What does it take to be a public sector leader in contemporary Britain?


Jody Goldsworthy, Senior Partner, GatenbySanderson outlines the ever-changing role of the public sector leader and what it entails… 

The UK is facing an unprecedented period of change. Demand for public services is at an all-time high, meanwhile budgets are under more pressure. And, following the result of the EU referendum, Britain must go through the process of reviewing all legislation of the past 40 years, creating even more strain on our vital public sector organisations.  In this context, the case for senior public service leaders with vision and expertise is even stronger. But, even more important questions remain – what do we expect from our public sector leaders? What attributes and skillsets do we need these leaders to have? How do we measure their success? And, where will we find them?

To answer these questions, we need to have a clear and fair idea of what we want from public sector organisations, and what they are capable of achieving in the current circumstances. With a clear vision of what we want our public services to achieve, we can then start to understand what is required of our leaders.

A new way of thinking for a new reality

‘Jobs for life’ is a thing of the past across all areas of our economy and this certainly rings true in public services. The average tenure of senior leaders has reduced over the years with mobility within and between sectors increasing. While a deep understanding of the public sector and policy development will always be important, the skillset required of a public sector leader in contemporary Britain has changed.

Modern politics is under an even bigger microscope given the rise of social media and 24-hour news cycle. This impacts policy and how it is created, the strategic objectives of public sector organisations and their leaders.  While increased visibility and transparency is mostly positive, we’ve seen increased accountability, particularly in the health sector, can have negative impacts. Regardless of the area, be it local government, health, education or not-for-profit sectors, the leaders are being brought in to make big, often difficult decisions that are not always going to be popular. Leaders in the public sector need a thick skin. They must be able to make hard decisions and have the courage of their convictions to implement change, even in the face of very public criticism – as the Chief Executive of the Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust’s recent resignation highlights.

Similarly, leaders now need to be more open minded than ever before. Public sector organisations can be quite rigid in their structure and processes. Our leaders must be open to new ideas and ways of working – from being open to new partnerships, to changing to more flexible work practices to accommodate preferences of an upcoming millennial workforce.

As service models change and new approaches are implemented, good leaders must be more collaborative in terms of how they engage their teams, their partners in delivery and the public. They need to better engage with local communities to devise and articulate a shared vision and then implement new plans to deliver these vital services. Decisions can no longer be made in isolation, rather success relies upon an engaged workforce within the core organisation and any partner organisations, who have been consulted and are motivated to implement change and introduce new ideas effectively. The newly formed NHS Transformation unit is a prime example of this. Having grown out of Greater Manchester’s devolution processes, it exists to support NHS organisations as they adapt to embrace change and also to support NHS leaders to recognise their vital role as system leaders.

Finally, business skills have become even more important in the current financial climate where budgets are shrinking. This is not just about managing the public purse, leaders need to be able to identify and negotiate commercial opportunities which will help fund community services in a more sustainable way. This is where experience beyond the public sector has become more important, helping to open up doors and expand networks to create more public and private sector opportunities. This has driven a shift towards trying to recruit leaders from the commercial sector to find people with the skills and ability to deliver the transformation needed. Recently, these private sector appointments have been made to lead specific commercialisation change agendas, add value as a non-executive board member, or in the cases of DVSA and The Crown Prosecution Service, provide a Chief Executive. These cases demonstrate the need for a more transferable leadership skill set to land the biggest jobs in public service.

Measurement and development: setting leaders up to succeed

Given the new circumstances in which public sector leaders operate, organisations need to think more about measuring, assessing and developing leaders. Assessment processes need to go beyond traditional criterion, covering fit for the role, cultural fit and a personality fit for the team. Most senior public sector leaders join organisations in challenging times and have to make many hard decisions, fast. The expectation is on newly appointed leaders to hit the ground running and achieve success quickly. However, is the organisation itself doing everything it can to facilitate this?

It’s vital that leaders are given the right tools and processes to adjust quickly to their new post. This includes sufficient onboarding processes and training. Measurement, benchmarking and development play vital roles in setting up new appointments for success. For example, does the organisation know what success looks like for the first six months of a newly appointed leader? What about after the first year? Then, most importantly, new leaders need to be measured and benchmarked throughout their appointment to help them do the best possible job – as well as demonstrate success.

Measurement should not just be rough concepts and outcomes; it needs to be as granular as possible. If they are being brought in to manage change, what should the objectives be and within what timeline? Leaders should be measured frequently and also benchmarked, and their aims need to be realistic. Change doesn’t happen overnight, it happens incrementally. Measuring specific objectives and deliverables frequently will help bring a level of accountability that organisations and public sector constituents crave – but will also help leaders thrive.

Finally, leaders need help to develop into their role after their hire. This includes assessment, feedback, coaching and specific learning programmes. Ultimately the success of an organisation – large or small – depends on bringing out the best in the people; identifying, nurturing and retaining talent to find tomorrow’s leaders.

Final thoughts

Public sector organisations are facing a great deal of change and increasing scrutiny, so the stakes are certainly high for their leaders. They require a new way of thinking and working to help deliver vital services that the public sector offers, but that is in line with the new reality. Organisations have a key role to play to set themselves up for success. They must define the changes they want to see in the organisations, set clear and measurable objectives and outcomes. But they must go beyond this to also include behavioural outcomes and attributes of their leaders.

Jody Goldsworthy

Senior Partner





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