Leading Transformational Change in the Public Sector


Take outs from ‘Art of Leadership’ breakfast

In September we launched our Public Sector Practice with an ‘Art of Leadership’ breakfast.

Gordon Cairns, Chairman of Origin Energy and Woolworths moderated the leadership conversation with keynote speakers:

  • Hon Nick Greiner AC, former Premier of New South Wales and
  • Dr Kerry Schott AO, former CEO of the Commission of Audit and now Chairman of the Moorebank Intermodal Company Ltd, Director of NBN Co, TCorp Board in NSW and Director of Infrastructure Australia.


Here are some of the key leadership highlights from the breakfast:

What is leadership?

Kerry Schott:

  • Leadership involves establishing what you want to do and where you want to go and then taking people with you.
  • Whilst leadership can be lonely, sharing problems with trusted people, including your executive team is essential.
  • Reflecting on reforms to the Public Sector, though it often takes only a short time to identify the reforms which need to be made, it takes emotional intelligence and nous to identify the right time to execute those reforms.

Nick Greiner:

  • Influencing disparate people with different interests to work towards a common objective is essential.
  • Whilst loyalty towards staff is a good trait for leaders, they should not allow this to cloud their judgement.


Different circumstances require different kinds of leadership

Nick Greiner:

  • Leadership styles have changed over time; be careful modelling yourself on other people as their style might not work for you because you are a different person and may be facing a different situation.

Kerry Schott:

  • Kerry has been given transformative roles which suited her own leadership style, after which another type of leader would be needed to ‘calm things down’.


How leaders should manage mistakes

Gordon Cairns:

Kerry Schott:

  • It is very important to stand up and tell the truth when mistakes are made, to explain what went wrong honestly, to take responsibility as a leader, and then to tell people what you will do to fix the situation.

Nick Greiner:

  • As a young Premier the mantra of the time was “Never say sorry” which Nick now sees as a weakness and disagrees with profoundly.

It is important to acknowledge to yourself the reality of your situation as the starting point for determining your next steps.



(Left to Right: Kerry Schott, Nick Greiner, Gordon Cairns)


Tension for public servants between providing frank and fearless advice to Ministers and protecting their careers

Both believe public sector leaders should continue to give frank and fearless advice: even where this might cause a ‘blip’ in their careers, this was nevertheless something from which a career would recover.

Kerry Schott:

  • Feels that frank and fearless advice is still given, but behind closed doors.

Nick Greiner:

  • Public servants often try to ‘channel’ their Minister; bureaucrats have failed to tell government that an idea was ‘an absolute nonsense’, even though they clearly knew it was – not protecting their Ministers as they should.


The difference between leadership in the private and public sectors

Nick Greiner:

  • In the private sector once a decision is made it is much easier to execute.
  • Public sector leaders need to put themselves in the shoes of the people they are delivering services for, which is not done well.

Kerry Schott:

The public sector is slower to make decisions because the goals are more complex, the objectives broader and the decision-making process more collegiate due to the numbers of stakeholders involved.



(Left to Right: Kerry Schott, Nick Greiner, Gordon Cairns, Jon Isaacs-SMG)


The tension between taking a long and short term view

Nick Greiner:

  • In 2015, major decisions in government are taken in a goldfish bowl leading to short-term decision-making. The public service needs to give a ‘backbone’ to decision-making by taking a long-term view so decisions are not ruled by political expediency.

Kerry Schott:

  • The public service needs to take a long term view. If anyone today took to Cabinet the equivalent of building an eight-lane Harbour Bridge (when there would be only forty cars on it at a time) they would probably be sacked.


Leadership exchange between the public and private sectors

Both agreed that salaries in the public sector would never match those in the private sector; however the public sector provides other rewards.

Kerry Schott:

  • There is a poor understanding of the public sector in the private sector.
  • It is important to promote the intrinsic rewards of the public sector to recruit the best people.

Nick Greiner:

  • While it is a good idea, the track record of success of private sector leaders moving into public sector roles has been very poor.
  • Would like to see more secondments and two-way movement, with the flow in both directions enhancing people’s careers.
  • There are different drivers of satisfaction in the public sector.


Both Nick and Kerry agreed that leaders should have trust in people, empower them after setting clear directions and celebrate the successes.


Best regards,
Catherine Burrows

About the author: Dr Catherine Burrows, Executive Coach, Stephenson Mansell Group.

Dr Catherine Burrows is focused on equipping aspiring leaders in the Public Sector to manage themselves and others in times of change. Catherine is a strategic thinker and innovator, with 30 years’ experience in the public sector. Working for two Education Ministers gave Catherine a profound understanding of the operation of government. Her doctoral research concerned staff responses to organisational change. She is a skilled communicator and specialises in improving organisational performance.


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