Tuesday, June 06, 2023

Developing Deep Roots For Leadership Success

How To Create Data-Driven Culture

As we expected, ambassadors and others across the bank began working together, making measurements, targeting data cleanups, and eliminating root causes of error. Then, somewhat organically, ambassadors and regular employees began using methods and tools provided in the training in new ways. - Harvard Business Review

As a leader of a national team, I sometimes picture the workplace as a forest. A company’s leaders are the tall, sturdy oaks that have stood the test of time. They’ve developed strong, deep roots that provide stability and growth even through the harshest storms.

But like every forest, every company has some weeds. Employees like this are often selfish and don’t take the time to develop deep roots. They shoot up quickly and grab whatever resources they can to get a share of the sunlight, even if it means strangling the plants around them. Weeds are ambitious, but they take nutrients from the soil without giving much back. They are here today and gone tomorrow.

I like this forest analogy because it speaks so well to rootedness, which is essential to developing your career and leadership potential.Check out my previous article for tips on cultivating a selfless approach to leadership.

As an attorney, I’ve watched this “tree” vs. “weed” dynamic play out in real life for many years. When I started my practice in 2002, I regularly saw several of the same attorneys in court. But about two years in, I noticed that many of them changed jobs quite frequently. Some changed law firms every six months.

They told me that this is how you get ahead: Get the job, get a little bit of experience and then leverage it for a higher salary at a different firm. Wait six months to a year, then leverage that into a lateral move where the pay is the same for fewer billable hours.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic, I’ve seen this trend accelerate. Once again, many young professionals are bouncing around firms and chasing shiny objects, without really considering the cumulative impact. I still wonder how satisfying a career like that could possibly be. Would it be challenging, meaningful work? After all, you are just doing the same thing for a different company name on a paycheck.

But after 20 years in practice, one thing is very clear—those who don’t take time to plant roots at a company never really grow as a leader or a person. If you are looking to grow into a leadership role, that short-term mindset can hurt you in the long run.

Of course, there are times when taking a new position is the right thing to do. But if you are contemplating a job change, consider more than just the salary and bonus potential. Think about whether the position will allow you to develop the deep roots that will support you long term. Will you have the chance to develop your management skills, become involved with client relations or train new team members? Those are the opportunities that can lead to future growth, advancement and leadership.

Personal Habits That Cultivate Leadership

There are clear qualities in the employees and colleagues who have become their company’s “sturdy oaks” and achieved leadership success. They all demonstrate similar habits in their interactions with clients and team members. And they develop responsive teams and systems by doing so.

Here are some of the top habits I find accelerate both personal and professional growth.

Strive For Consistent Quality

Day in and day out, aim for 100%. Develop a reputation for doing it right the first time. Law is ultimately a service industry, just like plumbing, hospitality or transportation. A “wow!” moment may bump your professional reputation up a few points. However, the times you drop the ball or aren’t prepared? They can cost you three times as much. A nine out of 10 average may sound good, but would you fly an airline with only a 99% success rate?

Be The Reliable, Trusted Resource

Ideally, your client or supervisor should breathe a sigh of relief after assigning a project to you because they know it will be handled to the best of your ability. They won’t need to micromanage or babysit to keep you on task. And even if there’s a part you are not sure about, they know you’ll ask questions—because that’s what reliable people do.

Respond Immediately

Excellent communication is our firm’s first core value for a reason. Clients usually reach out when there is a problem, and our job is to fix it for them. Always respond in a timely fashion to calls, emails and texts—even if you do not have an answer yet. Of course, there are times you cannot pick up the phone, but if you constantly send calls to voice mail, you’re sending the message that the caller is not very important.

These qualities go back to that sense of rootedness. And as a business owner, I certainly evaluate whether someone is a “tree” or a “weed” before adding a new member to my team. I am looking for someone who will stay, develop deep roots and grow with strength.

And when I decide to invest in an employee’s advancement, I know that person is stable, has deep roots and will not fall over when the wind kicks up. I know I can trust that person to do a great job for clients because they have already demonstrated the qualities that drive integrity and performance.

So, if you are looking to advance as a leader, ask yourself: Am I a “tree” or a “weed”?

Everyone starts out as a sapling, but it’s up to you whether you turn into that sturdy oak.

Meet the woman trying to fix the public service people problem

Jacqui Curtis is trying to fix the HR problems in the federal public service. She is investigating staff swapping, working from home and why so many promotions are internal.

Jacqui Curtis: “When it comes to the APS, there has been no burning platform that requires us to be different, until recently.” Sitthixay Ditthavong

Tom BurtonGovernment editor

Jacqui Curtis is not the first person to observe the public service is only as good as its people. But as head of human resource professionals for the 150,000-strong Australian Public Service she is now in a position to do something about it.

In her day job, Curtis is the chief operating officer for the Australian Tax Office, having come through the public service ranks as an HR and change specialist.

But after a major review by former Telstra chief executive David Thodey revealed endemic gaps in public service skills and capabilities, the Australian Public Service Commission developed a network for HR professionals.

Curtis was tapped to help fix what many observers considered the elephant in the room, the inability of the service to adapt to the modern world by increasing the skills of the HR workforce.

Thodey found there had been a hollowing out of strategic policy skills, “the ability to understand the forces at play in the world, what is needed to position the nation to meet challenges and opportunities, and to develop, analyse and provide incisive advice to the government”.

Thodey blamed a mix of reasons, notably prioritising short-term responsiveness at the expense of long-term thinking, a risk-averse culture that stifled employee potential, staffing caps and retention policies that arbitrarily led to longer-term gaps in capability, and a large increase in outside contractors and consultants.

Virus a game changer

The finding sadly was not new, with capability gaps having been identified 10 years earlier in a similar report titled Ahead of the Game. Curtis is clear about why change has not occurred.

“When it comes to the APS, there has been no burning platform that requires us to be different until recently. The combination of the Thodey review and the COVID-19 crisis has given us that impetus to make real change” Curtis said in an interview.

“You need something concrete to drive that change.

“You can only drive your people to change their behaviour and mindset if you can show them change visibly taking place in their department or agency, or more broadly across the APS.

Jacqui Curtis is now keen to build on the sudden embrace of flexibility after the federal response to COVID-19. 

“It’s that visible change that will drive that shift. I always say to people, you can change any policy, any procedure, any technology, but it is people that have to embrace that and put it into practice.

“Otherwise, you don’t get real change. You’re simply shuffling priorities at a high level, which then fails to flow through with the necessary change of mindset and actions that create long-term, organisational transformation.”

Start small and scale up

For Curtis, this practical approach to change needs to come from the bottom up. The centre needs to set the direction, but the agencies need to bring it to life.

“A lot of the time, we get caught up in HR theory and best practice, instead of stripping it back to the basic principles of having an idea, starting small and scaling it up if it works.

“It is vital that you make it really simple and tangible for people. And in doing so, people realise that they can make a difference. They get on board, they tell others and it snowballs through the organisation.”

Curtis cites the mobility challenge as an example.

Thodey noted the APS inter-agency mobility rate, which measures movement of employees between agencies in a year, has been stuck for decades at a dismal 2.5 per cent.

This explains why nearly three-quarters (72 per cent) of the APS has only ever worked in one agency, driving the infamous insularity that is readily apparent to anyone who has worked in the federal public service.

At the ATO, Curtis’ approach had been to drive this through a staff-swapping arrangement.

COVID-19 saw us change everything we knew about our traditional ways of doing business.

With her senior executives, she “sat around the table and did some horse-trading and moving some people around” with executives seconded from different agencies.

Like many like-minded reformers, Curtis is now keen to build on the sudden embrace of flexibility after the federal response to COVID-19 that led to more than 2100 staff seconded to Services Australia.

This goes particularly to the whole remote-working phenomena COVID-19 unleashed.

While staff surveys have revealed a deep desire for remote working to be formally embraced, Curtis notes it will be important to get some clear central direction about the underlying approach to flexible working.

While some state governments see flexible working as a game changer for attracting talent and diversity, the political signals from Canberra have been far more tepid, after the Prime Minister Scott Morrison told APS leaders before Christmas that he wanted to see them face-to-face.

Seeking hard evidence on WFH

In the meantime, the ATO is piloting a six-month program to really understand the implications of embracing remote working.

“We need our approach to be based on the evidence, so we’re going to see if we can get some hard data,” says Curtis, noting the significant people management issues that will need to be addressed if flexible working is to be fully implemented.

It is this trial and scale approach across multiple agencies that Curtis believes will be most effective in driving the larger strategic goal of trying to build long-term innovation and change in capability.

“Our response when COVID-19 hit is a great example of innovation and change in action,” Curtis said.

“All of a sudden, the Tax Office had to completely pivot from being an agency that was focused on collecting money, auditing businesses and being a regulator, to suddenly pushing money out the door. We were called on to meet the urgent needs of the community and the government, and we responded rapidly.

“To be able to do that required us to think completely differently about how we operate.

“COVID-19 saw us change everything we knew about our traditional ways of doing business. It saw us encourage our people to look outside their usual position and support them to think more broadly about what serving Australians truly means.

“For example, through our change programs, we had already begun to recognise that instead of having rigid policies that are inflexible, you need principle-based policies you can adapt to the needs of the clients. You need governance mechanisms and procedures that allow you to be able to flexibly shift and pivot to meet changing demands.”

Too many internal promotions

Recruitment is another area where Curtis sees significant gains by simply applying modern techniques to driving diversity and a culture that embraces change rather than one far too comfortable with the status quo (my observation).

“I think we still have too many recruitment practices that are out of date and restrictive, which can mean we’re not getting the right people in the right roles.

“And we still place too much emphasis on academic record; not just in our graduate program, but in quite a lot of our recruitment processes. My priority now is thinking of ways of getting more diversity, so we’re more representative of the community.”

A common theme for Curtis is the need for leadership to take ownership of the changes they want and to demonstrate that in a visible way to their agency.

“Leadership is essential here. We can say all the time that we want people that are innovative and courageous, but in many cases, we’re still not seeing that reflected in who we actually recruit.

“If you look at the State of the Service reportand any of the stats from the APSC, you’ll still see lots of promotions from within an agency. This doesn’t always reflect the mobility and diversity that I’d expect to see in the APS.

“Leaders need to realise there can be a disconnect between their wishes and their actions. They need to understand that their people notice if they say one thing, but then do another.”

This is particularly so around the need for diversity, where in the senior executive level it remains white with the vast majority hired from within.

“We need to see more of our leaders taking diversity seriously. We need leaders who show their focus on diversity in their actions and not just by getting out there and saying it’s important,” Curtis observes.

The leadership theme goes to the recognition that human resources needs to be rethought in the public service, an observation equally relevant to many private sector organisations navigating the massive disruption fuelled by technology and the rapidly changing geopolitical environment.

“Leaders knew they needed a really strong HR capability, and they weren’t getting what they wanted, but I don’t think there was a real understanding of what that might need to look like going forward.”

“I think there’s still a bit of a mindset that HR is still that traditional attract, recruit, build capability. Obviously, this is part of the job, but HR is so much more than just those tasks.

“In the future, HR needs to be innovative and creative if it’s going to be able to deliver on that trusted adviser role that it needs to be.”

That of course implies a higher-level capability within the HR professional stream, which is exactly what Curtis is seeking to build.

It will be a long road.

HR has long been bracketed among a group of corporate services that in a typical mid-size agency will include technology, finance, security, ministerial and procurement functions.

In old-school organisations, the corporate function also includes communications and stakeholder engagement, and is often run by junior corporate executives who report up through a nightmare of authorising levels.

Elevating human resources to the C-suite will be a sure sign APS agencies are finally taking their people and capability challenge seriously.

Tom Burton
Tom BurtonGovernment editorTom Burton has held senior editorial and publishing roles with The Mandarin, The Sydney Morning Herald and as Canberra bureau chief for The Australian Financial Review. He has won three Walkley awards. Connect with Tom on Twitter. Email Tom at tom.burton@afr.com