How would you describe your ideal public service leader?
I’m down on the hype about leadership. We make much too much fuss about it and should stop. The more we talk leadership, the more we get hubris. It’s time we recognize that management and leadership are two sides of the same coin. Nobody wants a manager who is not a leader, but nobody should want a leader who is not a manager. This idea that you can sit up on high and do the big stuff and everybody runs around doing the grunt work is very destructive. Instead, we need to build communities.
Are we saying that the Army officer in Afghanistan should have the same qualities as the person running the Canadian Mint? The range is rather wide. I’m a much bigger fan of engaging management than of heroic leadership. Public sector leaders really have to understand deeply, to be deeply engaged, to really know what’s going on, to know how to engage others and bring out the sort of energy in other people.
The whole issue of musical chairs in senior management is destructive. The managers I’ve seen who are effective are devoted to their department – how can you manage, say Parks Canada, unless you live, eat and breathe Parks.
Ontario’s Premier, Dalton McGuinty, described what he’s looking for in a public servant as someone who is “fearless in advice and loyal in implementation.” What are your thoughts?
All our studies of strategy and policy have demonstrated that you can’t easily separate formulation and implementation. To do so would imply a kind of Immaculate Conception – you’ve come up with a brilliant strategy and it just has to be implemented, as is. You think it through, work it all out, lock it in concrete in legislation. But when it comes time to implement, the feedback from field people who say, “hey, this isn’t working,” or “this could be modified” isn’t there. You need a feedback loop, to modify it during implementation. It’s a huge problem in government, the separation between those at the centre who think and those elsewhere who execute.
Also, you’re not going to last too long if you’re really fearless in advice to some people.
Middle Manager Pressures
In the last decade, mid-managers appear to carry the brunt of organizational stress: stripped of their support staff, downsized and work added. Do you have any advice?
It’s hard to give advice to middle managers. The people who need the advice are those who run the public service commission, or whoever is designing the whole system, because mid-managers are the heart and soul of the organization. They have the ear of senior managers and know what’s going on on the ground. After you move up to a certain level, you lose touch with operations. And if you’re too junior, you don’t have the broad overview. They are the critical people driving change, understanding things and making things better – the middle to senior, but not top level managers. My advice is to recognize they are the heart and soul of the organization.
In your book, Managers Not MBAs, you talk about art, craft and science in the management triangle. How would you apply that to accountability in particular?
I’m never sure of accountability because things are so intertwined in government. The idea in business is to chop things up so you can hold people accountable. You are accountable for sales in Alberta, so if sales go down in Alberta, it’s your fault; if they go up, you’re congratulated. Of course, if the product is junk you can’t sell, tough on you. But government encompasses so many things that it’s hard to generalize, and things are much more intertwined.
Frankly, in government and business, it’s destructive because a lot of measurement is short-term management. People say if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. So, show me who has ever measured management. If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it; so, if we can’t manage management, therefore, we better get rid of management. Who has ever assessed measurement quantitatively? In other words, the performance of measurement itself. I know no study that’s ever done that. Therefore, if you can’t measure measurement, you can’t manage measurement. Therefore, you should get rid of measurement. I’m always a bit puzzled about accountability and so on. It’s one of these words that’s a bit too big.
But if you go to art, craft, science – when I talk about engagement and knowing what you’re managing, I’m referring to craft. Craft is about experience, about involvement. Art is the creative side, insights, visions, seeing things more deeply and having a creative flair. It’s tougher in government. Looking back, medicare was an example – that was real art in coming up with it in the first place.
Science, the systematic analytic side, is critically important but much too over-emphasized, in business plans and formal planning – all the things that happen before there’s any action. Craft is about action, getting things done. Art is about doing it creatively and science is about doing it systematically. But there’s so much systematic before we begin, that sometimes we never get there.
Not everything that’s important can be measured. For example, course evaluations on a seven-point scale mean what? In our program we ask, “When you think about this session, what’s the first word that comes into your head?” So our assessment, if there’s 30 people in the room, is 30 words. You can tell very quickly if it was successful or not because you get words like “boring, so-so” or words like “wonderful, exhilarating.” It’s so much richer – some sessions you’re going to get “competent, well-done” and others you get “opened my mind, broadening” – two very different successful assessments. When you get assessments like that, you get much more room for judgment.
Accountability should be for results and for due process. Too many numbers and you drive out judgment. If it’s the Mint, you can do it. But a lot of things are inter-dependent. The minister is always accountable but can you chop it up and hold individual managers accountable?
Most of the boondoggles that make the press were known ahead of time within the organization, but insufficient action was taken to surface and fix it. Is this a failure of courage to speak up?
It sounds to me like it’s a failure of communication, it’s not getting through. In that respect, it’s courage because if it’s getting through to the people who could act but who don’t have the pressures to act, then you can say it’s courage. Sometimes it’s necessary to light a fire under people by having a headline in The Globe. They say a consultant is somebody who borrows your watch and tells you what time it is. Maybe that’s the role of the Auditor General – not to dig out these problems but to simply find out who’s already dug them out, verify and publicize them.
You need some way to feed it into Question Period or get it publicized by the Auditor General. But the system should be self-correcting. There’s so much pressure in government and so many things to worry about that