…then you might be taken seriously!
I met with an experienced Public Sector colleague a wee while ago, they’d reached the point where they were deciding whether or not to leave the organisation they work for and take their proven talents elsewhere. I’d noticed they were feeling a little frustrated and as they talked with me I soon realised why, they explained to me that it had taken the best part of ten years before they were trusted and taken seriously. I offered my sympathy and understanding before asking how I should feel about this, as I’d only been in post for two years…I probably shouldn’t have asked as they couldn’t offer any words to console or motivate; it’s a good thing I’m thick skinned.
Not surprisingly I mulled over their words for a while, I wondered what lay behind such a statement, what it said about the person, what it said about the culture and what it said about the people who oversaw and nurtured the creation of such a culture. The words themselves were few in number, but conveyed so much more than they had been designed to. It was either an honest if frustrated statement of fact, a polite way of warning me about the tribulations that lay along the road to come, or a combination of the two. Regardless of the intent, the sentiment that lay behind the words was, “I have come to see this as a place where seniority and length of tenure are everything, where they will only consider your views important once you are worn down and indoctrinated to the point where you are incapable of making a noticeable difference”. In other-words, you’ll be welcomed when you reinforce the conventional wisdom. What a terrible and wasteful shame of human talent and ingenuity.
Only in the Public Sector would this happen to this extent. The Private Sector doesn’t carry baggage that it would wait for ten years to capitalise on, you’re hired because you’re worth hiring and because you can add value in the near to medium term. Imagine if you can, a job interview for middle-management being held in the Private Sector where the applicant was asked, “and how long do you think it will be before you can make an impact in this role?” and they answered, “well, between eight and ten years should do it”. The door would promptly be opened and they would not be asked back.
J K Galbraith noted many years ago that Public Sector bodies like the idea of ideas more than they like the ideas themselves; this would still seem true today. He also noted that it is the march of events that overtakes us all, individuals, organisations and concepts, the conventional wisdoms we hold become obsolete because they become exposed to new realities that they were never designed to deal with…the theories no longer hold and they reach a point where they are seen to fail to deal with the reality of circumstance. The walls come down eventually.
It seems as if a great deal of Public Sector management and leadership is in this position now, faced with a world of austerity (more for less of our money; yes please!), rising expectations, calls for greater transparency and the threat of competition…in short they face a world that their established hierarchical structures, systems, cultures and values were simply not designed to deal with, like horse-traps on the Motorway, they are holding up the movement of progress whilst delaying the inevitable.