Lead Change in the Public Sector With Focus, Positivity, and Passion

Author(s): Jim Kirk

Focus. It’s a simple word; one that evokes a state of being where the complex seems simple and the many seem few. In my experience working with I&IT leaders over the past two decades, few have achieved the level of focus necessary to drive meaningful change in their organization.

What inhibits this focus? Thinking somewhat mechanically, once a certain level of scale is reached, there should be the role clarity, specialization, and hierarchy needed to keep the leader out of the weeds, no? Keeping them focused on pushing the big boulders that drive change everyone in the organization can see, feel, and benefit from?

While the structural elements are important, I lean more toward leadership habits and characteristics as the primary drivers of change success, especially in the public sector with its unique challenges and constraints (i.e. staffing, funding, and procurement). Leading large change initiatives in the public sector can feel like running a three-legged race with a young child: you may win, but you’ll probably be dragging more than your own weight to the finish line.

Reflecting on my career, a uniquely challenging time was when I joined local government. I was leaving a very mature provincial government organization and moving to a local government that was clearly behind. Their level of immaturity was obvious, evident by reading the language used in the job posting. They had good people and had made solid technology decisions, but there was not a best practice to be found and they were only engaged with the business at an order-taker level.

Leadership changes at three levels (CIO, CFO, and CAO) all happened shortly after I arrived, kicking the technology aspirations of the city to a level IT was not ready to meet. This started a crazy phase where our favorite expression was “we’re building the car while we’re driving it down the road!” There was so much parallel activity going on, it was dizzying, and progress seemed more like a crawl than a sprint.

It was during this time, this unhealthy time, that I started to become very intentional about certain leadership habits to create and maintain focus so I could continue to deliver in the whirlwind. Forming and mastering these habits will differentiate you from other leaders:

  1. Have a shortlist of personal priorities and stick to them. If you have 100 priorities, you have no priorities. I always go into a year with a shortlist of hills I will climb. It will be sourced from organizational and technology strategy, from what interests my boss (and therefore fascinates me), and items I know instinctively need to happen. When I worked in organizations with mature talent management programs, this list often lined up with my performance plan for the year.

    Come hell or high water, this list of things gets done. Three things would be ideal, five a maximum.

  2. Be ruthless about how you manage your time. I have used the term “ruthless” in this context for years and when I say it aloud, I can sense it making some people feel uncomfortable. Nothing makes me bite my lip more than hearing someone say, “I didn’t have the time” or “I couldn’t find the time.” Time, or more specifically what you do with your time, is simply a decision you make. Align your time allocation with the list above.

    Here are a few of my time management tactics: i) block the first hour of your day, ii) block your lunch hour, and iii) block the last hour of your day. I can already hear some of you saying you could not do that. Yes, you can. Make the decision and try it.

  3. Default to delegation. A mentor of mine once said, if you can delegate a task to a team member who can deliver 80% of the quality you could, you should. This frees you to focus on more strategic activities (like the list above!) and it accelerates the growth of the people on the team, creating more strength overall. Delegation is magical because it helps you win now and win even more in the future.

Flipping back to my transformational period in local government, resistance was everywhere. We were trying to change everything. We were implementing best practices in IT governance, project portfolio management, IT service management, enterprise architecture, data & analytics…. You name it, we were working on it. All while getting more engaged with the business than ever and trying to demonstrate that we should be the technology service provider of choice for the city.

The resistance to change took many forms: staff not wanting to embrace new ways of work, business units and departments not wanting to shift some measure of control or responsibility to this “new look” IT department, and other internal provider groups we were reliant on (i.e. HR, Finance, Procurement, Legal, Communications) not keeping pace.

This is when I started to become more reflective on the specific leadership characteristics and competencies that would allow me to become a strategic CIO. Traits that would help us manage the resistance and continue the pace of change:

  1. Help by default. When I left the provincial government, one of my team leaders asked me to impart a final word of advice. I told him that to make significant things happen, you will need to make the occasional withdrawal from your “bank account of goodwill.” To ensure you have a healthy balance in that account, if someone asks you for help, say yes. This approach to willingly lending a hand builds high-quality relationships that will be there to help you when you need it. It is up to you to lead the “Department of Yes!”

  2. The power of positivity. The sooner you realize as a leader that everyone is watching you, the better. Specifically, they are looking for your reaction to things as they occur (good and bad). They are looking for your mood on any given day. Recognizing this and being aware of your mood and the vibe you are giving off matters a lot – with your direct reports, with your broader team, and with the clients you are serving. While balance is always important, lean toward the positive. Positivity creates energy. Energy helps you get hard things done.

  3. The value of influence over authority. I define influence as the ability to get someone to do or accept something they wouldn’t have otherwise. To make change happen, especially in the public sector, you will need to lead with and demonstrate influence. Use Info-Tech’s CIO Strategic Competency Evaluation Tool to assess where you are on this change leadership spectrum.

  4. Be able to wield a force of will. Forming the habits and building the leadership characteristics described above will hopefully make this last piece seldom necessary. However, there will come a time when a sheer force of will determines whether a strategic outcome is achieved. You need to have the ability to identify these moments and apply the situational leadership practices necessary to push the change over the finish line. The interesting part about leveraging your force of will is that once you have done it successfully, it positively impacts future resistance because stakeholders know what to expect from you.

Learning and applying this on the fly in local government was instrumental in the success we collectively achieved. In my almost six years there, we implemented best practices across the board, addressed significant technical debt, brought new capabilities to both IT and the business, and were viewed as trusted business partners. It was far from perfect, but it was close to progress. Significant progress.

Our Take

Be intentional about strengthening your leadership habits and characteristics. As I&IT leaders, we need to reflect on our leadership strengths and weaknesses and pursue leadership development to address our gaps and put new tools in our leadership and management toolbox.

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