Leaning in to servant leadership – pearls of wisdom from Rachel Hunter

Being adaptable and leaning in to servant leadership – pearls of wisdom from Rachel Hunter

At IPAA Queensland’s most recent ‘Stewards on the Couch’ event with Acting Director-General of the Department of the Premier and Cabinet Rachel Hunter, she discussed a range of topics about her career journey with journalist Madonna King. During the discussion, the subject of being a leader in an organisation whose focus is about content you have limited knowledge came up – and below is Rachel’s brilliant response.

Q: How different is the job of Director-General of one department compared to the other? Or is it the same Rachel with the same set of skills put into that role?

You have to learn, you have to become comfortable with the content of a portfolio. I think that became most real to me when I was appointed to the Justice portfolio. I went there as the Public Service Commissioner acting as the Director-General in the Justice portfolio to lead a review of the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions…

Without a law degree…

Without a law degree. Subsequently I was appointed to the role and I remember sitting in policy briefings thinking, I don’t know what these people are saying. You just have to work hard. You have to work hard and work with teams. You have to trust advice. Be open enough to say, I just don’t understand what we’re trying to achieve here.

Q: Is that hard, saying I don’t understand this? Explain it to me.

I don’t find it hard because the worst thing you could possibly do is go into a situation where you genuinely don’t understand something and try and explain it to a Minister. I never want to be in that space. I think these are jobs for teams, that’s not to say you abdicate your responsibilities, but they are jobs for teams. Where you need highly specialist technical advice and you need to distil that in a manner that’s understandable and clear for an audience, including a Director-General and a Minister. You’ve got to bring the right people into the room.

 I think providing you’re prepared to do the hard work around the content and get to know the organisation you’re accountable for leading it will be fine. Leadership isn’t a cookie cutter exercise because you are always dealing with new policy challenges, different dynamics with teams, different expectations with Ministers and different stakeholder groups.

Great advice for those seeking to stretch and develop their acumen in public purpose leadership!

Later in the event, Rachel shared further insights as to how she approaches her role and place in the public purpose sector…

You have to be purposeful. You have to know why you’re there and what you’re accountable for delivering. Then you need to understand how you go about it. You go about it by getting the right team to work with you. These are jobs for teams. I’m not a subscriber to the model of heroic leadership. I am not a heroic leader. I’m a leader who spends a lot of time reflecting, thinking about strategy, how to navigate, how to problem solve. That’s the job for leaders, I think. I’m also a leader that second guesses myself all the time and that’s why I need people around me. I’m an extroverted thinker and I need to be able to bounce ideas of people.”

“Understanding purpose and working with the people in the organisation to develop a shared sense of purpose is fundamental. Being able to communicate that purpose in a way that actually motivates people. I guess I revert to the teacher in me. People are motivated by their capacity to contribute to something that’s bigger than them. That’s why we work in the public service. The public service makes a difference. It matters. I think if you can tap that instinct to do good in people through a shared purpose, then people rise to that and they give discretionary effort.”

 And what does Rachel look for in prospective leaders and colleagues in public purpose?

 “I believe that we have to have people in leadership roles who model the value of the public service. We carry a particular responsibility as public servants to be role models and to look to role models. Obviously, a capacity to add value to the role. An ability to contribute to thought leadership, to policy making, to quality of service delivery. A sense of how to make things better and how to change things. Leadership is about making change happen, so I would be looking for that predisposition, that motivation.”

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