Leadership
November 13, 2014

Stewards of innovation: Leaders in the middle

Stewardship of public service renewal and reform is critical in times of austerity and uncertainty. Middle managers, acting as stewards of innovation, are instrumental in collaborating on change management across networked government. Of strategic interest are the senior executives who foster the climate for change and the management teams that do most of the in-house missionary work to renew the public service from the middle out.

Leadership practice has been running ahead of theory for some time. The dilemmas for public leaders are clear – no public sector reform without capacity development, no transformation in today’s networked government without collaborative leadership, no innovation without the stewardship of strategic leaders.

Good leaders are needed at all levels of government and management. They offer non-partisan pastoral care for those who champion innovation against the odds. They help create a sense of community among public servants at the centre of government, on the frontlines, and in the middle of the system. They are stewards of public service renewal and reform who network government to develop capacity, institutionalize change, and account for results. More and more are situated in the middle and transcend boundaries and roles to make a difference.

New evidence
The literature signals the importance of leadership and networks in innovation. Analysis of the 2011-12 Commonwealth International Innovations Awards revealed two unexpected developments:

1.    More than 80 percent of innovations are championed by teams led by senior or middle managers, followed by freelance field operatives and politicians; and
2.    More than 80 percent of innovations deploy some form of partnership, whether intragovernmental, intergovernmental, public-private, or public-private-people.

These findings do not square with conventional wisdom about who leads innovation and the degree to which innovations feature collaboration. However, new evidence in Sandford Borins’ just-published The Persistence of Innovation in Government is consistent with these findings.

Emerging patterns
Surveys and interviews with experts and practitioners confirmed signs of an alternative public service change management model.

Central agency managers are popularly thought to be the “natural change leaders” in government due to position power, access to power, reach and influence. However, the centre of government is also seen as part of the problem. Roles at the centre are viewed as less credible and effective in shepherding public service renewal and reform. Public service policy, program, and communication advice is discounted in central government’s top-down orientation. But the frontlines and middle management are more likely to be entrusted to carry the innovation torch.

Frontline managers are popularly thought to be the “natural change agents” in government. Their influence is underestimated at first because innovations can appear quite technical. However, their visibility, access and reach as field operatives for central government enable them to compete favourably for tactical opportunities. Communication and partnering remain valued networking roles, and policy is informed by frontline relations. Their continuing relevance is consistent with empirical studies and stories of “local heroes” associated with innovation awards.

Middle managers are popularly thought to be too limited in status, power, access and reach to influence change. Instead, they are emerging as the true change makers and disciples of reform in this era of networked government and collaborative leadership. These traditional targets of public service downsizing and restructuring now appear needed more than ever in tough times. Roles in the middle show the greatest potential for championing strategic innovation.

Middle managers are loyal to the public service but worldly enough to garner support at the political-administrative interface. They are schooled in transformational skills but rely upon collaboration to transcend boundaries and upon stewardship to leverage resources. Their impact on change is greatest when their cause aligns central government priorities and frontline intelligence.

Leaders in the middle coordinate stakeholder relationships among politicians, citizens and businesses, normally the territory of the front lines. They also integrate policy, budget and special interests, normally the purview of central government. They network beyond their domain to improve how government works, commensurate with their institutional roles and leadership capabilities. Their stewardship of sustainable culture, team and capacity building confounds today’s quick-fix mentality.

Leadership roles
In the current budget climate, many are inclined to go with the flow rather than challenge assumptions, values, and the way things are done. Instead of innovation, ‘group think’, compliance and reactive behaviours can become deep-seated. Public servants must balance doing a good job, navigating organizational context, and managing people with mastering their spheres of influence – upwards, across, downwards.

Middle managers play a strategic role in managing people and budgets at the interface between policy development and program outcome. Most love their jobs and have the passion, ethic and humility to succeed. They also grapple daily with public service alienation and discontent. They must be empathetic team leaders who tend to two-way communication, employee engagement and talent management. Their networking, collaboration, stewardship and innovation roles are in high demand.

Leadership development
Along with young professionals, middle managers have the most to gain from renewal efforts like Blueprint 2020. Managers at all levels are expected to exemplify the strategic leadership competencies necessary to cultivate innovations that satisfy the needs of Canadians. Being strategic means filling gaps in experience and exercising sound judgement.

The 2011 Public Service Employee Survey found that 35 percent of employees feel that individuals with the right skills are not being hired. Mandatory training starts at executive levels and rarely extends to on-the-job learning, mentoring and experiential assignments. New or middle managers are left to chart their own career course and to scrounge opportunities. Progress depends upon their supervisor’s ability to identify needs and allocate resources.

Deputy ministers set the tone for policy, standards, and investment in leadership development. There is inconsistent evidence of competency-based hiring and promotion. The default is for inexperienced managers to be promoted prematurely under “ordeal by fire.” If leadership development begins earlier in a manager’s career, baseline training can be augmented by experience, requiring less intensive downstream remediation. A lifecycle approach builds stronger leadership capacity at lower cost.

Leadership values
Authentic leadership is elusive. Personal values and motivations shape attitudes and behaviours. “Walking the talk” moulds character and helps build trusting relationships. Knowing your capabilities is the start of learning competence. A new brand of ethical leadership that exercises strategic competencies is needed in the public service.

A lingering question is what comes first – good governance or good leadership? Many say that one cannot exist without the other. But what seems true is that good governance can survive bad leadership, whereas effective leadership is rarely sustained under a governance regime without virtue.

Cases in the news show how institutional governance responds in different situations. Toronto City Hall is strong and resilient enough to survive the wrongdoings and shenanigans of a “loose cannon” of a Mayor. Citizens have an option to choose new leadership at the next election. The Senate of Canada is so antiquated and entrenched that it is under siege because of scandals and irresponsibility on all sides. The only viable option left is institutional reform.

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