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Developing and Retaining Leadership in the Public Service

October 06 2014 - by Joan H. Underwood, CLP's Regional Project Manager

Investing in human resource development can be a costly undertaking.  In the context of shrinking budgets and competing priorities, proponents of leadership development programming must be ready, willing and able to make a compelling case for the value added by initiatives such as the Caribbean Leadership Project’s Leadership Development Programme (CLP LDP).  This brings to mind the following account of an exchange between two executives:

Exec #1: “Training is so expensive.  What if we train them and they leave?”

Exec #2: “What if we don’t train them and they stay?”

At CLP, we firmly believe that experiential learning is the way to go when it comes to developing leadership within the public service.  We also believe that the multi-module format (as opposed to a one-off training exercise) lends itself to a higher rate of retention of lessons learnt, as well as, the application of said lessons.  Our LDP participants have the opportunity after each module to “try things on for size and see how they work back at home” and to come back at the next module and share the results of their having done so.

Relevance is another major factor for us at CLP.  The examples that we utilize are directly relevant to the realities in which our participants operate.  The issues and wicked problems which we explore utilizing action learning, stakeholder mapping, polarity thinking etc. are all issues which have been identified as priorities by our participating governments and key regional institutions.

Another feature of the CLP which has been endorsed and celebrated by our alumni is the opportunity for networking with one’s peers.  During our initial learning needs assessment, the researchers from the Canada School of Public Service heard repeated accounts of how lonely it was to sit in a position of leadership within the various ministries.  By bringing together Permanent Secretaries and other senior officials from multiple countries, we have provided a forum to address that concern.  The opportunity to meet with and engage counterparts from other ministries in your home country, as well as, further afield has already begun to bear fruit.

These are some of the strategies that CLP has deployed to develop leadership, but what about retaining that talent once the investment has been made in their growth and development?  This is where the Enabling Environment comes into play.  The UNDP has defined this as “the term used to describe the broader system within which individuals and organizations function and one that facilitates or hampers their existence and performance”.   

Some of our LDP participants from Cohort 1 devoted significant time and energy to analysing this issue and identified four major drivers of the Enabling Environment.  They are:

  1. Culture – political and leadership culture with particular emphasis on the political-administrative interface;
  2. Systems – to include:
    1. Constitutional, legal and institutional frameworks
    2. Roles and responsibilities of key participants in the governance structure
    3. Human Resource Management practices (e.g. compensation, recruitment and selection, performance management etc.);
  3. Experience – mindsets, concepts of leadership, individuals’ learning, developing self and networks; and
  4. Behaviour – competencies, skill sets, actions, ethics and the expression of one’s values.

CLP, building on the foundation established by the Cohort 1 participants, enlisted the services of Dr. Jim Armstrong to draft an action plan which is currently being circulated for discussion and feedback .  We are also in the process of conducting a regional survey to identify the enablers and inhibitors of leadership development within the public service.  The initial findings of that study will be released during our Leadership Symposium in Trinidad during the first week of December.

In the meantime, we invite you to take this opportunity to weigh in on the nature/status of the Enabling Environment in your ministry/regional institution. 

What are some of the elements which you have identified that facilitate leadership development and retention of leadership talent?

What are some of the things that inhibit or stymie your efforts to develop leadership talent – either your own or that of your direct reports?

If you had the powers of executive decree for one day, what single change would you make that you think would have the biggest positive impact on the enabling environment for leadership development in the public service?