Enter the era of enterprise: leadership in the 2020s

By on 05/09/2019
Let me count the ways: Nancy Chahwan, chief HR officer overseeing Canada’s workforce, says today’s leaders need a wide range of new skills

Civil services are ill-equipped to handle today’s fast-moving technological, economic and social challenges. At the Global Government Summit, top officials from nine countries explored the pioneering, enterprising model of leadership required in the modern world. Matt Ross reports

“The future isn’t what it used to be,” said Nancy Chahwan; rapid technological and social changes, she argued, are making it increasingly difficult to predict how the challenges facing governments will evolve. There is, she added, an “ambiguity about the future state of things”, and “it is in these times of ambiguity and unpredictability that leadership becomes a key element of success for organisations.”

As Chief Human Resources Officer at the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, Chahwan oversees HR policy, talent management and union relations for the country’s 250,000 federal officials. And at a session on ‘Developing the next generation of civil service leaders’ at the 2019 Global Government Summit – which brought top officials from nine countries together in Singapore earlier this year – she challenged governments’ traditional dependence on top-down decision-making and rigid, vertical structures. Today’s top managers, she pointed out, operate in an environment where stakeholder management, co-design and citizen engagement are becoming ever more important.

“The organisations that we developed in a hierarchical world must adapt to an interconnected world with distributed powers; that means very complexified leadership roles, and very complexified expectations of our leaders,” she said. “So we need enterprise leaders: we need people who can corral the different voices, and leverage the performance not only of their teams, but also of people beyond their organisations.”

In a more agile, permeable and innovative civil service, said Chahwan, leaders must be “ready to hear the voices of the frontline, and their ideas will not flow through the very slow pyramid route.” Civil servants from outside her organisation regularly message her directly via Twitter, she added, highlighting problems in policy decisions or service delivery – “and if I think their idea is a good one, I’ll reach out and talk to that employee. We can’t do this all the time; but when I see something that’s really relevant, I can’t afford to ignore that voice.”

Chahwan’s presentation emphasised the pressures placed on civil service leaders by fast-moving technological, economic and social changes

Human skills for the digital era

Singapore is facing many of the same challenges, said Yong Ying-I, Permanent Secretary of the Public Service Division in the city-state’s Prime Minister’s Office. “We used to be a technocratic civil service,” she said. “I think we now need leaders who are politically savvy; social media savvy. We need to be able to navigate complex political environments with multiple stakeholders; to build coalitions of the willing so that we can move the whole of the Singapore community forward.”

And Yong Ying-I was equally aware of the difficulty of shaping roles and developing individuals in an environment where the trajectories and capabilities of future technologies are increasingly hard to predict. When considering candidates for the post of Singapore’s Chief Statistician, she said, she’d found that her first task lay in predicting how the country’s use of statistics would evolve – shaping the postholder’s role and goals. So rather than finding the best person to slot into the existing set-up, she explained, she faced the questions: “Where is the stats department going? What would the future Chief Statistician job look like? And how do we then prepare this person, not for the Chief Statistician job of yesterday, but the Chief Statistician job of tomorrow?”

So recruitment and promotion methods must change to meet today’s needs. But the bigger issues lie in civil service processes and cultures; for leaders can only innovate in a permissive environment. “We have a very good value proposition, and we’re hiring the cream of the crop,” commented Chahwan. “But if they come in and are faced with a leadership that’s following the old model, we’re running into a disengagement issue. Employees are saying: ‘You hired me because I was innovative, but every time I want to bring an idea forward I’m told it’s not a priority or I need seven layers of approvals’.” Over 80% of Canada’s civil servants say their leaders encourage them to innovate, she added, but in some areas managers still focus on trying to minimise risk.

Yong Ying-I, Permanent Secretary of the Public Service Division in Singapore’s Prime Minister’s Office: “We used to be technocratic… We now need leaders who are politically savvy; social media savvy”

Selecting for risk-aversion

In part, commented former UK Cabinet Secretary Lord O’Donnell, this risk-aversion reflects a logical reaction to the approach taken by many politicians and media outlets. When he used to appear before parliamentary select committees, he recalled, it was “not to explain my successes, but to explain why something had gone wrong. So we bias the system massively towards killing people for failure.”

But the problem runs deep, commented another delegate: consultants commissioned to examine the people selected for leadership programmes in their civil service found that the system prioritised strong technical and cognitive abilities over emotional intelligence and leadership skills. “Unless we’re deliberately recruiting all the most risk-averse people in the population, we’re doing something terrible to our recruits,” they said. “Just at the moment we’re saying that the qualities we want in our future leaders are that they’re visionary and entrepreneurial and engaging, we’re breeding a group of people who are almost the reverse of that.”

So there’s a need for active talent management throughout civil service organisations, said Chahwan – reaching well beyond senior leaders to shape the next generation of top officials. And Canada, she added, is rebuilding its own talent management systems around a “character-based leadership” approach.

Former UK Cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell: “We bias the system massively towards killing people for failure”

Recruiting personalities, not just competences

Traditionally, she explained, promotions and appraisals focused on individuals’ experience and their “key leadership competences: do they know how to mobilise a team, engage partners, drive change?” But the new system also considers their “attributes” – meaning “does the person have grit, determination, adaptability, flexibility, resilience? Do they have a growth mindset, and are they an inclusive leader?”

Alongside these changes to talent management, Canada is also reforming its systems for performance management and calculating total compensation. The latter, which covers how work is organised and valued, is being tweaked to emphasise specialist skills alongside traditional metrics such as budget-holding and line management responsibilities.

Canada’s leadership selection and development systems are being rebuilt to promote a more inclusive, collaborative style of management

All these changes, Chahwan continued, are captured in the civil service’s Beyond 2020 strategy, which sets out a vision for an “agile, inclusive and equipped” federal workforce.

To become more agile, she said, the civil service must “embrace uncertainty and learn through experimentation.” And that demands a very different approach to risk: one in which people are encouraged and trained not to minimise risks, but to identify them, set out mitigation strategies, secure the consent of colleagues and ministers, and track them throughout the project. “We hire for credibility and credentials, but we also need to hire for courage,” she said, “because in an ambiguous and unpredictable world, we need leaders who are okay with taking risks.”

Inclusivity is just as important, said Chahwan – and not just in terms of diversity, but also in embracing functional specialists and creating “an environment where individuals feel safe to express themselves. We need leaders who don’t silence divergent voices.” In fact, she added, “we need to go further and actually reward the people who speak up in a credible manner to challenge a decision.”

The third strand of the strategy focuses on providing staff with the right tools, systems and workspaces. “But all of this will fail if we don’t pay attention to the culture,” she concluded. “Our change management route will be through mindsets and behaviours.”

The heart of the matter

To secure that wider cultural change, commented Rosemary Huxtable – Secretary of Australia’s Department of Finance – it’s essential that the centre of government models the right behaviours. “Central agencies set the tone for how government operates,” she said. “If we have a dictatorial, punishing style, then the whole of government operates in that way.”

And central units – further from the frontline, unused to building coalitions, and often staffed by officials who’ve spent their career at the centre – can be the most uncomfortable with today’s approaches to decision-making, leadership and risk management. “To be successful as a central agency, we have to be solutions-focused. And to do that, we need staff who can see the broader context, form partnerships, engage with external inputs,” said Huxtable. “And that’s really hard: it’s a lot easier just to lay down the law.”

Rosemary Huxtable, Secretary of Australia’s Department of Finance: if central agencies “have a dictatorial, punishing style, then the whole of government operates in that way”

Again, Canada’s focus on bringing in diverse perspectives and specialist professional skills was mirrored in Singapore’s approach to skills and recruitment. “One of the concepts we inherited from the British, from the colonial administrative service, was a belief in generalists,” said Yong Ying-I. “We’ve recognised in recent years that we really need a much greater emphasis on professional, specialist, sectoral tracks as well.”

To boost recruitment of specialist professionals, she explained, “we’re looking at centrally guided efforts to review pay, enhance career paths and raise the calibre of talent.” The government is considering offering scholarships to boost its intake of technical experts, and promoting start-up internships, overseas job placements, study visits and international placements to diversify people’s experiences and skill sets.

Singapore’s approach to developing civil service leaders seeks to balance delivering today’s outcomes with transformation for tomorrow, and internal leadership with external stakeholder engagement, Ms Yong Ying-I explained in her presentation

Avoiding all risk is really risky

But it’s not sufficient to bring in a cadre of experts; for they won’t be able to achieve their objectives unless the wider civil service body understands and supports their missions. “We need to build a pool of leaders with broader and more diverse perspectives than the past generation,” commented Yong Ying-I, explaining that operational, frontline and project management posts are being built into the career paths of policy officers; 20,000 officials have undertaken data analytics courses; and permanent secretaries are being trained in digital tools.

So Singapore is building the capabilities for change. But as Yong Ying-I pointed out, making use of those capabilities will demand new forms of leadership – accepting and managing risk, for example, and making difficult decisions around removing staff who prove unable to change. “Given disruptive changes, the civil service will only be relevant if we continually innovate,” she said. “So leaders need to get ahead of their organisations in terms of risk-taking. To encourage our officers to iterate, to prototype, we have to help them to manage risks – and to continually reassure them that when things to wrong, they won’t be punished.”

It also requires that civil service leaders act as a collective: Singapore, she said, needs “leaders who are strong in systems thinking: people who can see the inter-relatedness and the interdependency of issues, and agree to collaborate to move the government agenda forward.” So risks must be collectively owned, avoiding the temptation to let individuals carry the can for failed initiatives. And agency chiefs must make sacrifices for the common goal: “Are you prepared to sub-optimise your agency’s outcomes if it achieves a better system optimisation?” asked Yong Ying-I.

To build this sense of collective leadership, she added, civil service chiefs are undertaking training, getting together for team-building days, and being given cross-government responsibilities. “So you could be the chief executive of an agency, but you’re also the champion for building a functional or specialist community as a horizontal.”

This is not an easy road, said Yong Ying-I. “There are tensions between sustaining excellence today – which requires compliance, discipline, systematic organisation – and the desire to collaborate and disrupt and change things.” And up-and-coming leaders are being asked to “drop the model of success that got them this far,” she added. “It’s very hard for them to accept that it’s not now going to work to take them forward.”

Look to your successors, not your predecessors

That point struck a particular chord with Chahwan. “When I’m giving a speech to executives, I tell them: ‘You grew up in an organisation with a traditional model of hierarchy. But if you try to emulate that model and think it’s what your employers are expecting today, you will fail’,” she said.

In a way, concluded Yong Ying-I, Singapore’s civil service leaders are being asked to return to an earlier model – reprising the days when the city-state was forging new institutions following its independence in 1965. “The first generation of civil servants in young Singapore, by definition, were pioneers: they had to create from scratch,” she said. “The second generation were builders, adding to what the first generation had made. The third generation are managers, operating in a pretty stable environment.

“The risk is that we could now have operators: people who inherited a system and run it, without fully understanding why it is the way it is or how it could be improved. But we need to fundamentally disrupt and transform it, without destroying the whole. So the question is: can today’s civil servants be pioneers once more?”

This is part five of our report on the 2019 Global Government Summit, held in Singapore earlier this year. Part one covers the introductory speech by Leo Yip, Head of the Singapore Civil Service – who focused on the dangers of today’s global and social tensions, and the challenges around trust, technology and transformation facing government. Part two reports on former UK Cabinet Secretary Lord O’Donnell’s presentation and Q&A on the next global recession. Part three explores how civil service leaders in Finland and New Zealand have built new systems and processes to focus governments’ work on a few key priorities. Part four discusses the very human skills required to adopt and deploy emerging technologies in government. And in part six, we report on the final session of the Summit, in which delegates debate the leadership, project development and public engagement skills required to rebuild services for the modern world.


Global Government Summit 2019 attendees

In alphabetical order by surname

Civil servants:

  • Natalie Black, Her Majesty’s Trade Commissioner, Asia Pacific, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, United Kingdom
  • Nancy Chahwan, Chief Human Resources Officer, Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, Canada
  • Stephanie Foster, Deputy Secretary, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Australia
  • Rosemary Huxtable, Secretary, Department of Finance, Australia
  • Sirpa Kekkonen, Head of Government Strategy Secretariat, Prime Minister’s Office, Finland
  • Ng Chee Khern, Permanent Secretary, Smart Nation and Digital Government, Prime Minister’s Office, Singapore
  • Dato’ Haji Suhaime bin Mahbar, Deputy Director-General of Public Service (Operations), Public Service Department, Malaysia
  • Gabriel Makhlouf, Treasury Secretary and Chief Executive, Treasury, New Zealand
  • Gus O’Donnell, Lord and former Cabinet Secretary, House of Lords and IMF, United Kingdom
  • Peter Ong, Chairman-Designate of Enterprise Singapore, Senior Economic Advisor, Ministry of Trade and Industry, Singapore
  • Taimar Peterkop, State Secretary, Estonia
  • Jacqueline Po, Deputy Secretary, Strategy Group, Singapore
  • Mikhail Pryadilnikov, Deputy Director, Analytic Center for the Russian Government, Russia
  • Dmitry Yalov, Deputy Chairman, Government of Leningrad Region, Russia
  • Tan Ching Yee, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Finance, Singapore
  • Yong Ying-I, Permanent Secretary, Public Service Division, PMO, Singapore
  • Leo Yip, Head of Civil Service, Singapore

Knowledge partners:                                  

  • Steve Bennett PHD, Director, Public Sector and Financial Services Practice, Global Industry Practices, SAS Institute
  • Vidhya Ganesan, Partner, Digital Government, McKinsey & Company       
  • Giselle Ho, Head of our Government Practice, SAS Institute Singapore

Global Government Forum:

  • Matt Ross, Editorial Director, Global Government Forum
  • Kevin Sorkin, Chief Executive, Global Government Forum

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

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