CommunicationDevelopmentInnovationsLeadership
July 5, 2017

Fostering generational change in leadership

Excellence in leadership is instrumental in serving the public interest. New-age leaders merge the principles of good governance and sound management to foster integrity, innovation, and accountability in public service. They see the big-picture possibilities of connecting the dots in inclusive workplaces peopled by an intergenerational workforce.

There is no time like the present for new public servants to aspire to a new brand of leadership in a changing public sector environment. And ‘there is no present like the time’ to learn from a legacy of selfless service and to inform the leadership requirements ahead. Our job is to teach the next generation what it means to be better than us.

Public administration legend Ian Macdonald reflected on the challenge: “To understand leadership after 60 years of observation, after many years of exploring the literature, after the last 10 years when I’ve served on the advisory committee of the leadership program at the University of Guelph, I’ve concluded that there’s no [hard-and-fast] definition of leadership. Rather, it’s like a teabag, you really don’t know how it’s going to perform until it’s in hot water.”

What is the new baseline that the next generation needs to know to serve the public good with distinction? What are the educational essentials and teaching implications of the New Public Leadership emerging? How will public administration schools develop a new generation of public service leaders?

Publish or perish

Twenty-five part-time Master of Public Policy, Administration and Law students at York University—many Millennials—were asked to anticipate and prioritize the needs. They wrote original articles as part of Fall 2016 coursework in PPAL 6000 Public Management. Five were selected to be posted and/or published by Canadian Government Executive. The first one, by Juan Alvarez, appeared in the March/April issue.

Three themes emerged on what new public servants need in order to be effective and advance on the job, in their career, and through education.

  • Learning leadership on the job. Today’s diverse workforce and virtual workplaces are shaped by values-driven, citizen-centred, empowering, situational, transformational, collaborative leaders. Teamwork, communities of practice, and horizontal management network hierarchical government. Training is 70% learning by doing, 20% from other people, and 10% in the classroom.
  • Nurturing public service careers. Public sector development suffers in the absence of whole-of-government succession planning. Millennials are bright, brash, participatory, social media natives who are short on worldly experience, institutional memory, and career versatility. They look to realistic, enabling career strategies — appraisals, assessment centres, mentorships, lateral programs.
  • Investing in higher education. The new normal for Millennials is a Master’s degree. Canada’s 22 public administration schools feature life-long, experiential, reciprocal learning in part or full-time graduate and executive development programs. Learning outcomes benchmark return on investment by deploying cost-effective scholar-practitioners and accelerated MPAs.

Game-changing strategies

During five years at York University, there has been a steady patter of students to my door seeking advice on public service careers. Most are students in my classes, but some come by word of mouth. Undergraduates are typically looking for straight talk on ways to gain a foothold from someone who plied his trade in all spheres of government over four-plus decades.

Grad students are also interested in entry to the public service but want to know how to get ahead. They are relatively new professionals or first-time managers with limited experience who want to accelerate their career path. These consultations are mutually beneficial when they enhance students’ experiential learning while informing my teaching and research.

Recent episodes convinced me to build more advice into coursework and to have integrated strategies at hand when giving advice ad hoc or at career events. The ten points below begin with the letter ‘I’, forming a mnemonic that underscores personal responsibility for career development. Together with real-world experience and storytelling, they offer a framework and possible takeaway for students.

John Wilkins is Executive in Residence: Public Management at York University. He was a career public servant and diplomat. (jwilkins@schulich.yorku.ca)

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John Wilkins

John Wilkins is Executive in Residence: Public Management at York University. He was a career public servant and diplomat. (jwilkins@schulich.yorku.ca)

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