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How to thrive in a high-pressure role of a public sector deputy

24 September 2019

News and media


People attending a seminar

The role of a public sector deputy has always been high pressure, with the challenges of managing relationships with ministers, stakeholders, other departments and the media.

But in an era of bigger integrated departments, and a greater emphasis on collaboration, deputy secretaries are dealing with new pressures and seeing their leadership skills tested as never before.

Apply now for ANZSOG’s Deputies Leadership Program

ANZSOG Associate Dean Gill Callister PSM, a former Victorian departmental secretary, of Education and Training, former Secretary of the Victorian Department of Human Services, said that deputies were facing greater expectations to simultaneously succeed at policy innovation and delivery while being part of a corporate management team.

“Deputies are still expected to be accountable for everything in their areas, but those areas are bigger, and they are being asked to make more linkages across policy and delivery, as governments become more outcome-driven,” she said.

“The biggest challenges are the speed at which government expects things to be delivered and the emphasis on collaboration, and building collaborative structures to deliver better outcomes. This is not a new part of the job but it is much more to the forefront now.

“There can be a bit of a ‘buck stops here’ feel to the role, because they are expected to know more of the detail than the CEO. They need to know when they can delegate, and when red flags are popping up and they need to dive in and solve problems themselves.

“Most of their preparation is acting in the position while someone is on leave, There is an assumption that they will be able to learn on the job and step up without specific preparation and professional development.”

Surviving and thriving in uncertain times

Associate Professor Zeger van der Wal, a globally recognised scholar and consultant in public management and leadership, affiliated with ANZSOG, the National University Singapore, and Tsinghua University, says the modern public sector leader’s operating environment is characterised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) and leaders need to develop a new set of skills and behaviour to become “21st Century Proof”.

“You will not thrive in a VUCA world because of seniority, or because you were designated as important or powerful in the past. Commanding respect and authority because your business card says director won’t cut it,” he said.

“You must be savvy in leveraging opportunities and technologies to outperform competitors and convince your masters. You must also be astute in strategically securing support and funding from various authorising environments.

“Public servants will increasingly need to break out of their siloes and be collaborative and connected, reaching out to stakeholders and citizens to get things done.

“They will only successfully fulfil their obligations and mandates if they are granted informal, not just functional, authority and legitimacy by their various partners. They have to earn this continuously through excellent performance, enabling and energising leadership, and a sufficient display of expertise and content knowledge.”

Authentic leadership is effective leadership

Being a deputy is not one role, it’s a combination of roles, and to be effective at juggling these competing demands, deputies need to understand their own strengths and weaknesses and think strategically about what they want to achieve.

Harvard Kennedy School leadership expert Dr Dana Born said that the key to authentic leadership was ”living your purpose” as a leader.

“The most important days of your life are the days you were born and the day you have clarity about your purpose,” she said.

“Authentic leadership is about discovering what is unique about yourself and your story. Research shows that knowing what your story is, and bringing that into your professional life, is important for the effectiveness of your leadership.”

Dr Born said that leaders needed to focus on their strengths not their weaknesses.

“If I have one tip for leaders it is: focus on your strengths and gifts as the most important components of your leadership. Knowing what your strengths are and working on them. Oftentimes we are too focused on our weaknesses and trying to strengthen them, and that actually takes us off course.

“The work I do with leaders is very engagement-based. People realise it’s not so scary and can be very fulfilling, and ultimately lead to a more meaningful life and more effective leadership.”

ANZSOG’s Deputy Leadership Program

ANZSOG has worked with its owner governments to introduce a new Deputies Leadership Program, which will consist of three modules, taking deputies away from the day-to-day demands of their work and put them into a rich learning environment.

The program will be led by Professor Callister, and Associate Professor van der Wal.

It will take place across three different locations in 2019 and 2020, including Melbourne, Canberra and Wellington, New Zealand, where the recently initiated Wellbeing Project will be a central case study.

The first module of the program will explore different leadership styles and focus on understanding yourself to build resilience and integrity. It will equip participants with tools to make them more flexible and effective as public sector leaders.

The program includes a session with Dr Born who will work with attendees on how to become authentic leaders, and discover their personal leadership story.

The second program module in Wellington includes sessions with ANZSOG Board Chair and New Zealand State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes.

It will also include a ‘live case’ which explores the Government of New Zealand’s commitment to embed wellbeing in public policy, and will encourage innovative thinking about policy problems, how to take action, and consider service delivery and community impact.

The Canberra module will feature discussions ANZSOG’s Professor Janine O’Flynn, with a focus on how to overcome barriers to effective collaboration.

Applications for the Deputies Leadership Program are closing soon.

Visit the Deputies Leadership Program webpage to register your interest. Places are limited and there are jurisdictional caps on applicant numbers.

Interested applicants are encouraged to register as soon as possible.