Best Practice
July 6, 2012

The right stuff: Improving executive resilience

Across the country, public sector leaders are challenged with the daunting task of managing change and transition while delivering business results with fewer resources and increased scrutiny of their performance. They need to rely increasingly on resilience in order to strive for excellence and recover from adversity.

While much has been done to modernize HR policies and practices in recent years to support our public sector leaders, including significant investments in management basics and competencies, there remain significant gaps in how we develop leadership resilience. Based on data gleaned from 360-assessments of more than 1,200 public sector executives, there are at least three aspects of resilience that need attention: deference to authority, managing uncertainty, and balancing action and influence.  

Deference to authority
Public sector executives need to be dedicated, trustworthy and loyal within the context of serving the public good and operate responsibly within the authorities delegated from Parliament through ministers. However, there is empirical evidence to suggest that a growing number of today’s executives are showing signs of extreme deference to authority manifested somewhat by blind acceptance of assigned tasks, established procedures, rules and regulations within their organizations. Organizational theorists would characterize such environments as “command and control” and “need to know” where the core power base is held by an upper echelon of leaders.

In such environments, especially in the current climate of seeking budget reductions and improved efficiencies, it may be more advantageous for executives to “go with the flow” rather than to challenge basic assumptions, values and ways of doing things. The danger of this type of “group think,” in its extreme form, is that it can prevent both current and future executives from speaking “truth to power,” and from providing bold, professional advice when and to whom it is needed.

What’s worse, compliance is encouraged ahead of creativity and innovation, speed and efficiency are rewarded more than comprehensive treatment of issues and, ultimately, the quality of decisions and actions may compromise the public good.

A second, related, issue is the emerging submissiveness of our executive cadre. While professionalism and respect are core values that need to be upheld, being overly polite and not speaking up is problematic. Research shows that in some cases, executives prefer not to make waves or rock the boat in situations involving people they know they will be interacting with again in the future. Others appear to put a good deal of trust in the goodness of others and do not want to come across as breaching that trust.

In other cases, executives seem ready to suppress individual desires and self-sacrifice if necessary or “do whatever it takes” to achieve organizational goals. And, there are signs that a growing number of executives are micro-managing their work environment, re-doing the work of employees, and protecting less able members rather than dealing with the management issues head-on.

The consequence of such behaviours may mean that executives do not “take their space” by demonstrating assertiveness in the right instances, e.g., to stand up against domination or one-track thinking, to prevent dependency and unrealistic trustfulness, to unify team members in key situations, etc. Many such executives fail to seek clarification or to question basic assumptions due to fear or embarrassment, and the resulting submissive behaviour sends mixed signals at best and leads to poor results at worst.

Managing uncertainty
In today’s ever-changing, fast-paced, environment public sector executives are being asked to manage ambiguity and change at every level of the organization. They need to understand the context, the structure, the strategy, the people and the process of change in order to make the right decisions at the right time and for the right reasons. They need to do this regularly to achieve authenticity and trust.

Evidence suggests that many executives are finding it difficult to break away from their own, and others’, vested interests associated with maintaining the status quo. The result is often seen as an attachment to established, or “correct,” ways of doing things that some characterize as conservatism or rigidity in behaviour.

Other executives appear to have difficulty managing the fine line between competing, but necessary, tensions or conflicts such as: being tough-minded yet empathetic; pushing the change yet waiting for it to take effect; building a sense of urgency while trying to maintain calmness; being strong as an individual while trusting others; being optimistic yet realistic; etc. Conflict of a cognitive nature – over basic goals, norms, procedures, expectations – is not only normal but it is healthy. Today’s executives need to know how to manage conflict and to leverage it to their advantage.     

Invariably, successful change requires effort that, sooner or later, tends to disturb the equilibrium of a group. It requires changes in role, changes in attachments one has to particular people, things or processes. The strength to manage ambiguity comes from within and appears to others in various ways, e.g., clarity, calmness, vision, direction, empathy, etc. These skills can be acquired through the right measure of learning and experience.

The balancing act Very few executives have the ability to manage equally what can be described as the spheres of action and the spheres of influence.

Public sector executives toggle their time between focusing on doing a good job (and under increasing metrics of scrutiny), navigating through an ever-changing organizational context, and being good “people” managers. It can be argued that all three are important, especially these days where efficiency and effectiveness are assumed and how one does the job is as important as the job one does.

The second and equally formidable challenge facing executives is the ability to successfully manage their spheres of influence which can be thought of in a 360-degree manner: upwards (bosses, senior management, DM community, ministers), across (colleagues and peer networks both inside and outside the organization), and downwards (direct reports, indirect reports, contractors, etc.) Some executives appear to put more energy into managing upwards at the expense of their staff and peer relationships while others seem to thrive in liaison functions or task force roles that are away from direct line management.

Ultimately, public sector leaders today need to balance all of these spheres without losing site of the main goal of serving the public good.

Call to action
One way to remedy these deficiencies is by using an integrated talent management approach that links together core building blocks of development and retention, namely performance management, leadership development and succession planning. In other words, performance feedback that is honest, accurate and consistent helps identify the behavioural gaps. Those gaps need to be addressed through formal and informal learning and development activities tied closely to on-the-job performance.

Finally, a career pathway linked to longer-term succession planning helps round out executive experience, know-how and abilities. Neither building block, alone, is sufficient to improve executive development and leadership resilience.


James Kendrick, PhD is an Ottawa-based consultant specializing in executive education, leadership and talent development (j

About this author

0 comments

There are no comments for this post yet.

Be the first to comment. Click here.

Best Practice
 
The discussion around where technology is going in government tends to...
 
Leadership, service delivery, change management, performance measurement, big data, transparency, digital...
 
What are the key initiatives to support government innovation and change?...
 
Could robot doctors be on the horizon? A study published February...
 
According to a 2018 study led by Dr. Michael McGuire, Senior...
 
My observation is people often take the view, “no one else...
 
One of the benefits of living in a federation is that...
 
The role of internal audit in the public sector has changed...
 
We are excited to share with you the October/November 2018 edition...
 
As governments have sought to go digital, one of the most...
 
With the launch of the Canada Infrastructure Bank and US Congressional interest in Trump’s...
 
Why is strategic planning so dreaded? How often do we actually...
 
Most articles you’ll read within the pages of Canadian Government Executive...
 
A communications revolution has taken place but you would not know...
 
Headlines about the world of work are often dominated by the...
 
Earlier this year the Canadian government took a crucial step by...
 
The use of digital services in the day-to-day lives of most...
 
Since launching in 2014, Sweden’s radically ‘feminist’ foreign policy has gained international notoriety. While...
 
The International Civil Service Effectiveness (InCiSE) Index project, a collaboration between...
 
Today, the challenges facing governments are increasingly shifting away from traditional,...
 
Three years before his death in 2011, Jack Layton released a...
 
Canadian Government Executive Media, (CGE) publisher of Canadian Government Executive magazine...
 
Management in the Government of Canada is continuously searching for new...
 
With businesses and government agencies increasingly operating in a highly information-based...
 
Blockchain. There’s probably no other technology trend in recent years that...
 
Over the last two years, an ever-growing number of organizations around...
 
Canadian Government Executive Media (CGE) is pleased to announce its first batch...
 
In today’s workplace, individuals increasingly face dynamic and difficult challenges that...
 
Canadian Government Executive Media (CGE) is pleased to welcome Microsoft as its Platinum Sponsor for...
 
In a rather unusual, quiet manner this past summer, a new...
 
Canadian government agencies and departments are modernizing the way they do...
 
The health care system in Canada, known as Medicare, is publicly...
 
We are happy to share with you the May/June issue of...
 
Facebook Pages can be an essential tool for businesses and charities,...
 
In this special episode of CGE Radio, your host John Jones...
 
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, with its 28 independent member countries...
 
Cost overruns have become institutionalized in the federal government, according to...
 
Last year, procurement Minister Jody Foote was prompted by the swirling...
 
The rapid advances in digital technology, demographic and societal shift even...
 
Results Washington is Washington state government’s data-driven performance management and continuous...
 
Rules and accountability are helpful in developing and standardizing processes but...
 
Ontario’s provincial government needs to act fast in building a coordinated...
 
A study conducted by Robert Half, the world’s largest specialized staffing...
 
In order to find out which strategies and priorities CFOs are...
 
A small but rapidly growing number of businesses have started hiring...
 
CFOs around the world are changing – but an EY survey...
 
There’s a fine line between confidence and naivety – a line...
 
Around the world, more and more workers are seeking employment. At...
 
As populations grow and age, the demand for services increases. As...
 
By Nicole Verkindt Despite growing up in a small town in...
 
The agency responsible for safeguarding the Pentagon and several other buildings...
 
As much a 20 per cent of grade seven students in...
 
By Jason Zhang  The best way to cost effectively manage the retention...
 
He is often referred to as the federal government’s first “chief...
 
Are you absolutely clear what the government wants to achieve? Are...
 
Copyright owners have struggled to protect their intellectual property since the...
 
Here’s some bad news for organizations contemplating projects that have something...
 
Nearly half of Canadian organizations are falling behind on implementation of...
 
The idea of converged infrastructure and converged systems in the datacentre...
 
Hackers are zeroing in on users of SSL/TLS encryption and no...
 
There is no shortage of examples of businesses that effectively used...
 
Microsoft, on Tuesday, ended support for older versions of Internet Explorer...
 
Written by Tim Wacker Almost a quarter century ago, when most...
 
Written By Chris Brown To deliver results that senior executives value,...
 
Written By Jason McNaught Contrary to what you may have heard,...
 
Written by  Benjamin Selinger and Gabriel Flores A real challenge for...
 
Written by  Patrice Dutil It’s hard to believe we are still...
 
Written by  Patrice Dutil Craig Dowden, President and Founder of Craig...
 
Written by  Brady G. Wilson You may not realize it, but...
 
Written by  Roxanne Descôteaux When I first became a manager over...
 
The good news is that the Government of Canada recognizes the...
 
You sometimes wonder why government can’t be better at just getting...
 
Hill+Knowlton Canada announced last week that it has received the prestigious...
 
I’ve been giving 110 percent for as long as I can...
 
The National Voluntary Standard for psychological health and safety in the...
 
The government of Alberta has banded together with British Columbia and...
 
When we put out the call to cities across Canada for...
 
BC Hydro was experiencing ongoing challenges with IT assets decommissioned as...
 
City councils are important. They not only represent citizens at the...
 
Business continuity management has evolved into a specialized discipline, but you...
 
Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Health is leading a new approach to strategic...
 
Whether you have read John Kotter’s classic Leading Change or not,...
 
Energy, not time, is the fundamental currency of high performance. But...
 
Across the country, public sector leaders are challenged with the daunting...
 
When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, it was government that...
 
Ego can do us in. It can lead to arrogance, blindness,...
 
and the more layers between a given employee and the relevant...
 
CGE Vol.14 No.2 February 2008 Management speaks of change in positive...
 
Innovation, leadership and a commitment to building a knowledge advantage are...
 
One of the most paradoxical Biblical parables, found the Gospel of...
 
CGE Vol.14 No.1 January 2008 “We’ve entered into an era in...
 
L’une des paraboles bibliques les plus paradoxales rapportées par Luc est...
 
Chris Baker is Deputy Minister, Policy and Priorities, and Deputy Minister,...
 
CGE Vol.14 No.2 February 2008 Often overworked and understaffed, the procurement...
 
Federal, provincial and municipal governments provide billions of dollars in grants...
 
During the American presidential election campaign of 1976, Jimmy Carter, then...
 
The Ontario Public Service celebrated ten years of hosting Showcase Ontario,...
 
Tell the truth. Deep down, do you sometimes – or often...
 
What if our general approach to brainstorming was all wrong? That...
 
Nearly two decades after I read Lincoln On Leadership, the messages...
 
True leaders are proactive. They get things done. They accomplish that...
 
Management and leadership are complicated. So it would be lovely if...
 
Government revolves around power. Political parties seek power. They implement their...
 
Managers generally walk around with a what’s-going-wrong mentality. They are fixated...
 
Government runs on expertise. Government executives seek the best knowledge and...
 
Let’s resume last month’s discussion on effective change initiatives with some...
 
When Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty set as a prime goal of...
 
By now it’s commonplace knowledge that emotional intelligence is vital to...
 
Good leaders can make bad decisions. President Kennedy blundered over the...
 
The TRIC model of leadership is enshrined in the Ontario Public...
 
A respectful workplace is a critical ingredient of successful public service...
 
For the third year in a row, the Ontario Public Service...
 
Justice on Target (JOT) takes a unique and bold approach to...
 
Perched on top a 60 meter column in a bustling square...
 
For the second year in a row, the Ontario Public Service...
 
OTTAWA – Management consultants at Accenture, a respected longtime observer of...
 
La plupart des leaders reconnaissent d’emblée que leur efficacité dépend de...
 
Most leaders will readily agree that earning and keeping the trust...
 
Some title Some author
Some excerpt
 
Some title Some author
Some excerpt
 
Some title Some author
Some excerpt
 
Some title Some author
Some excerpt
 
Some title Some author
Some excerpt
The discussion around where technology is going in government tends to...