High potential, low possibilities – Canadian Government Executive

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May 7, 2012

High potential, low possibilities

It now appears that Canada will emerge earlier than expected from the economic recession that has ravaged job markets around the world for the past year. Both international and domestic government interventions have stemmed the massive decline in the capital and financial markets and have stabilized the plunging confidence of investors around the world. All this indicates that the Canadian economy is poised to recover some of its losses and to stabilize the deficit at the $50 billion level.   

While money has been directed to “shovel ready” projects around the country, the medium term challenge of all public sector organizations is ensuring that they have the right talent in place to take on the increasingly complex tasks of program delivery and financial oversight.  

Just as the public service is ramping up its efforts to take on these new responsibilities, the crushing impact of demographics led by baby boomer retirements is now beginning to take its toll on the composition of future workforces in both the public and private sectors in most developed countries.

It has often been noted by HR experts that the upcoming demand for talent will make the 1990s war for talent look like a “minor and temporary irritation.” For example, if the Canadian economy grows only 2% over the next fifteen years, the demand for senior managers would still rise by 33%. In a similar way, the number of employees aged 55 or older will soon rise to more than 40% of the total working population. Even more dramatic, it is anticipated that in 2050 more than 60% of the working population will be more than 60 years of age.  

As a consequence, it should be obvious that the public sector needs to develop a long-term strategic HR plan to win the inevitable talent war. In essence, they need to devote more attention to recruiting and retaining their best talent and to developing high potential talent internally. External recruitment at middle and senior management levels is both expensive and risky, especially when recruiting from the outside of government, so there should be a premium placed on efforts to develop a high potential talent program in governments across Canada.  

Recent evidence confirms what most observers of the public sector already know: public sector managers are different than those in the private sector, and while the differences are not profound they do suggest the need for specialized training programs that are different than EMBA programs that cater to private sector audiences.  

For example, in recently published research, it was reported that “senior leaders in the public sector are more focused on monitoring rules and procedures and feel less freedom in the way in which they can manage.” Public sector executives are also more focused on long-term issues and on finding innovative and conceptual solutions and spend less time on short-term results when compared to their private sector counterparts.

In another example, young senior leaders in the private sector have more room for self-development and more opportunity to experiment with new procedures and methods than comparable managers in the public sector. The differences between the management cultures of the two sectors suggest that the public sector needs to adopt a more dynamic career development process of its own to enable young potentials to develop their talent more quickly and grow into more senior positions.

Unfortunately, in Canada there are limited opportunities to develop those high potential individuals. Aside from the Advanced Leadership Program offered by the Canada School of Public Service for federal public servants and the Certificate Program in Public Sector Management at the Centre on Public Sector Management at the University of Ottawa, there are few formal opportunities for high potentials.

Given that the demand for strong management skills in the public sector will increase in light of the demographic changes and the increased demand for public services, there is an urgent need for the federal and provincial governments to work together to insure the development of the next generation of leaders.    

David Zussman holds the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa (dzussman@uottawa.ca).

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