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A Leader for a New Generation: Public Service

I often read research reports, presentations and hear executives making speeches referencing the “new generation”. The concept is often presented as vague and futuristic. The way the government goes about its business, it seems as though we haven’t arrived yet.

Being part of this new generation, I wanted to offer my own thoughts. Primarily, I wanted to discuss what I believe will constitute a successful public service leader of the future. The four aspects of a future public service leader that I outline below are based on my current beliefs of my own generation, often misunderstood and stereotyped. I make the following assumptions of my generation, adopted from Don Tapscott’s book: Grown Up Digital. The book was the result of a $4 million research project that interviewed over 10,000 people. It accurately portrays (accurate in my experience) what Don Tapscott terms the “Net Generation” (those born between 1977 and 1997, often referred to as the Millennial or the Echo Boom) and provides insight into how this generation is and will continue to change the world.

The eight “norms” of this generation are as follows, followed by my own commentary as applied to the public service:

Freedom of Choice: Millennials want freedom and choice. Freedom over one’s own work plan, including how to get a particular job done (the freedom to use own software or tools). Freedom from the office, meaning they want to be free to integrate their work lives with their private lives (dont block gmail at work!).

Natural Collaborators: Millennials create natural networks through social media and other tools. They expect to be stakeholders for any product they buy. They want to join the conversation rather than simply observe it (reading a newspaper online vs. web 2.0)

Sceptics: Being constantly bombarded by information has become a state of normalcy for Millennials. Within an instant, they are able to find reviews, commentary and reaction on a particular product or policy issue. Naturally, they become sceptics, questioning authority. In the workplace, this translates to the need for open spaces, dissent and dialogue, rather than hierarchy and taking orders from the top down.

Insist on Integrity: Traditional barriers between government and citizens no longer exist. The advent of the internet has allowed citizens to easily communicate with elected officials, public servants, the media and each other. This open flow of communication has provided Millennials with new methods to seek out the truth. Millennials come to expect no less from their superiors in government.

Want to have fun: staying connected means having fun. Millennials want work to be fun. In return, they will stay motivated and productive. For example, for a Millennial, the “two 15min breaks” doesnt work. Sometimes they want a 2minute break to go on facebook, or a 20min break to work on their blog. This integration of social life with work life should not be seen as a negative, but rather the solution to making employees more motivated and productive.

Speed is normal: Millennials are constantly bombarded by diverse bits of information flow. This is normal, which is why many find the pace of government such a burden to progress and in conflict with the lives they live outside the office. An instant question requires an instant response. This is how workplaces should begin to orient themselves.

Innovation is a part of life: Millennials can recognize a problem quickly. Often problems are recognized through any of these norms, or lenses above. Solutions are often sought in collaboration with others, taking ideas and applying them to unique contexts. This, Millennials are always looking for new ways to collaborate, learn and work. Give them these options and they will excel in what they do.

This brings me to the four aspects that a future leader in the public service must embody in order to successfully manage the “new generation”:

1) Unite around common cause: There is a fundamental human need to feel part of something bigger than ourselves. Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation, outlined what he termed the “Hierarchy of Needs” to explain that people are motivated to fulfill basic needs before moving on to other needs, ultimately reaching a state of self-actualization. Psychologists have studied and built on this theory for years, with many concluding that a sense of purpose is a basic fundamental trait of the human psyche, and without it, many fall to depression and isolation. To this end, many turn to religious faith while others find purpose in their career or the pursuit of a family. What all three of these examples have in common is that they are profoundly motivational – people are motivated by a higher purpose, being part of something bigger than themselves. Effective leaders must establish a cause, from day one, for which to motivate their staff. The cause should be communicated as worthy, progressive and on the side of the future.

2) Walk the Walk. Talk the Talk: morale is contagious. As such, it is vitally important to set the tone. Leaders that demonstrate inconsistency or incompetence will be less respected for it. Those that demonstrate self-sacrifice and devotion will want to be followed. Personal example is the best way to set the proper tone and build morale. People thrive off positive energy. In groups, the effect is multiplied. Set a positive, future oriented tone from day one, or risk losing your staff to those that do.

3) Reward High Fliers; Weed Out Slackers: All groups contain a core of people that are more dedicated and disciplined than the rest. As a leader, it is important to recognize and reward these people. At the same time, keep a low tolerance for slackers. Controlling perceptions is half the battle: be careful not to appear to have trouble addressing sensitive issues or your staff will have less faith in you, or worse yet, take advantage.

4) Stay Dynamic and Unpredictable: never bet on stability. Everything changes. Appear to be fluid and adaptable, changing to the times when circumstances call for it. The new generation of public servants is hungry for a type of newness. Managers that are rigid, have set identities and hardened habits elicit boredom. Being dynamic, on the other hand, elicits excitement and a sense of urgency, creating an atmosphere of necessity and purpose. This is what breeds innovation.

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