What do new professionals (NPs) need to better engage, contribute, and (for some) transition into managers? Over 500 NPs from all three levels of Canada’s public sector met in Halifax last fall for an IPAC conference, “Winds of Change.” During two moderated panels, they posed a set of questions for which they want answers.
New professionals want to make a contribution, to learn, and to be creative and innovative. At the same time, they need security and do not want to risk doing things that might affect their careers negatively. Most of all, they want answers about creativity and change management, policy building, technology, and career development. The questions they ask give further insights into their concerns.
Innovation and Change
New professionals at the event indicated that they want to be creative, but do not see their workplace as supporting innovation. Questions included: How do we break the barrier when our manager does not like new ideas? How do we build a culture of creativity in a safe, supportive environment? How can we be creative in a zero risk tolerance organization, where systems and rewards discourage it? How do you achieve creativity without encouraging recklessness and wastefulness? Does our system need to evolve? How do we change our leaders’ mindsets? How can one survive the web of rules?
They wanted to know how to effect improvements: How do we unfreeze senior leadership from status quo thinking? How do we get new ideas to displace entrenched practices that don’t work? How do we reshape government out of silos? What change management tools are needed?
NPs saw multiple policy challenges with an urgency not typical of the public sector, given the harm they perceived will result if policies are not developed and implemented quickly. How do we ensure policy is driven by evidence and not personal opinion? How can we change the short-term decision-making patterns to include long-term? How do we balance pressures? How do we drive new policy to meet new priorities and new realities?
These new public servants made it clear they want to become better public servants: How do we prepare for our future roles? What key skills should we, as potential leaders, be learning? How do we improve networking? How do we prepare for leadership – be specific; how did you succeed?
It’s no surprise for the generation that grew up digital that there were many questions on how to manage technology to achieve the organization’s mission and to improve citizen service. Yet there was also an emphasis on interpersonal relationships: No one talks to each other any more. How do we build collaboration and respect, with everyone being responsible for the organization’s culture?
The audience was clear they wanted examples from the panel (as well as from their managers), story-telling rather than platitudes and generalizations. Participants wanted specifics to take home and work on.
So the panellists were most appreciated when they spoke from personal experience. In general, their advice was to take responsibility for change while understanding that organizational culture and change is an individual as well as corporate responsibility. They advised the NPs to take responsibility for their own direction and future and to build trusting and respectful relationships with colleagues and managers.
With regard to innovation, the panellists noted that people learn better and are more creative in safe environments and urged management to create workplaces where employees are comfortable to make mistakes. The payback will be that NPs will develop more and “put themselves out there.”
The panellists warned that risks must be understood, explained, and justified – and that managers should always be kept informed: bad news does not get better with age. Each panellist also gave an example of an acceptable risk that didn’t work out, describing how they had recovered. One example was a solid policy that got bad press when it wasn’t well explained; another involved negative reaction around the management table when the “rookie” raised some ethical concerns around the budget.
Panellists also emphasized the importance of building trust as a way to reduce red tape and gain timely support.
ADVICE FOR MANAGERS
As moderators, our observations are that the new professionals’ powerful drive for change is tempered by personal concerns. Questions included: How do we break down barriers to change without compromising our reputations and careers? How can we be innovative and take risks without encouraging recklessness and wastefulness? How can we be creative when it is not rewarded or encouraged?
Today’s new professional does not have the distrust of and animosity toward their elders that the Boomers did (remember the Yippies’ rallying cry of “don’t trust anyone over thirty?”). However, they are concerned that the Boomers are not reaching out to include NPs in the organization.
Yet there is no “full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes” approach. This may be a good thing since one does not want high risk behaviour in the public service. But it presents a paradox; on the other side is Dancoff’s Law: “Optimum development occurs when an organism makes the greatest number of mistakes consistent with survival.” (Sidney Dancoff was a physicist who specialized in quantum electrodynamics and cybernetics in the 1940s).
Perhaps there is a place between risk avoidance and embracing dangerous risk in search of creativity. Helen Keller, who overcame deafness and blindness to become a major thought leader a century ago, wrote: “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. A happy life consists not in the absence, but in the mastery of hardships.”
So how can managers help NPs find mastery?
Perhaps by encouraging them. The Oxford Dictionary defines encourage as to give courage, confidence or hope to, stimulate by help. Vern White, Ottawa Chief of Police, recently advised that: “One of the larger challenges I’ve seen in moving people toward embracing change is lack of courage: courage to make a mistake, courage to do things nobody else has done. People will be wrong, you will make a mistake, and you will fail. Ask yourself: ‘How often do I encourage that in my people?’ Leaders must not allow past failure or the possibility of future failure to paralyse them into inaction.”
Our suggestion: as managers, think about how to encourage new professionals and answer their questions. As a new professional, ask the questions in a persistent but pleasant way. And remember Dancoff’s Law.
Dr. Paul Crookall is an executive coach and management consultant, former editor of CGE and former public service executive. Elena Robertson is a new professional and Chief, Business Services, Fisheries and Oceans, in Sydney N.S.
IPAC ’S NEW PROFESSIONALS Conference
“Winds of Change” included two sessions, moderated by the authors, with new professionals or managers under 40 years old as resources/panellists. Set in a “mini-world café” style, participants in small group discussions developed the questions and the panellists responded. What