Leading is never easy, but COVID-19 has required many public managers to juggle responding to a fast-moving crisis, implementing working from home, and building a whole new set of collaborations with other agencies.
How can managers adapt their leadership style to not just cope with disruption, but make it an agent for positive long-term change?
Jo Cribb, ANZSOG Executive Master of Public Administration (EMPA) faculty member, spent two decades in the New Zealand public service, most recently as Chief Executive of the Ministry for Women, and says she was “lucky enough” to work on tough issues like child poverty and violence against women, before leaving three years ago to run her own business.
She will present Leading people through disruption, a series of three webinars for ANZSOG in August/September that will give participants insights into how to make decisions during a time of crisis and maintain an inclusive and positive style of leadership.
Dr Cribb said that organisations should embrace an empowering style of leadership during the pandemic and ensure they maintained diversity and inclusion programs to help them adjust effectively to the crisis and its aftermath.
She said that effective leaders created change in a values-based way, and the best were able to empower their staff and admit the limits of their own knowledge and ability.
“I served in a lot of different spaces and became aware that there was more than one kind of leadership, not just the model of the ‘hero leader’,” she said.
“Often the people who have business cards with some senior position on them are not the ones doing the leading. In fact, I think we often default to expecting too much of the people we put in these roles.
“Leadership is about mobilisation, bringing people together and making things better than they were before. You can have that influence at every level and everyone can be part of the leadership team.”
She says that governments need to change the way they look at leadership to enable staff, and move away from the idea that leadership is about gatekeeping, hierarchy and control. This will allow them to foster empowerment and collaboration, which will unleash productivity and innovation.
“Governments are stuck in the ‘pyramid approach’ where you spend hours waiting outside an office for a sign-off, or to be told something you already know.”
Admitting what you do not know
Dr Cribb said that organisations were too complex and the problems they had to deal with were too difficult for one person to have all the answers. Leaders needed to be honest admit they did not know everything.
“As a leader you should start with the assumption that you don’t have all the answers, and that your role is to bring people together and ask the questions,” she said.
“The first time you stand up in front of a group and say ‘I don’t know’ is frightening but it is also liberating. It goes against what you are taught and it’s frowned upon, but it’s effective.”
She said this was particularly the case during an unprecedented event like the COVID-19 crisis, where honest communications with the public were a key part of building a collective response.
“It is really important for authorities to be honest about what they don’t know when they communicate with the public,” she said.
“This has been the experience in New Zealand and it has actually strengthened trust in government. We have been able to communicate really complex judgment-based policies and do so effectively.”
Dr Cribb said that leaders faced extra challenges during the current disruption and would need to think consciously about how they were leading and their processes for making decisions.
“Things are always changing but this is a period where change is more intense and faster, and a time when things that have worked well in the past don’t work so well when conditions have changed,” she said.
“One of the challenges is that there’s no pattern recognition or data that can help, and information from pre-COVID times is less useful.
“You need to get closer to the delivery areas because they are interacting with change and that is where the knowledge is – for example call centres right now would be a powerful source of information, but is that information being collected and used?
“In this uncertain time we need to think about how we are making decisions and why, are we bringing things together centrally so we can put the bigger picture together, or are we giving power to the grassroots because decisions have to be made there?
“It is important to think consciously about how you lead, not respond to pressure by making quick decisions or narrowing the decision-making process.”
Focus on people and diversity
Dr Cribb said leaders needed to recognise that their staff were adjusting to different and difficult circumstances and to keep communicating with them.
“People will have a range of responses to the current disruption, but most will experience some kind of fear of change and for their futures. Good leaders will work to support staff and prepare them for change,” she said.
Leaders also needed to ensure they did not burn out and were able to make good decisions.
“Leaders need to think about how they are looking after themselves. You can make it through crisis mode on adrenalin for three or four weeks, but we need to make decisions which will last for years so decision making needs to be good and fresh.”
While it was difficult to find time during a crisis, leaders needed to examine what things were working and could become part of an organisation’s long-term practice.
For many public service agencies this included internal issues like staff working from home, as well as external issues such as the success of new partnerships and collaborations, and new ways of communicating.
Dr Cribb said all organisations needed to avoid the mistake many made after the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of abandoning or scaling back diversity and inclusion policies. She said that after the GFC, banks with a higher share of women on their boards proved less vulnerable than their peers and diverse companies out earned their peers.
“This crisis gives us the chance to make changes with a diverse and inclusive lens. Organisations that draw on the full spectrum of talent available to them will be the ones that adapt and recover the best.”