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Laurence Jackson

Laurence Jackson

Taken From

The MJ Magazine February 2011




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Thought Leadership


Surviving in Tough Times

The UK public sector is facing unprecedented challenges: striving to maintain service levels while making deep cuts in budgets, rethinking the whole nature of organisations, addressing the new ‘localism’ agenda and dealing with the impact of these dynamics on the workforce. Following the Government’s publication of expenditure plans to 2015, the scale of the economies required has become clear. Wickland Westcott, through its work in the public sector, has identified four clear themes:

  1. The challenges facing local authorities, health, education, emergency services and the third sector will require all organisations to change the way they think, operate and deliver services.
  2. Senior executives have a responsibility to seek innovative solutions and ensure that organisations and individuals survive, rather than become victims of cutbacks. This calls for a ‘trailblazer’ mentality.
  3. The current workforce is unlikely to be attuned to the challenges ahead, and needs support in rising to these, at the same time recognising the need for strategies to selectively import the necessary skills and talent from the private sector.
  4. Identifying potential is a key task – future leaders must be identified, encouraged and supported so that they are not tempted to leave the organisation.

The situation is made more complex by the need to devise strategies against a ‘moving target’ of Government initiatives, and the emergence of new bodies. The message of the Big Society is to reduce central control and encourage localism; consequently, a totally fresh mindset is needed to identify and wrestle with the new imperatives. After 13 years of central government guidelines and directives, the new freedoms represent a challenge for all public sector and not-for-profit organisations. They need to re-think their approach, be more commercial in exploring options, be more collegiate internally and in working with stakeholders and encourage innovation through partnership working, outsourcing, and the development of shared services.

Doing more with less

With the massive budget reductions, ‘doing more with less’ is now a reality. The impact on organisations is seismic; most are continuing to operate on a historical model, out of tune with the new imperatives. Those that succeed will find ways of leveraging resources and ensuring that essential facilities and public amenities are protected and social equity maintained. A necessary consequence of this is a healthy blurring of public and private sector thinking and interaction in delivering services. It is clear that public sector organisations are moving increasingly from being a provider of services to being a supplier or commissioner, interacting with third parties. Customers have more freedom over purchasing decisions; hence service offerings need to reflect customer needs rather than provider convenience.

Reviewing the people dimensions of change, there is a growing understanding of the need to communicate more effectively with staff and engage them with a vision for the future. Inevitably, some will see themselves as ‘victims’ with the changes being ‘done to them’. The trick is to be ahead of the curve, encourage innovative approaches and embrace the possibilities offered by the new structures and relationships.

Talent spotting

Identifying potential within the organisation is paramount, especially at a time when external recruitment is vetoed and promotion paths blocked for the foreseeable future.  Recent work on identifying high performers indicates that a very small proportion of the workforce combines high potential with high performance; these are the ‘rising stars’ who will secure future success. Most organisations have a high proportion of ‘solid performers’; the balance comprising people who are disengaged or in the wrong job, or who should be exited as quickly as possible. There is a greater need for visibility of this top echelon, who will shape the future. By allowing them to take on increased levels of responsibility, careers can accelerate at a faster pace and not be lost to the private sector. Where appropriate, skills and talents will be imported from the private sector. This presents significant challenges, not least in ensuring cultural fit and providing rewarding career development.

Across the public sector, there is a clear need to empower staff and develop skills internally so that leaders can be encouraged and fostered. The public sector needs leaders that demonstrate a powerful vision, align resources behind objectives, refuse to be diverted or demoralised, are comfortable grappling with complexity, are prepared to take calculated risks, and are willing to break rules in order to overcome the inertia in the system.


There is no doubt that ‘survival skills’ will be added to the lexicon of competence for public sector leaders. Recent research suggests that, in tough times, leaders emerge that combine personal resilience with courage, visibility and a keen eye for developments in the external environment. For example, in terms of personal resilience, the speed with which leaders are prepared to let go of outdated ways of thinking and start searching for new strategies to cope with changing demands is a key driver of survival within danger situations (eg being marooned at sea).

A recent review undertaken by Wickland Westcott of senior and middle managers in the public sector revealed significant strengths in delivering to set objectives, prioritising and planning. There was less evidence of capacity to drive change or focus on customer needs. The areas which showed the greatest gaps were influencing and strategic leadership – the very attributes needed to initiate and gain support for change initiatives. In a similar exercise, where the competency of over 100 senior managers was assessed against ‘world class’ standards, most of the workforce were rated as ‘competent’, with only 2% emerging as ‘very strong’. If these organisations are to move forward, it is vital to recognise those with leadership potential and encourage the behaviours which drive the vision and objectives.

Ultimately good leaders drive necessary change. The impetus for change requires leaders who are driven by a powerful vision, bordering at times on religious zeal, and the urge to do ‘good things’. Is your organisation geared up to address the challenges and develop the leaders of the future?


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