Going public

For a long time it has been assumed that public sector organisations cannot compete with private companies when it comes to attracting, developing and retaining the best leadership talent. The presumption is that lower remuneration and higher levels of bureaucracy stifle creativity and discourage outstanding people.

However, this is an over-simplified picture, as this week’s Public Sector Leadership Conference and Exhibition is expected to demonstrate. The event, which is to be held at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in London on 21 April, offers the chance to gain an insight into the true state of leadership in the sector and hear proposals about how it can be nurtured in the future.

The keynote speaker at the conference is Wendy Thomson, chief executive of the Leadership Centre for Local Government. She decries the idea that public sector leaders are, in some way, inferior.

“The people I hold in high regard are driven by their commitment to making public services work for people, rather than any particular human resources policy,” she says.

And while, she admits some people have been put off by the government budget cuts and financial constraints – with the consequent job insecurity – Thomson says that many are still attracted by “the scope for making a difference”.

She wants politicians and the wider public to hold leaders in the public sector in higher regard, believing this recognition will generate confidence in the sector and boost the morale and performance.

It is a point picked up by Ewart Wooldridge, chief executive of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, who will chair and speak at the conference. “We need to recognise how important public sector leaders are,” he says.

Wooldridge would also like to see the sector improve its approach to succession planning to ensure a level of continuity at the head of vital public sector organisations. “We are trying to improve the quality of high-level management but an important aspect of this is tackling the earlier stages in an individual’s career – the time when you need to nurture and develop the leaders of tomorrow.”

For Lynne Sedgemore, chief executive of the Centre for Excellence in Leadership, the key to effective leadership lies not only in developing the skills of those destined for the top, but also the skills of staff throughout the public sector.

“Leadership resides at all levels in an organisation,” she says. “While top leaders are important, they are only one part of the jigsaw. People further down the organisation can have as much impact as senior leaders. If you can realise that potential then you get real magic happening.”

The idea that a collective effort from employees is more effective than any initiative from a single leader is espoused by Keith Grint of Lancaster University Business School. He believes the obsession with finding a charismatic, inspirational and transformational leader is misguided.

“It creates a focus on individuals rather than collectives and generates a notion of irresponsible followers,” he says.

“The concept that everything is dependent on leaders deprives ordinary people from achieving anything, while the idea that you have to be charismatic to do anything is entirely counter-productive.”

Grint urges the powers that be to promote wider cultural change rather than concentrating their energies on specific initiatives aimed at enhancing leadership skills within the sector.

“We need to stop doing ‘initiatives’ because they are getting in the way,” he says. “There have been so many changes in the public sector in terms of requirements, measurements, targets and schemes that we spend all our time chasing our tails rather than worrying about what we should really be doing.”

The complexity of large public sector organisations is recognised by Christina Pond, programme director of team and leadership development at the NHS Leadership Centre.

Pond is due to host a break-out session at the event, aimed at exploring leadership in the context of a complex organisation. She says an effective leader should take into consideration the whole organisation rather than make decisions with only particular stakeholders in mind.

She points to the NHS Leadership Qualities Framework, launched in 2002, as a valuable tool for clearly informing managers what is expected of leaders throughout the NHS.

“The framework has a number of applications,” says Pond, “It can be used for personal development, leadership profiling for recruitment and selection, for career planning, and for performance management.”

Talking to the various people due to speak at the conference, it is clear that they share a belief in the leadership capabilities of those working in the public sector. There is a sense that the public sector has as much to teach private sector organisations about leadership as it has to learn.

“It’s important that we clarify some of the misconceptions people have about working in the public sector,” Pond says. “The NHS, for example, is the largest employer in the UK with more than 1.3 million staff, and there are all sorts of opportunities and challenges for ambitious leaders looking to make a difference.”

Conference details

The Public Sector Leadership Conference and Exhibition takes place on 21 April at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, Broad Sanctuary, Westminster, London SW1P 3EE.

The centre is located in the heart of Westminster, opposite the Houses of Parliament and is just a few minutes walk from Westminster and St James’s Park tube stations.

To book a place at the conference either e-mail delegate manager Frank Mannion at fmannion@pspltd.org or call him on 0161 975 6292. The entrance cost per delegate is £195 if you are from a public sector organisation and £250 if you work in the private sector.

Visitors who just want to attend the exhibition can register on the day and enter for free. Visit the Personnel Today team at stand number 25.

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