In May 2013, Prime Minister Harper announced the appointment of Dominic Barton to his Advisory Committee on the Public Service. Barton is the global managing director of McKinsey and Company. Four months later, Barton gave a speech at the 2013 Manion Lecture, sponsored by the Canada School of Public Service, called Leaders: The World is Changing. Are You? he spoke with editor-in-chief Toby Fyfe.
You said that governments need to “increase their metabolic rate.” What do you mean by that?
What I meant is they need to keep innovating their business model, how they serve their clients, how they operate internally, how they make decisions. The external world is changing quickly. Technology is coming into play. If you aren’t keeping abreast of changes and making sure that you’re the best at what you do, you will become irrelevant.
You use the term agility. Why is it difficult for governments to be agile?
One of the reasons it’s difficult is because there’s a culture of not wanting to make mistakes. We’re very professional; we do it right. There are committees that check on whether we’ve done things properly. That makes us less bold about wanting to try new things.
In many businesses, there are regulations and so forth, but I think there are far more degrees of freedom, perceived freedom, to try new things. 3M, which made the Post-It note, drive it into their business model to say, “We have to have, in five years, 30 percent of our revenues coming from businesses that don’t exist today.” They force innovation in as part of a metric to keep them going.
In government, there’s a more complex set of objectives. In business, we’re trying to improve profit of market share. In government, you’ve got multiple objectives, so I think that makes it difficult to measure it. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t change it, or modernize it.
Citizen trust in government is declining. How do we respond?
I think a good part of it is unfair, because people are mixing up the politics with what the public servants do. They don’t think that the food they’re eating at breakfast is because we’ve got very good safety standards. Who’s putting that in place? It’s the government.
I don’t think we’re explicit enough about explaining that it’s the core of the public service that is making this happen – our safety, the roads, everything working. I think where people get upset is when decisions aren’t made or there is a crisis or a some scandal. I think we have to do a much better job of explaining to Canadians the range of things that people are dealing with.
You made a point of saying that diversity is an advantage for government.
Diversity is important for the private sector, too, but in the public sector, you have a complex set of issues – everything from agriculture to the military – and I think you get better innovation and ideas when people can learn from each other. You see businesses that are now meeting with completely unrelated businesses, the pharma company that wants to meet with media people, not because they’re going to be a media company, but because they’ll get different ideas. One of the strengths of government is that you can bring together very different people, and you’ll have much more creative ideas and solutions.
You also argue for engaging young people.
I think all organizations are under-leveraging young talent. We should be getting people who’ve been in the public sector for two or three years to think about what the public sector’s strategy should be for the next 10-15 years. People say, what right do they have? But they’ll have very interesting, provocative ideas, and it gets them to learn and know more, and you’d be surprised at the ideas.
In McKinsey, we actually have some teams that can’t be old – they have to be young. They’re coming up with ways to reinvent who we are. They do that, and we also give younger people bigger roles early. So don’t be linear. Why don’t you grab a couple of 28- to 32-year-olds and say, you guys are going to figure out what we’re going to do here. They will grow like you wouldn’t believe. Or, if you’re worried about the risk, have two teams, a senior team and a junior team.
Can you explain your Chief Digital Officer concept?
With this new age of data, where we’re creating more data every two days than we have as humans over the last 2,000 years, organizations that can leverage that data effectively are going to have much more significant productivity improvements.
We need to be able to pull all that information together and figure out the information we’re going to use, how we’re going to curate it properly so that people can actually access it, how we are going to make sure that it’s shareable. What other data will we want to buy from other organizations to complement that? How will we ensure that the data insights are actually put into the business?
You need to have someone who owns that task. The Chief Digital Officer is very different from a CIO. A CIO makes sure the system works. The data person is different and typically the CIO reports into the CDO. That is one of the fastest-growing phenomena in the Fortune 100. President Obama has a Chief Technology Officer, Todd Park, focused on how the government uses its data to improve productivity and drive things.
Let me shift to leadership. You said the character of the leader is what’s truly important.
I think a lot of leadership in the past 20 years has focused on what the leader does: how you align the organization, how you develop a strategy, how you pick the right person to appoint or to replace. In today’s world, there has to be more focus on who the leader is, because you can’t really predict anymore what the world’s going to look like. You need someone who’s going to be able to have the muscle, if I can call it that, to understand how the world’s changed.
If you’re Best Buy, Kodak or Blockbuster, when do you decide, “We’re going to fundamentally change our business model?” Leadership becomes more a matter of how you deal with complexity. How good are you at being able to shift your focus quickly? How do you deal with stress? How do you manage your energy? A lot of leaders get into trouble because they run out of gas.
Then there’s this notion of purpose, which I think is a very important part of leadership. Why are you doing what you’re doing? You’ve got to remind yourself of that regularly and you’ve got to reinforce it. That keeps you stable, because you get so many weird things thrown at you, or people asking you strange things, even in your own organization. Much more effort has to go into understanding who people are. I believe you’re not born a leader, you train to be a leader. If you practice those things, you will be a better leader, but you have to practice it.
It’s very hard to identify someone like that.
It is, but you can look for leadership traits. If someone built something, did they take a risk? One thing we found is that leaders actually have more bad luck than people who are not leaders. Why is that? Leaders take way more risk. When they fail, they just get back up and keep going. They keep trying things. If you look at very successful people who become CEOs, if they’ve never had a crisis – a big one – and they have it when they’re the CEO, it usually goes wrong. I’m not saying put people in stressful situations, but give people a challenge where they’re going to find that everything doesn’t work on a straight line.
If you had one piece of advice to give the average manager who aspires to be a leader in the public service, what would you say?
I would say: what’s your dream? What gets you fired up? That’s something I polish, because there’s always going to be boring things you do, but you have to keep the mission high. What is it that you want to build?
I would be thinking about, where do I want to make a real difference for the country? What is it that I’m going to do? And I would just keep pushing that. Do not accept the status quo. And I don’t mean be a troublemaker, but challenge orthodoxies. That will make you a stronger leader, it will make the place better, it will take the metabolic rate up, and then you’ll be more successful.