By Shabiya Ali Ahlam
The world is now at an exciting phase of development and the role of leaders has become more challenging than ever before.
While Sri Lanka has achieved much in the areas of human resource development in the past five years, it is time to ensure that its efforts are aligned to meet the emerging challenges since the nation is at a juncture where it is gearing up to become a middle income economy.
To present the need for certain leadership skills that will help Sri Lanka in its journey towards further development, the Ministry of Finance and Planning featured Evans and Peck Principal Peter Achterstraat to share his views on leadership at the ‘Eminent Speaker’ series which was held at the Miloda – Academy of Financial Studies, the training Institute of the Ministry of Finance and Planning.
Selected to deliver the third lecture of the series which was inaugurated in 2013, Achterstraat, who is from Australia, spoke to the audience on ‘Steering Through 2014-2020, Must Have Leadership Qualities to Lead Organisational Change’.
Achterstraat has held the position of Chief Commissioner of the State Revenue, New South Wales for seven years after having served the Australian Tax office for 20 years. A major highlight during Peter’s tenure as Auditor-General was developing the Corporate Governance Lighthouse, a model for private and public sector governance, which won the Governance Reporting Award Public Sector at the Australasian Reporting Awards in June 2013.
He is well-recognised as an accomplished leader with vivid experience across strategic planning, risk and change management, having successfully worked with corporations at board level across the public and private sectors.
Experience as Auditor General
Drawing from his experience as Auditor General, a post he held for several years, Achterstraat shared his mission at that time, which was to be a leader who brought about added value to the institution he served.
While being the Auditor General comes with a lot of responsibility, during his second year in that position he chose to think differently with regard to how his job was done. Instead of pointing out what went wrong after a series of events, he chose to identify and address the issues before it event took place, thus avoid the problem altogether.
“We were dealing with a number of different departments and projects related to IT and infrastructure and I thought that instead of coming up after the event and saying what went wrong, it is best to go before the event itself and say how we could learn to do things better in the future. I aimed at finding out why some projects failed while some were a success and why some government departments are highly effective in their work while others are not despite having given the same number of resources,” said Achterstraat at the lecture, which had a full house audience consisting of senior professionals from the public and private sector.
Key element to be successful
Attempting to get a better view in this regard, Achterstraat decided to speak to all the heads of the different departments he was working with on the necessary element for success of projects. While he expected to hear answers such as the need for good peer review, better resources, higher technology, and good quality assurance programs, Achterstraat was not surprised with what they had to say.
Like him, the heads of departments opined that the success and the failure of a project depend on leadership at all management levels.
Taking the survey a step further, Achterstraat was curious to talk to directors of top international companies to get their views on the necessary leadership skills. However, these top professionals responded by asking if he was talking about the skills required today, or those that will be required in five years’ time. “This tells us that we need to be able to predict the changes will take place so the skills can be adapted accordingly,” he said.
With aspects such as majority of the countries moving towards an ageing population, younger people expecting more from work, and technology continuing to advance, leadership skills to handle such changes is imperative to have.
How much has changed?
Taking the Australian prison system as an example, in the old days the system was measured on the number of escapees and the cost per prisoner. The system had narrow goals such as reducing the cost per prisoner from AUS$ 250 per night to AUS$ 220 per night, and to achieve this, they had to reduce staff training and hospital work.
Later, the Government said that the goal of the prison was not to reduce the cost per prisoner but to stop people coming back to jail. The Government then called the head of the prison, police force, and the head of the courts to share their new goal – to reduce the number of returnees by 30%. Noting that this sends a different message altogether, Achterstraat said to achieve such a goal, different leadership skills were required.
“Like the prison system, a lot of things are changing. For this we have to keep up with leadership skills. So there is a lot of change coming down the pipeline.”
What is leadership?
Presenting a few definitions on leadership, he said leadership is the ability of an individual to influence and motivate others to contribute to the success of an organisation. Some note that leadership is doing the right thing while management is doing things right.
“This is what the global leaders are saying. This is what the people have said in the past and I think we can learn from that. We also know that there is different definition between management and leadership. I am a firm believer that a small increase in leadership will increase productivity dramatically.”
Having interviewed one of the most interesting people, Neil Armstrong, on his views on what is essential for leadership, the astronaut who was the first to set foot on the moon had said it’s the ability to allow everyone in an organisation to work towards the set vision.
During his mission that turned a new chapter in science, the vision was to make the United States of America the first country to land on the moon. With the moon mission having a team of 40,000 persons, all those involved worked towards that vision only, he shared.
“Everyone needs to know what is happening. When I interviewed many other top personalities, all shared the same sentiments. If we can get people to work for and with us to be focused on the outcome, we are going to perform better,” said Achterstraat.
Key qualities required by a leader
According to his survey, a successful leader is one who engages with a wide range of stakeholders. They deal with volatile and certain ambiguous and conflicting agendas. They create genuine long-term value to the public and know what questions to ask even if they don’t know all the answers.
“Successful leaders are those who are able to communicate in simple languages, explain to their stakeholders how they fit into the big picture. Their role is changing from what it was in the past,” noted Achterstraat.
Three decades ago a leader did not have to manage ambiguity. Everything was straightforward. Today, everything has changed and in the public sector there is a conflicting agenda and it is the good leaders who can sit through this and deliver, he added.
“A good leader sees the gold in people, and not the mud. They can predict the risks in the new environment and prepare for the vitalities that are to come. Good leaders are humble but are able to deliver fierce results. Good leaders are one step ahead and have the skills and experiences to deal with the unexpected.”
These qualities need to be split into three: attributes, skills, and behaviour. According to Achterstraat, this is necessary since while not much can be done with the attributes, skills can be developed and behaviours can change. While there are two schools of thoughts on leadership, which is ‘leaders are born’ or ‘leaders are made,’ Achterstraat opined it is a bit of both. “If leaders were born and did nothing with their skills, then they would not be leaders. At the same time if they don’t have the leadership skills, then no amount of training is going to make you a good leader,” he justified.
Pix by Lasantha Kumara