Getting the right tools to those at the top

With complex goals, multiple sources of authority and a formalised structure, public sector leadership can be more difficult than in other sectors. Nevertheless, public sector organisations often place a greater emphasis on technical expertise than on leadership development. There needs to be more of a focus on leadership development as a proactive measure rather than a reactive one. The next crisis could be just around the corner so ideally, in a time of crisis, senior leaders should already be fully equipped with the skills they need instead of learning ‘on-the-job’ when it’s possibly too late. Their development should be considered an investment for the future, matched with the needs of the organisation, rather than a knee‑jerk reaction – and leaders need to understand why it could have a positive impact on public services and morale in the organisation and is therefore a good investment.

Difficult decisions
As Learning & Development (L&D) practitioners wrestle with ever-tightening purse strings in the face of harsh budget cuts, the public sector leaders are increasingly facing difficult decisions on a day to day basis.

Redundancies, pay freezes and decreases in daily spending are all distinct possibilities and so, if leaders are to deliver bad news to hundreds, often thousands of employees, they need to ensure their training is up to scratch. They need to display maximum adaptability, innovation, effectiveness and efficiency, especially in today’s era of weakening public trust in government and to some extent, the public sector itself.
Leadership isn’t an inherent trait of only a few exceptional people, but is a set of concrete skills, behaviours and knowledge that can be learnt and honed over time. So what does a leader need to learn to perform well in a difficult environment? No organisation is the same and the training should, of course, be bespoke to fit with the organisation’s needs. While a standard crisis management programme may suffice, a comprehensive leadership development programme could be what’s required. Whichever is needed, key areas of focus for a leader may include organisational agility, stakeholder management, emergency planning, and possibly related disciplines such as internal and external communications.
It’s also essential that the leader develops the skills to get the best performance out of his or her team of support staff. While the leader might be the figurehead of the organisation, his or her actions will depend on the interactions they have with their team, and so the ability to collaborate should also be a top priority.

Decision-making skills are also a must – while any significant decisions will be made in collaboration with a number of executives, the buck does eventually stop with the chief executive so they need to be able to make effective decisions. Similarly, some decisions have to be taken quickly, so the leader needs be aware not just of what takes priority and what matters less, but also what the implications of their decisions might be for the relevant stakeholders. 

Training to suit the individual
There isn’t a definitive environment which is bound to aid learning, but there’s undoubtedly been a shift in recent years to innovative learning methods which create a hands-on experience for the learner. Recent analysis by Portland State University of over 2,000 leaders and senior managers shows that fewer than one in five believe classroom courses are either essential or very useful in building their skills. At the same time, many are using mobile phones to access resources that help them do their job better. While it’s clear that public sector organisations need to have a concrete plan in place to equip their leaders with the skills they need to deal with tough times, there aren’t hard and fast rules about the content.
However, leadership development is clearly the most effective when it’s been tailored to suit not just the needs of the business, but the learning style of the leader too. L&D practitioners need to initiate dialogues with the leaders to get an idea of how they like to learn and the best way to manage their often very limited amount of time. The leader might best retain information by working with real-life examples, learning with immersive techniques such as roleplays and interviews, while others learn best through simple repetition exercises or accessing bite-sized pieces of content in their own time. Accessibility is an important consideration as time-poor leaders will want to access content using different means.

Everyone likes to view and access information in different ways, but whichever teaching styles are best, we all need time to reflect on our learning if we’re going to retain the information as effectively as possible. New mobile technologies mean that using an app to follow up from a training session – be it on the train, in a coffee shop or on the sofa – is becoming much more commonplace as a means of reflecting on learning. The opportunity to reflect and continue learning, then, is much more important than the environment where the learning itself takes place.

Leadership skills
The decrease in funding for L&D functions has caused a shift in the role of the practitioner. While previously they would likely be the sole provider of the training, now their responsibility can be more to act as a facilitator, bringing learners together with professionals who aren’t necessarily trainers themselves, but who already have the skills and experiences needed. For example, an essential skill for a leader is the ability to share bad news with the workforce. Instead of learning from an L&D practitioner, the leader may work with an in-house crisis communications team to learn their techniques from first-hand experience. Communities of practice are increasingly encouraged, with each member sharing whatever skills they can bring to the table. Anyone who has specialist knowledge can then act as a role model and as a ‘teacher’.
The L&D professional can go a step further in this regard, extending his or her role to content curation. In the same way a language tutor might source a range of external resources to enable learning such as a coursebook, a YouTube clip and a magazine clipping rather than creating the materials themselves, the L&D practitioner can be equally resourceful. TED talks, for example, can be a highly useful and engaging component of a training course and are often freely available. The provision of content on a budget has become less about designing it and more about bringing it together. An often untapped and huge source of content is the MOOC (massive open online course). Previously only used by top-end educational institutions such as Harvard and MIT, MOOCS are now entering the corporate sphere, having been adopted by such organisations as Marks & Spencer. Open to all employees regardless of their role, the Marks & Spencer corporate MOOC has enjoyed a fair degree of success – the take-up rate is in the thousands. The key, though, is to ensure that the whole journey from take-up to completion is encouraged. 

Return on investment
L&D practitioners preparing to pitch a learning intervention need to ensure that they’re making the strongest possible business case for taking it on. They need to ‘connect’ with the business, maintaining a presence in different parts of the organisation and positioning themselves as an influential strategic leader and effective change agent. The aim is to help shape the organisational direction as a whole. They can achieve this by, for example, attending departmental events and job-shadowing elsewhere in the organisation to gain a deeper connection with other business units. This kind of insight will ultimately improve performance and capability for both the individual and the business. There are few better ways to understand the needs of public sector leadership than by spending time shadowing and to see the challenges they face first-hand.
Another necessity to push the case for ongoing L&D for leadership roles is to use metrics to demonstrate the potential return on investment – what are the outcomes from the training that could potentially impact on the business? Better staff retention, increased revenue, more profit? It’s also possible that the practitioner will need to pitch to the learner themselves. Again, it’s all about making a definitive case for taking on the learning and outlining what’s in it for the learner – that they’ll learn new skills, stay up date, enhance their career and make the right decisions, with the right presence in different situations.
It seems likely that the public sector is set to feel the bite of austerity well into the next Parliament.

Organisational performance has been shown to be strongest when linked with strong leadership practices, and all organisations need to ensure that the figureheads at the top have the skills and abilities at their disposal to bring the organisation through the storm intact. To reiterate, L&D as a whole needs to increase its visibility and position itself as a key business function, assuring decision-makers of its relevance and justifying the allocation of both funds and time for leadership development programmes in good times, and in preparation for the journey ahead.

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