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“Who would want to be a public sector CEO?”

2 December 2022

News and media


Image of ANZSOG Dean and CEO Adam Fennessy giving a speech

By ANZSOG Dean and CEO Adam Fennessy 


Working in the public sector is complex, messy and frustrating. Public sector leadership roles can be more demanding and less well-remunerated than their private sector equivalents, so why are people drawn to the public sector? 

My simple answer is that public sector work is deeply purpose-driven and can make a significant difference to communities. 

Public servants are sometimes accused of being out of touch with the real world. Those like myself who have worked in both the public and private sectors know it is the public sector that has to understand and address wicked, yet rewarding, challenges that directly influence the lives of people. 

A few weeks ago, I was at a function in a room full of private sector executives. The guest speaker was a very experienced private sector leader who had led large companies, sat on boards and, more recently, had supported government in an advisory role through the COVID-19 period. I was one of a small handful of people in the room who had worked in the public sector. At the end of the question-and-answer session, one thing the guest speaker said struck a strong chord with me, and warmed my (biased) heart.    

They said that through their recent experience in working with the public sector, they were amazed at the complexity of the role of a public sector CEO. In particular, a public sector leader had to deliver against a range of shifting performance indicators and hard-to-define “public value” outcomes rather than one or two defined targets (such as returning private value to shareholders).    

They were amazed that a public sector leader would provide evidence-based advice to a minister, who could listen to their recommendations, completely disagree with them, and ask the public sector leader to deliver the opposite of what they advised. The minister would then expect full commitment and adherence to the delivery on the minister’s decision. Welcome to the public sector.  

At the end of their reflections, they recommended that private sector executives spend a year in the public sector to get a better understanding of how government and the national economy works in Australia.  This eminent person’s view was that this was more commonly seen in the US, but not here, and this would be a good thing for our country.  This reflects a changing view that future public sector leaders should come from a diverse range of sectors and backgrounds, from a deeper pool beyond that of career public servants.  

What wasn’t discussed that night was public sector remuneration. While it tracked with private sector remuneration at lower executive levels, it then flattened out at higher levels while private sector executive pay kept rising. These days, public sector remuneration invariably involves no bonuses, performance payments, share options or anything approaching the levels of pay for Australia’s top ASX company CEOs. Traditionally work/life balance was perceived to be better in the public sector, but as we were reminded during the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, public sector CEOs across a range of public service delivery areas worked day and night to keep Australians safe and the economy and communities going. We now see greater levels of workplace flexibility emerging across a broader range of sectors. Indeed, in some jurisdictions, the private sector is setting the standard for workplace flexibility as we emerge from COVID-19. 

A few years earlier, I was a guest speaker at a public sector training course that looked at accountabilities surrounding the role of public sector leaders. I was a secretary (public sector CEO) at the time in the Victorian Government. The session facilitator drew a diagram of the legislative, parliamentary and executive oversight that sits on top of and around a secretary. The facilitator posed the question: when you sit in the middle of a circle of portfolio Ministers, Treasury and Finance departments, auditors-general, parliamentary committees, commissions of inquiry, integrity agencies, other central agencies, and finally, the incessant 24/7 media cycle, “who would want to be a secretary?”  

They looked to me to answer the question.  “Surely it wasn’t for the money?” they added.  

My answer was quick and simple: I loved being a secretary because I knew I could make a difference to communities on a big scale. My role at the time was in environment, land, water, urban planning, local government, climate change and energy policy. Our department had around 100 offices and depots across Victoria. We strove to put the community at the centre of everything we did. While the work was exhausting and incessant, I drew my energy from our dedicated staff and the communities we worked with as we tackled issues of the day, week, year and indeed for the next hundreds of years and beyond. Connection to public purpose in my role was immediate and strong, and worth more than remuneration outcomes.  

When I tried to explain to someone very new to government why I felt we could be so impactful working in the public service, I described it as being like riding an elephant.  The elephant might go off in its own direction, regardless of where I wanted it to go, and would ignore me in urging it to change course. However, if I knew how to motivate the elephant through skilful piloting, and we aligned our direction, it was a very powerful beast that could bring its considerable strength to make great progress. Government could be like this powerful elephant – with clear alignment between the elected government of the day, the community and the public service, we could make significant change and impact for the benefit of the people we served.  That’s why I was in government, and that’s why I loved the public service.  

At the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG), our role is to develop, nurture and support current and future public sector leaders across Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. That’s a broad mission, and one continues to change in the face of the evolving and complex context of the post COVID-19 world, and the demands it is placing on the public sector. This uncertainty is driven by changes in our economy, our communities’ expectations, an uncertain global environment, the expanding roles of digital, data and social media, a fracturing political environment, moves to reconciliation with First Nations, and many, many other factors.    

ANZSOG teaches the leadership skills to support working in these uncertain and exhausting environments.  Those skills require a lot of thinking about what might be important in five, ten or 20 years, as well as today. We focus on personal leadership, reflection and growth as much as we share global and national trends in public policy and program delivery.  Self-knowledge, personal resilience and interpersonal skills around collaboration are the key to building leadership capacity that creates positive culture. That matters because culture, as leadership experts say, eats strategy for breakfast, in both the private and public sectors.  How we organise ourselves, reflect the diversity of our communities and work with them is as important as what we deliver – because it makes us more effective, high performing public sector organisations that make a difference with communities.  

This is why I love working in the public sector. It is complex, it is messy and it involves a dynamic set of expectations that swirl around our public sector leaders, requiring constant innovation. Public sector leadership involves humility and personal strength as well as the ability to provide advice respectfully and responsively to the government of the day.  

Is public sector leadership getting any easier?  No.  Is it meaningful and purpose driven?  Yes.  That is why I love it.  


This article first appeared in The Mandarin