I will shortly be returning to life as a senior civil servant, and I am looking forward to it. I’m fortunate that the Department for International Development is a very successful department, recognised as one of the most effective development organisations in the world. But like every part of the public service, we could do better.
In that context, I have been thinking about how I can be a better leader and manager. At the risk of sounding like Martin Lukes, here is my personal manifesto. These are my goals as a manger. I would welcome feedback – both from my own staff (positive and negative feedback welcomed) and from others.
1. It is amazing what you can achieve if you don’t care who gets the credit.
If something goes right, I’ll make sure the credit goes to the people who did the work. If something goes wrong, then the buck stops with me. It is my responsibility to ensure that the team has the right resources, leadership and remit to succeed; if they do not, then I have failed to ensure that they have what they need.
2. Help others to become stars.
There are some very smart people in my team. I want them to succeed and become stars, but I know this is very demanding. This is not entirely selfless: I want more great people to want to join the team to join the talent we already have. We will achieve more together if they have everything they need to succeed. It is my job to see to it that they do.
3. If everything is a priority, nothing is.
If we want to keep things ticking over as they are and take no risks, then we should do a little bit of everything. But if we want to change the world, we need to identify a small number of important and ahievable tasks and focus our resources on achieving them.
4. Build a shared vision, then empower others to deliver it
As a leader, my priority is to build common understanding about what the team can achieve together. With that in place, I will trust the team to get on to deliver it to the best of their ability. In my view, the managerialist approach – micromanaging staff with rafts of performance targets – is a fall-back for those who cannot lead. Command and control is both a cause and a consequence of failure.
5 . Say what you mean, mean what you say
I will never have a hidden agenda: I will always be open, honest and direct. If my team feels that they have to interpret what I say for hidden meaning then I am not building their trust and not communicating openly enough. In general, colleagues want more communication rather than less.
6. We have a responsibility to take risks and face the consequences
One of our responsibilities in DFID is to dream big and to take risks. We will let down the poor if we care more about protecting our own backs from the risk of failure than we do about seizing every realistic chance we can for change. We should ask ourselves: “what is the worst that can happen?” This is not a rhetorical question: we have to identify what could go wrong, and then decide how to mitigate those risks. It is important to realize that the risks are rarely very serious. We will keep a sense of proportion.
7. Build a diverse team and listen well
One of the most common causes of bad decisions and poor implementation is group-think. Every time we put a bunch of similar people in a room – with the same background, the same training, the same attitudes and the same experiences – they will reinforce each other’s faults and prejudices. Instead, I will nurture a diverse team, so that we have a variety of ideas, disciplines and discourses in every conversation. I will listen well, especially to people who challenge my assumptions. Together we will demonstrate the ‘wisdom of the crowd‘.
8. Be patient.
Nothing really important happens quickly. If we can reach out to others, to build understanding and trust, and open ourselves to learning, we can build a long-lasting shared vision for change. If we try to take short-cuts we will end up with clever language that means different things to different people and which never leads to sustained and serious change.
9. I will not take myself too seriously.
The long term drivers of change are not the actions of individuals, but the collective effect of social trends, of evolution of institutions and incentives, changes in attitudes, incremental changes in technology, and incremental changes in systems. None of us is indispensible. I will do my best to contribute positively, but I ultimately I am not that important.
I would welcome thoughts (in the comments below) about this agenda for management.