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Leadership lessons for the immediate future

IML ANZ Member and leadership commentator Peter Dunne CNZM FIML reflects on the leadership lessons managers must heed as it impacts their organisations now and in the future.

Anyone leading or managing an organisation must have an eye to the future. In addition to their day-to-day management responsibilities, they need to constantly think about the likely challenges their organisation will face, their risks and opportunities, and how they develop the next tier of leadership. This is no less true for government entities than it is for private sector businesses. 

Leadership lessons from technology

The nature of the way the government organises its businesses has changed dramatically in recent years. In part, this has been due to the technological revolution, which has rendered so many previous bureaucratic practices redundant. But it is also because governments have started to focus more on how they can utilise their agencies. The priority now is to effectively resolve incipient challenges rather than just administer existing programmes and policies. In this regard, New Zealand has been especially innovative, meaning it is no real surprise that the New Zealand government is considered one of the world’s most digitally advanced.

This, in turn, has begun to lead to a still slow breaking down of the barriers between agencies, more cooperation and collaboration, and an erosion of the old silo mentality. As governments realised that citizens do not live their lives in compartments, they have focused more on the links between the various government services and how they can best be delivered. 

However, the development of integrated service centres and one-stop shops have been slow. In addition, the move to greater reliance on online service provision has been variable between agencies, principally because of gaps in technological capability. At the same time, challenges are emerging within organisations between usually younger, more digitally aware staff, who see fresh opportunities, and their more cautious managers. Also, much legislation is still not geared to the digital economy, mandating clearly outdated processes and creating a further challenge for government sector managers.

Leadership lessons from the pandemic

But all these challenges have been turned on their heads by the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic. As with every sphere of life, the pandemic has caused significant unforeseen changes to the organisation and delivery of government services.

Government organisations, like all businesses, must deal with rapid and often unpredictable change in a way that has not been the case previously. As one example, let’s look at the multitude of problems associated with developing our new border control, managed isolation and quarantine systems. There are many unforeseen issues within what might, at first glance, appeared to be a relatively straightforward, although far more extensive, logistical exercise. Managers have had to confront new and changing individual personal circumstances in a way they have not been used to. This is happening against a contradictory public backdrop where everyone should comply in the interests of the public good on the one hand, but there should be flexibility for individual situations on the other.

Within organisations, the pandemic has led to significant changes as well. Most government workers were sent to work from home as the first lockdown took effect. While many have subsequently returned to their offices, a substantial number, particularly in Wellington, are still working from home. There are many reasons for this, from individual wariness of returning to a group environment to recognising that the nature of certain jobs means they can be carried out just as easily from home as from the office. In addition, technologies like Zoom have ensured that when staff need to interact with colleagues, they can do so with relative ease. 

This change – which may well be enduring – creates new challenges for managers and leaders, not just in business continuity but also for the organisation of teams within the enterprise. Where staff are becoming more physically isolated and linked predominantly by digital communication, it is likely to become more challenging to develop a sense of connection and unified focus. Managers will need to develop new skills to bridge the gap between those working on-site and those working in other locations. This is not just a technological issue but more a social one of ensuring the connection between physically separated workmates. An early casualty of this new environment might be the loss of immediate in-house knowledge that was the staple of morning coffee or quick team discussions. 

While many of these issues will be common to the broader business community, they have wider relevance to the government sector. As COVID-19 introduces new challenges, government agencies and their managers will be in the frontline when it comes to Ministers seeking advice and responses. For their part, Ministers will expect that advice to be as thorough and promptly delivered as it always has been. They are unlikely to be especially interested in, sympathetic to, or even aware of the different situations within organisations for which they are responsible. They will just expect the advice to be prepared and delivered the way it always has been.

That will create its own challenges for managers of government entities that have become more distended in their organisation since the advent of COVID-19. In addition to their existing responsibilities, today’s government sector managers and leaders will now have to grapple with the reality that business as usual today means anything but that.

Hon Peter Dunne CNZM FIML is a former New Zealand MP. Since leaving Parliament, he has remained active in many areas of leadership and is a regular columnist and political commentator on radio and television

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