This article first appeared in the April/May 2014 edition of Government News.
By Dr Marianne Broadbent
In working with a number of groups of executives and managers over the past 12 to 18 months, I have been struck by different attitudes to diversity in one’s career. When an organisation is seeking individuals who can do things differently, it can be hard to find them internally if a large percentage of your staff have never worked anywhere else, or if they not been sufficiently curious about how work gets done elsewhere. The challenge is less if your organisation is very large with many different components. You might have been able to experience multiple different ways of doing things in different types of businesses or services.
But if it is just large with the same or similar processes, products or services in every area, then it can be challenging to think really innovatively or tackle a problem in a completely different way. How diverse has your career been to date? Have you had the opportunity to go into new or different areas in your organisation – or in another organisation? What did you learn from that? How has it informed the way you look at situations? To what extent do you have multiple lenses to look at problems, or different types of experiences to provide you with a broader context for action?
Getting the balance right
In the public sector, some movement is usually encouraged. But make sure that that movement progresses or broadens your experience base. And of course too much ‘moving around’ can mean that you never get to experience the ‘fallout’ from what you have commenced, or partially implemented. Be warned, though, you are likely to get a reputation for not ‘staying around’ to deal with the reality of implementation. In a nine year period, three years each in three different roles is usually better for your career, learning and development than four or five different roles in nine years.
A few weeks ago I was in conversation with a well performing manager (let’s call her Janine) about some options her organisation had offered her. She had worked in the IT group in two large organisations in her 25 year career, initially in applications roles and was a senior Program Director. She reported to one of the CIO’s direct reports. Her dilemma was that she was being offered a line role, running a customer service centre. Her initial reaction was to decline this opportunity as it would ‘take her away’ from her IT career. I had a different reaction, seeing it as a great opportunity and one which, after some due diligence, she should grab with open arms. We were each surprised at the other’s reactions. I was again reminded of the sort of breadth that we see clients looking for every day – not just in IT-focused careers, but more generally.
Diversity as a Differentiator
Over the past six to 12 months my colleagues and I have developed and assessed candidate pools for many different roles in the public, not-for-profit and commercial sectors. In addition we have looked at the capabilities and development needs of dozens of individuals as part of leadership teams for development, talent management and succession planning. A key differentiator in the background of these leaders and managers is the diverse nature of their experience.
What we, and our clients, look for is variety of experience, built on curiosity and enough depth in one area, that might have been gained in the first seven or eight years of a career. For example, where has Janine, or Charlie, or Gordon gone outside his or her comfort zone and really stretched themselves? Where did they take a calculated risk in their career and back themselves? What is the spread of their domain experience? How close have they really been to their constituency, whether it be citizens, customers or consumers?
It is very hard to be a credible candidate for a senior role, in any area, without some diversity of experience. A key element of the succession planning we have worked on in the public sector is the extent to which the background of individual executives and managers has real breadth in both strategic policy shaping and strategic execution. While you don’t have to be fabulous at both, being great at one and having a reasonable level of competence in the other makes for a well-rounded public servant.
We not infrequently see the situation where a senior public servant who has moved from a state government to the federal sphere is great at service delivery but needs some ‘rounding’ in the policy area. This might be gained from a well-designed period of 18-24 months in a central agency. And the reverse is also true. We have worked with Secretaries, Directors-General and CEOs to provide real operational experience for some whose background has been in the policy domain to the virtual exclusion of operational and real service delivery experience.
Of course, this needs to be done in a thoughtful, deliberate and risk managed way. The benefits though have been very significant. If you have worked in a very large internationally focused organisation, you might have had the opportunity to work in different areas, different geographies and cultures, and on a variety of projects. You might have had a secondment to a supplier or a customer – something that we find is a great development opportunity. In the public sector, we are starting to see this approach also, whether between agencies or between an agency and service provider.
But for most of us, it might be necessary to shift organisations to get the sort of experience that will provide new ways of looking at problems, the ability to deal well with ambiguity, and a different set of tetchy senior executives to deal with. Increasingly spending a period of time with a service provider or a consulting organisation can provide great experience seeing things from ‘the other side’. It also helps to be a really great client of consulting companies and service providers – demanding but informed – something which should be a core capability for all executives today. Experience in starting up and closing down a service can be ‘character building’ and usually provides a lot of ‘lessons learnt’.
I well remember asking a senior public servant, now a Departmental Secretary, what he believed were his two most significant achievements in the past seven years or so. He responded that the first achievement, in the latter years of the Howard government, was shaping and building a new policy in a particular area and the organisation to deliver this. His second achievement was dismantling that for the Rudd government – and undertaking both of these in the best way that he could.
While you don’t need to have embraced all of these experiences, take some time to consider the breadth and depth of your experience base now. If it looks like your background might be a bit too narrow, then it might be time to be proactive about expanding your experiences – either inside or outside your current organisation.
Dr Marianne Broadbent is senior partner, with leadership consultancy, EWK International. firstname.lastname@example.org, www.ewki.com
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