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Executive Fellows Program 2021: helping public sector leaders make sense of their changing environment

23 March 2021

News and media


The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted both the external environment public services operate in and their internal ways of working. At the same time, grassroots social movements are causing major social changes which are reflected within public sector organisations.

Public sector leaders are trying to make sense of this new world, where their role is becoming broader and more fluid, and old certainties are breaking down.

ANZSOG’s Executive Fellows Program (EFP) has a track record of preparing public sector leaders for the shifting priorities and increasing demands of their role and challenging them to extend themselves personally and develop new perspectives on their leadership.

The 2021 EFP program – co-ordinated by ANZSOG Deputy Dean (Teaching and Learning) Professor Catherine Althaus and former CEO of the UK National School of Government Robin Ryde – will be delivered entirely online and will have a strong focus on social movements and what the COVID recovery will mean for the public sector.

The program is based on the idea that public sector leaders must accept that doing things the same way is not possible and they have a responsibility to help elected leaders make sense of the new environment.

It will include a broad range of guest presenters include Harvard Kennedy School’s Mark Moore and Dana Born; Dr Richard Tedeschi; Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly; Laura Liswood, Secretary General of the Council of Women World Leaders; and Professor Michelle Ryan, the director of the Global Centre for Women’s Leadership at ANU.

Professor Althaus said that the EFP would give public sector leaders a space to think differently about their leadership and the roles of their organisations in responding to change.

“When we talk about Systems Thinking, the model of a system is to be in balance. But we are seeing ongoing disruption and the question is whether the system is going to go back to the old ways or whether it will forge a new balance. Are we going to reimagine how we do things or not?

“Professor Genevieve Bell talks about ‘liminal moments’ which are ‘times between times’ where there is a spirit of discomfort and disorientation, and a deep-seated sense that events feel different,” she said.

“In the past public services have been a rock of stability, but they will need now to start coming up with grand visions and plans, prodding and poking and coming up with ideas.

“The public service takes its cues from politicians. Yet politicians are struggling to do a good job of sense-making, they are not reading the signs or coming up with strategies and frameworks that speak to some really significant problems. The Women’s marches show how structural some of these problems are.

“Part of the role of public servants is to help with that sense-making and expand into other domains. A greater level of sophistication and creativity is going to be needed.”

“The EFP is meant to be provocative, to help with that sense-making and to give space for deep reflection.”

Mr Ryde said that public servants would need ‘the ability to face difficult realities’ – and that COVID responses in some countries had been compromised by an unwillingness to accept the depth of the issues faced.

“We can continue with the delusion that the situation we had before made complete sense, that the organisational boxes we fitted in still apply, or we can recognise that it is now much more complex. The boundaries between government agencies, between governments and NGOs and between governments and business are not there anymore. They are fluid, and our success as public managers depends on us stepping beyond the threshold of our organisations and forging leadership across boundaries” he said.

“Public servants have to be a lot more open-minded and avoid the temptation to hunker down and protect themselves, they need to reach out much more, and this includes the continuation of work towards diversity and inclusion.”

“As odd as it sounds, the art of ‘muddling through’ has been one of the most useful outcomes of this pandemic. There has been a colossal amount of experimentation in the past 12 months alone. As public servants, we need to hold the tension between assuring citizens that we have things under control, while also earning the trust from our citizens that enable us to experiment and innovate.

“We need to keep the flexibility we showed during COVID. It took a global pandemic to move millions of workers into their homes to work productively and keep the show on the road, and we did it! How can we make step changes like that without waiting for a crisis?”

Importance of Leadership

The EFP for 2021 is divided into three separate modules: Leading Self and Others, Leading the organisation and Systems leadership, which focus on different aspects of leadership.

Mr Ryde said that ‘the self’ is the instrument of leadership, and in the same way a carpenter’s tools are their instrument of success, it is self-knowledge and self-mastery that are the tools of good leadership.

“Leaders need to know what their self is capable of, what it does when it is under pressure, what are it’s blind spots, what depletes and what restores its energy. For example, if you understand you are the kind of leader who instinctively leaps in to solve problems, you may want to think about waiting.

“It is also important to understand what it is that you uniquely bring to leadership and remember that the things leaders do cast a long shadow, particularly during the pandemic when leaders have had less contact with staff.

Professor Althaus said that discussions around leadership would move away from ‘command and control’ models of leadership and shift to emphasising leadership that is done with and through others, and skills that bring out cooperation and collaboration.

The course will feature Laura Liswood, Secretary General of the Council of Women World Leaders and Professor Michelle Ryan, the director of the Global Centre for Women’s Leadership at ANU giving their perspectives on leadership.

“We want to dispel myths that male and female leadership are the main game but to talk about diverse and inclusive leadership forms and how we can change leadership to move beyond just the command and control model towards leadership based on relationships and empathy,” Professor Althaus said.

This year’s EFP will have a focus on the recent rise of social movements, such as Black Lives Matter and the #metoo movement, how they impact on public sector organisations and how to reconcile the personal and political.

Participants will learn from First Peoples police officers from Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand who will talk candidly about how they balance and reconcile their work within what have been oppressive institutions for First Peoples.

Professor Althaus said that in response to issues like #metoo public sector leaders needed to make sure that change went beyond surface level to become deep and permanent.

“We have a situation where some private sector organisations and NGOs are moving ahead of the public sector. The State of the Service report always has cases on bullying and harassment, there is a portion of the leadership that is not taking things seriously.”

Mr Ryde said that Harvard Kennedy School’s Professor Mark Moore – the founding theorist of the concept of public value – would address the importance of social movements for democracies.

“While the legitimacy of public servants – what right they have to act – comes from the electoral process, popular movements may be pointing to things that the elected governments and public services have failed to see.”

“As much of a nightmare as social media can be for many people, and let’s face it, it is difficult to know exactly how to respond to many of the views expressed through social media, it is raising perspectives that give us more data on what the populace wants and priorities they see. Most government departments have a lot of unease about it, but we have to learn to do it.”

Taking advantage of the virtual environment

The EFP will be delivered in a virtual environment this year – and the course structure has changed to take advantage of this and ensure that the cohort has the chance to develop the same bond as in past EFPs, while having more flexibility to complete the course to their own schedule that takes into account work and family responsibilities.

“We will be building the Topia program into every break to simulate physical networking. We will also be using it as an opportunity to teach managers about new ways of virtual communication, as that will be of practical importance,” Professor Althaus said.

“We will also be able to bring EFP participants managers into some sessions, so they can benefit from what participants are getting from the program. This massively helps participants bring their learning back to the workplace.”

Mr Ryde said that the advantage of the virtual program was the ease of getting guest presenters from across the world, and a more concentrated focus on learning.

“This year we have some younger presenters such as Sam Johnson, Chief Executive of the NZ student voluntary army – who have done amazing things in light of the Christchurch Earthquakes and recent lockdowns. We have Jeane Freeman, the Minister for Health, Scotland. We are also joined by Dr Adrian Kuah in Singapore, offering another perspective of leadership amid complexity. There really are an exciting and diverse array of contributors this year”.

“We have always tried to make the EFP feel like a contemporary program – and make step improvements each time it is delivered – but it really feels ‘of the moment’ now with an emphasis on the pandemic and on social movements.

Enrolments for the 2021 EFP close on 12 April, for more information click here

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