self-conscious and deliberate sense of their own practice as a leader and to keep thinking about how it evolves and adapts.

A second thing is the focus on the impact of and the implications of the new platforms, tools and cultures and mindsets of the digital age. Public leadership is now increasingly being prosecuted in the context of the digital transformation of society and the economy. We’d like the Deputies to come away with a growing sense that their evolving practice as public leaders is increasingly being shaped by and responding to opportunities and risks forged in those conditions and that we’re still all feeling our way through.