Performance
May 7, 2012

Creating a high performance culture

CGE Vol.13 No.5 May 2007

“…however fast they went, they never seemed to pass anything. ‘You’d generally get to somewhere else – if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing,’ Alice said. ‘Here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!’ the Red Queen replied.”
– Lewis Carol, Through the Looking Glass

Recruiting the next generation of public servant leaders is and will continue to be a daunting task. In boardrooms across the nation people are asking: “How do we attract talent, and how do we keep them?”

Public Service Renewal is great in concept. However, it will only work if leaders recognize that the status quo is not sustainable or attractive to new talent. Working conditions and training models must be completely revamped. It’s also paramount leaders take into consideration that new talent is more clear and insistent on what they want from life and will not stay in an organization unless they get it.

The rising stars the public service wants to attract are energetic and highly educated. They have their futures mapped out to a certain extent and are focused on achieving them. They won’t settle into or be loyal to any organization that won’t support their idea of work/life balance.

New talent is attracted to managers who can help them accelerate their progress and support their growth. For most, loyalty to department or public service is secondary. They will stay if they like and respect their managers and the leadership; if they don’t have that respect, nothing will entice them to stick around. They want to be recognized for their unique strengths and talents, not be promoted because of a generic pool that might give them their level but not the environment to grow. In the current system – even with “best fit” practices in competitions – rarely do you get the right person in the right place. Jim Collin’s dictum of getting “the right people on the bus, then get them in the right seats” is not often met.

Those identified as possible leaders don’t want to work evenings and weekends. They want a balanced life and will fight to keep it. If they have to put in those hours, they will walk. It’s okay once in while, when there is a clear need, but not routinely because of overload or poor management planning. Their attitude is, “If we’re going to work ridiculous hours, we might as well be in business for ourselves and be compensated for it.”

Many public servants don’t feel they have a direct impact on the Canadian people. Their work is task-oriented without being placed in a big picture. As leadership changes, retires, or moves to other departments, organizational focus and mandate often changes. Many feel as if they’re in a tailspin, running at full speed to catch up, never mind evolve in any way, shape or form. It sometimes feels like Alice in Wonderland being told that to get somewhere, you must run twice as fast.

If you want highly engaged and skilled people performing critical tasks with professionalism and efficiency, then you have to assure them that the framework, the foundation within which they do their work, is efficient, focused and sustainable.

The Canada School of Public Service is striving to become a learning centre of excellence. Having training available is one thing; having the budget to deliver training is another. Coaching research bodies have been comparing classroom training to in-real-time, on-the-job training. Classroom settings work to a degree, but once people go back to the chaos of their offices, most of what they learned flies out the window. Does this training recognize individual talents and strengths of the participants or work on the common denominators? Rising stars want to be recognized for their individuality, not be lost in a sea of other executives by virtue of classification level. If the public service wants to attract these talented individuals, they have to recognize them as individuals.

We must look at both organizational climate and culture. Climate is related to leadership and management style based on values, skills, actions (not only words) and priorities of the leadership. It’s the ethical feel of the organization – whether we do things right, behave the way we should, how we treat each other. It is driven by the character of the current leadership.

Conversely, culture is the long-term being of the organization. It’s the shared expectations and image, the traditions, the “way we do things” mentality, and it is harder to change than climate.

Leaders are like chess players. They understand that all pieces move differently and have an impact all their own. They discover what is unique about each individual and capitalize on it. They assign roles and tasks based on this uniqueness. They also have to define a vision and a commonality that brings together the individualities to help the organization move forward. The trick is not compromising the individuals’ unique talents and strengths along the way.

From an executive coach’s point of view, and to understand the dynamics that will help evolve both an organization and the individuals within it, one should look at what will develop a high performance culture – as determined by it’s leaders. It’s challenging because the status quo prevents most rising stars from evolving to their level of excellence.

Right now the climate is burning talented people out as they’re tasked beyond endurance. These leaders of the future see their Directors General and Assistant Deputy Ministers take work home every night and weekend, and continually struggle to keep their heads above water. This burden gets driven down, and innovation and energy is killed as they’re tasked to death.

Leaders of the future will take jobs based on people and leave their jobs because of people – especially their immediate supervisor and their colleagues. A recent study shared at the International Coach Federation Research Symposium looked at what people want from their managers. In order of importance these were:
1.     Feeling that others trust/respect me
2.     Feeling challenged; feeling like I am growing
3.     Feeling competent and skilled
4.     Feeling good about myself
5.     Feeling excited about what I am doing or what is going on
6.     Being appreciated for who I am and what I do.

In contrast to the ideal, many rising stars actually feel that they are not respected, not valued as individuals, not recognized for their talents, nor challenged to their capabilities. They don’t receive positive feedback. When questioned individually, most feel as if their managers are never satisfied with their work, that they’re expected to work faster, better, make tighter deadlines and always be available via BlackBerry, phone, etc. Many feel their managers preach work/life balance but don’t practice it and expect them not to practice it as well.

New talent will look at and react to the actions of present leadership. Without major short-term changes to the organizational climate, sustaining the calibre of talent the public service needs to achieve its targeted future organizational culture likely won’t happen.

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