The answer will be obvious for those who work for open-minded and change-friendly managers who focus on bringing the best from their staff through coaching and role-modelling. These are the managers who thrive on seeing their staff grow and who assign challenging developmental opportunities as a normal way of doing business.
Like any other organization, however, public service workplaces have a mix of talent and skills at all levels, including in management. Some managers are not good at delegating and don’t pay much attention to staff development, perhaps making the assumption that appropriate skills will be developed over time in the “normal course” of a public service career. In these cases a subtle demand-driven “push from below” can sometimes help. But sometimes as a last resort it is necessary to change jobs (i.e. change managers) in order to find the right opportunities for learning and development. But let’s only go there if we have to. Here’s the advice I offer to younger staff on making a difference:
- Step-up and help-out. You work in busy, just-in-time environments so managers tend to notice the people who can get things done in a timely and efficient way without too much fuss. If there is a busy part of the department working on a crunch project offer to work late and help out. The offer might be politely declined but people are going to remember your willingness to jump in and help when the next high-profile project comes along;
- Look for opportunities to improve the way work is done within the department or the way it works with others outside of it. In the first months in any job you will invariably find yourself puzzled by some aspect of the way that business is conducted when it seems clear to you that there is a more effective or efficient way of doing it. It doesn’t hurt to ask the question in a low-key and respectful way. You might hear a water-tight answer, but it could also be that no-one has put in the time before to explore alternative approaches. Offer to think about this as an add-on to regular work assignments or as a substitute for low-value work that is not time sensitive. More simply put: Look for opportunities to make something better or to fix a problem that will benefit your department or your partners or clients outside of it;
- Given the importance of integration and collaboration in government, many managers will be comfortable with seeing you crossing departmental and professional boundaries This is important in gathering and sharing information and ideas about common areas of interest, and discussing solutions and opportunities with other public service colleagues (as well as scouting out future job opportunities). Working across boundaries also enables you to connect the dots and to get a bigger-picture perspective on the ministry and the partners with which it works. While this more open and collaborative approach to working is vital there are still some areas within public sector organizations where collaboration is in some ways discouraged. This might be appropriate in some rare situations, for example where security or intelligence matters are involved, but these are exceptions. But before you go too far beyond the fence-lines it’s best to check with colleagues on how much appetite and comfort there is at the management level with collaborative work across boundaries (see "emotional intelligence" below);
- And as you explore these approaches do it with emotional intelligence. Don’t jump right in. Observe your environment carefully, build relationships, establish your credibility and value, spend time listening and think about how you would like to test an intervention and how you will do that. Test it with people you trust and look for collaborators and supporters.
- Talking to an incoming class of graduate students at the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto last year, former Premier, Dalton McGuinty talked about governments’ need for the new generation of “digital natives” who understand the boundary-less nature of work, the economy, and information. He added that new public service recruits should be “the most optimistic people in the room” in a context in which there is often a surplus of risk-avoidance and pessimism about creative ideas. This is great advice.
What do the best managers look for in new recruits?
- A commitment to work in the public service and to make a difference
- Eagerness to learn and quickly deliver
- Maturity, judgement, emotional intelligence
- Flexibility and willingness to go the extra mile
- Boundary-spanning instincts
What you should look for in managers?
- Strong leaders who delegate interesting and challenging work and develop skills and growth in their staff
- Openness with information – and clarity about priorities and what success looks like
- Managers who will take the time to explain why you were chosen to work in the organization, be clear about what is expected of you, and who provide frequent feedback on how staff are doing
- Leaders who are unafraid to hire people smarter than themselves and, as a consequence, build strong leaders behind them.
But it’s important to remember that as good as an organization might be, you are responsible for planning and managing your own career. Taking this responsibility seriously sometimes requires an effort on your part to find jobs in places where there is a good fit with your interests and professional/personal ambitions. In some cases this also means aligning yourself with managers and coaches who invest time in nurturing those with the potential to become top-rated public servants. Fortunately we have many of those managers in the public sector. If these managers don't find you, then be on the lookout for them.