Mark Pegg and Andrew Ettinger Directors at Ashridge Business School look at the needs of public sector clients.
Public sector clients have different needs to their commercial counterparts, but the differences are closing fast. Development programmes must be agile and responsive to meet the needs of the rising stars, the next generation of public service leaders.
Ashridge Business School develops new leaders in Departments such as the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the Home Office, and publicly owned enterprises or not for profit organisations such as the BBC, BNFL and Network Rail.
Many of our public sector customers are specialists with world class professional skills whose careers have reached a critical point. They want guidance on the skills they need to move on and up. Their organisations want more leaders – to inspire and lead teams to deliver their skills and work across the organisation integrating many different activities. The UK Government sees the shortage of good leaders as a major barrier to change in public services.
The MOD had and still has leadership skills in abundance, but lacked the right skills to lead civil servants – this was the challenge they asked Ashridge to take on. When the MOD first came to Ashridge in 1995, there was still a very clear difference in cultures between public and private sector – our new customers were very bright people with indifferent people skills.
The ability to amass complex data, assimilate the essentials and prepare lengthy, erudite briefing papers was a cliché view of a senior civil servant but not so far from the truth. They had a strong ‘not invented here’ philosophy and even their psychometric profiles were different from their private sector peer group.
The MOD wanted Ashridge to help them change this culture. This was far from easy. Development programmes were robust experiences, bruising verbal encounters where Ashridge tutors were expected to ‘do things’ to people and have their cards marked out of 10 by a critical audience. This was a difficult environment, but we were helped by forward thinking people in the MOD who wanted to move from policy making and cleverness to delivery and customer focus well before this became identified as ‘Modernising Government’.
Today the bruises have healed and we see very different people from a decade ago. Their expectations have changed radically – they take responsibility for their own learning and development and take an active part in the classroom. Debates are still challenging but the atmosphere is much more supportive and sharing is normal.
Differences between public and private needs and behaviours have sharply diminished. Course reviews from the course members themselves helped to change the climate, moving our offer even more towards leadership behaviours and teamworking and to a more personalised approach – with more one-to-one coaching and more peer feedback.
For the future, we see greater focus on learning processes -longer interventions with more coaching and regular testing and application of the learning back in the workplace and much greater use of e learning tools such as the Ashridge Virtual Learning Resource Centre. The latter is critical if the MOD is to measure the return on its investment, and more importantly if it is to see learning at work, home and in the classroom, applied to the delivery of better public services with greater value for money for the taxpayer.
Working with the public sector, both here at Ashridge and virtually, is one that is surprisingly rewarding and enjoyable.