Some months ago, I decided to look at all the agencies that responded to the 2021 People Matter Employee Survey (PMES) conducted by the NSW Public Service Commission.
I was curious to know whether the smaller agencies exhibited a ‘leadership edge’. The results were very interesting. Only two departments showed disability employment figures above the state average of 5%. They had 6%. There were 10 small entities with figures ranging from 7% to 12%.
Legal Aid NSW was the largest body, with staffing at just over 1340. It showed an impressive 10% of staff with disability, and its PMES response rate was 100%. That just had to be down to leadership. I was keen to have a chat with Brendan Thomas, who was Legal Aid’s CEO at the time.
By the time I got around to contacting him he had left Legal Aid to become Deputy Secretary, Transforming Aboriginal Outcomes at the Department of Communities and Justice.
This is a substantial essay. I have tried to keep it as trimmed as possible, but the truth is that a 3 or 4 pager on celebrating great leadership isn’t going to be all that informative or useful. What you have below is not dry theory. It is mostly Brendan talking about his experiences. I have tried to keep as close to the character of the original transcript as I could. But converting speech into prose demands modification – just to make it readable. These are rich insights into what it takes to be a genuine inclusive leader.
Who is Brendan Thomas?
There’s a Sydney Morning Herald article from 1 November 2021 that gives a useful backgrounder on Brendan, so I won’t repeat its content here.
He was CEO of Legal Aid NSW for 5 years, until late 2021. He is a Wiradjuri man, though Sydney born. He has a passion for what is just.
What impressed me through our chat was that passion filtered through deep self-reflection and self-awareness, and a strong understanding of contemporary management/leadership methodologies. Brendan mentioned that he reads Harvard Business Review (HBR) regularly, noting that, “I went there for a little while.”
Passion, self-awareness and an educated approach to leadership and management is the perfect trifecta in my book. I first encountered HBR in 1987, when I was a lowly Employment Officer in the Commonwealth Employment Service. It is always a great thing to get to chat with HBR readers, who have never been all that numerous in the circles I participate in.
Appreciating those three attributes is the key to understanding Brendan’s approach to leadership.
Using PMES as a tool to drive positive change
We began with discussing how Brendan uses the PMES as a tool to interrogate his workforce and workplace cultures. His approach is very Harvard – It is data we can use to make things work better – for individual employees, for work units, and for the organisation.
Brendan: Following my first PMES with Legal Aid, we did a full review, engaged with staff, put the review back out to our people, and made a bunch of changes. A couple of those changes actually made the situation slightly worse. Some things didn’t really work.
The best method of dealing with that is as soon as we realized something didn’t work, we went back out to the staff and said, “Sorry. We tried this and it didn’t work. And these are the reasons why it didn’t work, and this is what we’re going to do about that.”
So, talking to staff often about what we’re doing, including the stuff that didn’t work – and what we are doing differently, builds confidence that the leadership is genuine about making positive changes.
I think the more you do that, the higher level of engagement you get from staff. The more they feel that their input is going to be valued, and the more they think that management is actually being honest with them about what’s going on, the more they will see that the PMES is something of value to them.
For each PMES we made an organization plan, and then we required each office to talk about their PMES results. Then I’d go to each office and talk about the results too. We’d have a discussion about what was good and what wasn’t so good. There were some offices that just had fantastic results, and others that needed some work.
Michael: In terms of the offices that had fantastic results to what extent did leadership play a role?
Brendan: Where staff say management listens to them, and where they report having regular meetings with their managers, they have good engagement scores. And all times where those things are lacking, the engagement scores are down.
We developed a very collegiate leadership group. Everybody was working together, being really open and honest, and regularly engaging with staff – talking about problems.
I’m thinking about one office which had very high level of engagement. But it also had a bunch of really wicked operational difficulties to deal with. The challenges were discussed openly and were being dealt with in a way that engaged the staff. That was the quality of local management.
We set a benchmark for ourselves. In terms of staff engagement, we didn’t want anything below 75%. And if any office got below that, we would have an executive discussion about that location. We would talk about what we knew about that office and what we thought might improve their performance.
And then we’d have a focused discussion with the managers and have a workshop with the staff to talk about those results to see what we could do.
You engage your staff and say, “Yeah, you said this is good and this wasn’t so good. What do you think we can do to make it better?” And if you listen to the responses and you act on them, things improve.
I think, in Legal Aid, there was a good knowledge amongst the staff that we took that survey really seriously, that we acted on it, that we were honest about it.
Brendan’s approach can be summed up as follows:
- High levels of engagement are the best indicator of a healthy and safe workplace.
- Use PMES data to identify threats to high engagement.
- Talk to the staff to find out what the issues are.
- Address the issues.
- Go back to staff to check that the fix worked.
- If not, try again.
The importance of effective leadership and management
Legal Aid gave Brendan a great opportunity to make key observations about managers. Lawyers were promoted to manager positions on the basis for their skills as lawyers, not on their capabilities as managers. Sometimes that caused problems.
Middle managers are the most influential – and hence key factors in the level of workplace engagement.
Brendan: You can get a really good dynamic bunch of senior executives and a bunch of committed frontline staff. But if you’ve got stale middle management, you’re in trouble.
We had a really mixed bunch of some people who were really good, but a whole bunch of others who were not. And this isn’t just a Legal Aid problem. I think it’s a kind of specialist organization problem where people have been promoted because of their expertise rather than because they’re good managers.
So, I had a bunch of people whose management style was pretty much closing the door and sending everybody emails.
We quickly talked about what is the standard that we expect from managers, and what are the kind of competencies that we need. It was a good learning experience in Legal Aid, because it was clear people were being employed because they were good lawyers, not because they good managers. And in fact, they would actively admit it. That’s not a good way to run an organization. Let’s take a step back and say, “What do we actually need to see in terms of skills and competence in management, not legal work?”
And, therefore, we were able to enunciate those expectations, and say, “OK, this is the kind of standard that we expect of managers in terms of their capabilities and their competence. And this is the way we’re going to help people who aren’t there get there.” We had a couple of coaching and development programs for that level of management.
The lesson that it teaches you is that you need to be very clear about what you are recruiting for.
Lawyers who were managers could elect to develop their management skills or find alternative employment – as lawyers. That’s a fortunate option for Legal Aid, and I am not sure how transferrable that option is beyond a specialist organisation. However, the point is clear – when recruiting managers, select those with management and leadership skills at the required level of competence.
Brendan: We went through a very clear process of redefining what those management positions looked like, and what we needed from them. So that was reflected in the role description, and in the recruitment process itself.
So, you’ll be testing for what you want in terms of personal characteristics, the kind of leadership experience, and the leadership style in people for those management jobs.
The importance of establishing trust and psychological safety in the workplace
Michael: In terms of workplace culture, how do you create the kind of environment suitable not only for staff with disability, but any of the other members of diversity groups?
Brendan: I tried to create an environment where people were encouraged to talk openly about things that they’re uncomfortable with. This included engagement with their manager, bullying in the workplace, or any kind of discrimination, if they saw it.
We had an induction process where I spent about 45 minutes talking with all new staff members. I really tried to emphasize to them kind of all the values of the organization, what we’d expect in terms of their behaviour. We also talked about what they should expect in terms of support from us, and I strongly encouraged people to directly email me if they had concerns.
If you find a workplace that has a high level of staff engagement, that engagement tends to be high across all kinds of people in that workplace.
So, if you’ve got an organisation where it’s comfortable for everyone to come to work, then it’s comfortable for everyone to come to work regardless of who they are.
But it has to be a place in which people are openly encouraged to participate and engage. It has to be a place where people can feel safe. That’s a really important thing.
It also has to be a workplace where you are able to get some stuff wrong – because we all do that. It’s really important, I think, for leadership and management, it is essential to say that very openly. No one who works with me ever gets into trouble if they screw something up because they gave it their best shot and it didn’t work out.
So, we all screw things up. But it’s not about covering stuff up. You will end up in trouble if you do that. I don’t allow a blame culture to be created. So long as people are doing good work, and we are clear about what’s expected from people in terms of work volume and work outputs, a good work culture will be created. It is really important to be clear about those kinds of things.
A good workplace is one that brings the best out of people and where people feel like they want to do the best they can. So, it’s a workplace that has a relatively high level of expectation of its staff. We think you’re going do a good job and we’re going help you do it. And their expectation is you are going do good job – as a manager or a leader. There isn’t an expectation that you can, or will, do a lousy job, or that we are going to monitor or manage you really tightly.
Brendan spoke about what constituted effective inclusive leadership and management. Here’s what I summarised:
- Be clear about your expectations and talk with staff about them.
- Support staff to meet those expectations.
- Hold them to meaningful account if they fail to honour them with support.
- Identify and address issues injurious to staff engagement.
- Staff will have expectations of the senior leadership team.
- Support your leadership team to meet them.
- Hold your managers and executives to meaningful account if they fail to honour them with support.
- Be approachable.
No tolerance for bullies
Bullying by managers and leaders is a want of relationship and communication skills as well as possibly poor workload management practices. All organisations profess zero tolerance for bullies, but not all deliver. Brendan spoke about the need to address bullying by managers.
Brendan: In Legal Aid, we did have a bullying problem when I started. This was coming from some of the ‘old school’ kind of people who were not great people managers. Their bullying had been ignored for a long time.
I have no tolerance for that, and I deal with it straight away, and pretty harshly, to be frank.
Now that we were dealing with this sort of stuff, we had some discussions about what staff needed, without breaching confidentiality. And we worked out a way to do it. About every six months we talked to people and said, “Well, this is the type of things that we’ve dealt with, the volume of them, and the outcomes that have followed.” It was a delicate balance to be able to communicate that to the organization in a way that people would say, “Alright, some people have behaved badly, and I could see something happened.”
So, I really try to feedback to the staff to say, “We don’t tolerate this kind of behaviour, and here’s the examples of where we’ve taken action. And if you’ve got something to say, you should always be able to say it.” But that’s not to say that that always happened.
I can give you this example where we had a senior executive who managed up very well. Very intelligent, articulate person, but was a micro-manager – and it came out the PMES survey. Issues were coming up, but not directly. We could see there was a problem and when the initial inquiries weren’t really bringing out the problem, we looked at it in another way.
I spoke to a couple of staff in the division off the record; and said, “I see that you’ve got some issues.” I encouraged them to tell others to raise their concerns directly with me. And a whole bunch of them did. We then did an independent review of that division. Everybody was anonymously spoken to by the reviewer and what came out of that review was it was a really bad workplace where people felt really collegiate to one another, but almost universally bullied by the boss. I’ve never seen a review that was so one-sided.
Everybody had exactly the same view that “We really like our job. Everyone is really nice, except that person. And here’s the examples of what’s happening with that person.” I ended up just dismissing that executive. Now you’re got a good division. That was an example of where people weren’t comfortable and felt frightened, and I needed to act to restore trust in our culture.
Support for staff with disability
The 2021 PMES report for Legal Aid show staff with disability at 10%, twice the state’s average, Brendan recalled that Legal Aid’s internal diversity data for people with disability was around 8%, but he wasn’t completely sure. Usually there is a very significant gap between PMES figures and an agency’s internal diversity data. This is a ‘trust gap’ that hasn’t been closed for years, despite efforts to do so across the sector.
Michael: Let’s talk about disability and to the extent to which staff disclosed any psychological disability. I don’t like using the term mental illness. It has a stigma. Saying that you have a mental illness often implies disordered thinking processes, which would be a problem for a lawyer. The majority of people with ‘mental illness’ are diagnosed with anxiety and/or depression, which doesn’t impact on their intellectual processes.
Brendan: I can give an example of where it came to a head for us, and where it caused us to think very differently. I had very strong focus on Aboriginal employment in Legal Aid. We had a couple of Aboriginal staff and we set some targets for increasing the number. There’s one staff member who sent me an email saying. “I’ve got a mental illness and it’s not being managed in the workplace.” She was a relatively young woman in an administrative role. She had pretty acute anxiety and depression. And she was experiencing times when she was getting pressured in the workplace, and her response to that would be to not come into work the next day because her anxiety level was high.
Then that workplace started to say, “Well, this employee is not showing up and her work is falling on somebody else.” She was on a temporary engagement at the time, like a traineeship, a kind of an entry level employment arrangement. Her manager wanted to terminate her because of repeated non-attendance at the workplace. HR was supporting the proposed termination. It came to me, and I said “No.”
And then she sent me an email saying, “I’ve got a mental illness and people in the workplace were giving me a hard time.” The incident caused us to have a frank discussion about how people who have those issues are dealing with them. Sometimes that comes out in people not attending workplace; or having some kind of performance issue. We need to deal with that.
I had a discussion with the management group who wanted to get rid of her. I said, “Well, if she broke her leg and she couldn’t attend the office, what would you do about that?” They said, “We’d say she’s sick.” I said, “I see. But she’s kind of got a broken leg and can’t come into work. But you’re not treating her like she’s sick, you’re treating her like she’s a bad performer.” That’s particularly bad from an Aboriginal point of view. A large proportion of the Aboriginal population have these issues.
Michael: I’m guessing that given the nature of law, there’s a certain number of people with disabilities studying law. There would be a fairly ready marketplace, and a chance to drive a recruitment campaign.
Brendan: Oh yeah, absolutely, and not just legal jobs. We went out and specifically recruited people with disability in some of the other areas as well. I employed people with autism specifically. We went to a firm called Specialisterne and talked to them about the types of jobs they might have people for. We ended up filling a couple of data and analytical roles.
The importance of a self-reflective personal philosophy
Contemporary leadership research recognises the importance of emotional intelligence, and I have noticed that the executives I have the highest regard for have had either an academic grounding in psychology, or they are very well read in individual and organisational psychology (especially in leadership and people management)
Michael: To what extent does what you’re saying come from your own personal insight or have you done a lot of training and or reading in contemporary management and leadership practices?
Brendan: I’ve been a senior executive since 2007. I’ve had a lot of good successes as well as a few experiences that haven’t gone well. That’s why I think you learn more from the things that don’t go well.
I’ve focused pretty heavily on trying to develop my own knowledge and experience around executive management. I subscribe to the Harvard Business Review which comes out every month. Mostly, I read stuff that’s locked into the Harvard Business School.
I really try to pay attention to other executives and engage in discussions around executive management. In my last couple of roles, I really tried to foster an environment with the executive leadership group where you do have discussions about what it is to manage an organization, what do you need to know.
Michael: Was your executive leadership group as keen on reading as you were. Was that something that you’re able to foster in the leadership group?
Brendan: Yeah, I was lucky. I think by the time I finished in Legal Aid we had a leadership group that were very interested in their own development. We really tried to foster an environment where the group was interested in doing that together. So, people were looking at how they could develop as a group, not just as individuals, or individual members of a group. How does that group develop if it understands its own strengths and weaknesses?
I had things like the 360 feedback exercises. I always say to people, it doesn’t matter what your score is. What is in my mind, having done a lot of those over 15 years, is that it helps you see how people perceive you. When I get 360 feedback that’s OK because it’s me. I’ve got some areas that I’m not good at that I need to cater for, but I know now about them.
We’ve all got them, right? It’s whether you’re conscious of them that matters. If you’re cognizant of them, you can do something about it. You can either, as an executive, build your skill and understanding, or you can structure yourself so that you are mitigating the things that you’re not great at. So, I know for myself, my natural inclination is not to have open communication with people. I do it much more now because I’ve done it for 15 years, but it’s not my natural inclination.
So, I know I need to have a very strong communications function that works with me. I’m always thinking about how I’m communicating with people because I know it’s something I need to be aware of.
And I know I’ve got a tendency to be a little perfectionistic and expect too much of people and or expect things to get done a little too quickly. And I mitigate that by usually having a PMO function that can manage things and keep them on track and on time – so, I’m not hassling people saying “Where’s this? Where’s that?” It’s being managed by somebody else.
You know where you’re strong, and you know where you’ve got weaknesses. You’re going have a weakness somewhere around. And you either develop those weaknesses or you develop strategies to mitigate them.
And as I always say to people, when they do those 360 degrees surveys, it doesn’t matter what your score is. It matters how aware you are of your own strengths and weaknesses.
By now the reader will have formed an opinion about whether Brendan is the kind of executive leader they would want to work to, and you probably don’t care too much about what I am going to say next.
Leadership is not easy, and it doesn’t suit everyone. But it must be done well if we are to have high performing public sector agencies. I don’t know what the upper limit is in terms of the number of people who can be led by an individual. Even in Legal Aid, with just over 1300 people Brendan had a leadership team. But the influence one individual can have is very clear in his story.
It is clear that effective Inclusive Leadership must be:
- Grounded in a personal commitment,
- Informed by contemporary organisational psychology research on inclusion and leadership,
- Practised in a self-reflective manner that expresses openness, honesty, and emotional intelligence, and
- Committed to sustained engagement between the senior leadership team and all staff through:
- Anyone-to-anyone accessibility,
- Shared challenge identification and resolution, and
- Transparent decision-making.
Inclusive leaders must be at every level in an organisation – from the very top down through all levels of influence to every manager’s, team leader’s and supervisor’ role.