Public service succession struggle

by 30 Oct 2007

THE PUBLC service is falling sharply behind the private sector in identifying and promoting future leaders, creating a future leadership vacuum, a recent report has found.

At a time when both federal and state governments are attempting to grow their public services, a talent shortage is becoming more evident as the public sector struggles to attract, retain and promote the next generation of leaders.

“The most worrying aspect of the trend is that a generation of experienced leaders in the public service in Australia will retire over the next decade with skills that are not easy to teach to the next generation of leaders,” said Peter Dunn, senior consultant with Hay Group in Canberra.

“The talent shortage is likely to be felt even more acutely in the public sector because it doesn’t have the ability to alter salaries and conditions as much as the private sector to adjust to the labour shortage.”

The Hay Group report, Rush to the Top, found that only a fraction of public sector organisations have a succession plan in place. “If active talent management isn’t undertaken quickly, the crisis will grow in the public sector in Australia and other modern economies like the UK,” Dunn said.

“That’s because the retiring generation of leaders in the public service have a range of qualities that have made them successful in their leadership roles. Capabilities including vision, political awareness, team building and long-term thinking are critical to success but not easy to develop.

“Unless the next generation of public service leaders develop these leadership skills quickly, there won’t just be a shortage of recruits coming into the public service, but also quality future leaders,” Dunn said

The role of HR is critical, according to Dunn. What separates the top 20 most admired companies globally from others is that their HR director is not only on the executive board, but an active participant and key player in the top team.

“You don’t see that in the public sector – they are still playing second fiddle to the technicians and that has got to change.”

As the median age of the Australian public service is growing significantly older, with 40 per cent due for retirement in the next decade, the public service is being urged to take leadership and succession planning seriously.

The public service has never experienced a leadership crisis, and as a result, has never had to worry about succession planning, Dunn said.

The issue has become more evident with recently released Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, which indicate unemployment levels of 4.3 per cent (a 30-year low). The ACT recorded the lowest unemployment level of any state or territory at 2.3 per cent.

With a number of public service staff aged under 30 reaching strategic level positions in the senior executive service or executive level two areas in the federal public service, the need to distinguish between the potential for promotion and the readiness for promotion is essential, Dunn said.

“In order to ensure success and avoid placing emerging young leaders in positions they might fail in, we need to pack around those emerging leaders the skills or systems that recognise their readiness for the position.”

The report also highlighted the difference between what mature and younger staff have to offer. “We have got to actually design real jobs for real people,” Dunn said.

“A UK figure shows that 70 per cent of people in the public sector do not want their bosses’ jobs. This is scary because the jobs that have grown in the public sector are actually considered ‘un-doable’– they are 12 hours a day, seven days a week, or longer, and many people say they are not going to do that as they want work-life balance. This means we have to redesign the jobs and we have to incorporate into various jobs specific features that people want.”

Providing opportunities from the point of promotion, and not two or three years later, can assist in the process. Coaching (as opposed to mentoring) is also important.

“We actually make sure our whole top team are given training in top team effectiveness, for instance, we teach older people how to work for [generation] X and Y staff,” Dunn said.


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