Four leaders' wins and losses - the public leadership pipeline

Kristian Dahl, Business Director, LEAD and Thor Molly-Søholm, Director, LEAD

The framework for the Public Leadership Pipeline

The Public Leadership Pipeline is the result of a three-year research project at Aalborg University, where we, together with 15 public organizations and hundreds of public leaders, have adapted and reshaped the theory for the Danish public sector.

In the following, the theory is introduced based on a major case where a municipal school administration is undergoing a significant structural change. We follow four managers and their struggle to succeed at their respective management levels.

N2 The employee level: John's first year as a school teacher

From day one at college, John became known as a passionate advocate for public education. With his diploma in hand, he stepped straight into a job at his old internship school, where the enthusiastic new teacher was welcomed with open arms.

Four years later, John can look back on some extremely busy years: shortly after joining the school, he became the class teacher for a 5th grade class with severe social problems and a rebellious parent group. Now, the students are ready to graduate from primary school. It's not a class that excels with straight A's, but parents and students see John as the man who quickly got things on track and created learning and well-being in the class. John says: "Looking back, the most important thing for me was to show that our school can be a good place for everyone. When I took over the class, several of the so-called "resourceful" parents wanted to send their children to private school so that their children wouldn't have to deal with the troublemakers in the classroom. I consider it a declaration of failure for our society if parents start opting out of public school - and I refuse to give in to a society where schools cannot handle diversity. That's why I'm proud that I got all the parents to support public school, and I'm proud that all my students will soon graduate."

In the teachers' room, the consensus is that John has succeeded as a classroom teacher because he is professionally skilled and excellent at working across disciplines, and he brings many different resources into play. One of John's colleagues says about John: "If you want to move a "problem class", you have to be able to reach out to the parents and at the same time juggle SSP, the special education center, the municipality and all the other parties." Seen through the eyes of school principal Marie, John's success looks like this: "He was a self-starter. He didn't sit around waiting for someone to tell him what to do. Using his professionalism as a springboard, he jumped into challenges on his own initiative. At the same time, John was also brilliant at understanding how he could use me as a leader. For example, at the beginning of his work with the class, there were some violent complaints from a single pair of parents. John invited me into the process at just the right time. It was a sensitive process, and not all teachers are able to use their leader constructively in such a situation."

Alongside his work as a classroom teacher, John's commitment has earned him a position at the school as a "professional lighthouse". He is deeply involved in all professional forums and has also started a master's degree in pedagogy and learning processes at university. A colleague gives John this testimonial: "He is full of ideas and professional knowledge, but is also humble in the sense that he always asks the rest of us for help if he is unsure about something. On the other hand, John himself is always ready to step in if I need help."

In terms of the Public Leadership Pipeline's Given the Public Leadership Pipeline's understanding of the core skills, work values and priorities at the employee level, it is not surprising that John performs well. In addition to the qualities that both the Private Leadership Pipeline and the Public Leadership Pipeline identify as key at the employee level (e.g. professional expertise, collaboration skills and the fact that he values and is motivated by personal professional work), John has a number of qualities that are unique and necessary to succeed as a public sector employee:

  • He is strong at process coordination: coordinating complex work processes with a wide range of stakeholders with very different needs and agendas.
  • He embodies the distinctive public values of equal democratic treatment of all and sees the school as the place where children from all walks of life should meet and build solidarity and mutual knowledge for the benefit of the overall cohesion of society.
  • He is characterized by a high degree of self-management and works independently and self-initiated.

The model below shows the definition of the employee level in the Public Leadership Pipeline. The specific requirements for the public sector employee are highlighted in italics. Skills, priorities and work values for employees in the Public Leadership Pipeline.

We will not elaborate on all aspects of the model, as this is done in detail in Dahl & Molly-Søholm 2012; chapter 5, but we will add some comments on the ability to process coordinate cross-cutting, interdisciplinary processes with a focus on both process and outcome. This skill is generally central in the public sector, as the number of stakeholders is often very large and many of the services must be created in interaction with many other public bodies. These processes need to be coordinated with a focus on both outcome and process, as virtually all work processes in public organizations are subject to rules on the public's right of access to documents, and because politically controlled organizations can be very sensitive to even small procedural errors or inaccuracies that can turn into political battles in the media.

The work value public values is also central, as it refers to the special values associated with managing statutory and/or politically decided services in a democracy: orderliness, equal treatment of all, everyone's right to access to documents, etc. This is expressed by a public manager as follows: "You can't have a value like Glistrup delivering 0 DKK in tax payments. It does not harmonize with being a public employee"

In example 3.2, we move on to the employee level manager.

Skills, priorities and work values for employees in the Public Leadership Pipeline: 

N2 Transition 1: From employee to manager of employees

Here we meet one of John's colleagues, Lise, who is struggling to make a successful transition from being an employee to becoming a manager of employees. This is called transition 1.

N3 Lise - between profession and organization

The municipal election creates a majority in the city council for a structural change in the school area. The goal is to achieve savings and create academic synergy by grouping schools into school centers. Each center consists of four to five schools. Each center has a school center manager and a number of professional managers for the units of special education, after-school care, primary school, upper school, IT, buildings and procurement. The number of employees in the units is significantly fewer than in the previous structure, but the idea is that resources can be used more flexibly and that the same things can be done with fewer hands. The center managers, along with a number of chiefs of staff, report to the Head of Children & Youth. In connection with the establishment of the school center, managers from each of the schools that will now be part of the center have the opportunity to apply for the job of school center manager. Those managers who do not get the job will find that their role changes from being a traditional school principal to a cross-cutting function (e.g. management of the special area across the schools that make up the school center) with the school center manager as the overall manager. The leadership title here is professional leader alongside school leadership.

The mood in the new school center management team in Nordbyen is not exactly optimistic. The political reality is now really hitting home at this first meeting of the team. The agenda for the meeting states the allocation of responsibilities to the managers. Lise takes the floor:

"Schools really feel like we've had something pulled over our heads. At my old school, we are not at all ready to give up all the good things we have created over the years and throw them into a common box. Our area and students have needs that are completely different from the neighboring schools. That's how we feel. The employees have asked me to fight for us not to be swallowed up by a school center and closed down." This comment elicits a mixture of shaking heads from some of the team and sympathetic nods from others. Lise seizes the spark that has been ignited and continues with a series of similar arguments that are supported by several of the others. Niels, the school center manager, tries to get the administration's agenda through at the meeting, but is unsuccessful. Over the next few meetings, they have to allocate responsibilities and tasks between the managers, but Lise and a few of the others fight against this and it drags on. A month later, the bomb drops. Niels has arbitrarily distributed the cross-cutting responsibilities that the professional managers are to handle. Lise is given responsibility for special education. Soon it's business as usual, and Lise's first important task is to gather the employees in the new special education unit. This is where she decides to come clean:

"I think it is an inappropriate decision that has been made about the school center and having to work across the board. Like you, I am afraid that we will not be able to maintain the professional standard in special education in the future. But we have no choice but to roll up our sleeves and give the students the best we can."

Lise tackles the task head on. There are so many new professional details that she has to familiarize herself with. To gain the professional respect of the employees, Lise takes on the most demanding tasks that the unit receives. She throws every hour of the day and night into the task, and it pays off. Gradually, she receives very positive feedback from all of the unit's partners: "When Lise is on a task, you know it's being done properly!". This kind of positive feedback is a bright spot in a day-to-day life that is unfortunately full of complaints.

Some employees are demotivated by having to share tasks with new colleagues. In addition, there is a lot of "bickering" between different groups of employees. People stick to their old colleagues. Lise tries to encourage the employees by persisting with the tasks and showing them that it is possible to achieve good results even in difficult cases. From the employees' perspective, however, the story is different: "It's as if she takes all the particularly challenging cases away from us so she can show us how good she is. I need a leader - not a competitor." The employees from Lise's old school who have joined the special education unit are not satisfied either: "She used to always be able to represent us in relation to the administration - and she promised that she would fight tooth and nail for our school. But see if that helps at all."

Lise continues to work hard 24 hours a day, but struggles to make ends meet. On top of the demanding special education tasks, she spends a lot of time in contact with employees. In addition, the management team takes up far too much time. On a day-to-day basis, the other managers are pressured by a constant stream of emails and endless meetings about administrative hassles. All in all, unnecessary time theft in an already busy workday. Lise puts the topic on the agenda with a suggestion to significantly reduce meeting activity: "We're meeting ourselves to death. Why don't we just go to our schools and get something done...". The leadership team shows its true colors here. Her colleagues retort with accusations that she repeatedly misses deadlines on joint work plans and withdraws special education from cross-cutting projects. Lise leaves the meeting feeling like she has been ambushed by her colleagues: "Why don't we support each other and stand together? How am I supposed to prioritize the work in the leadership team when my calendar is already more than full of demanding tasks?".

The lack of interdisciplinary collaboration also means that the special education unit's work is poorly coordinated with the general educational efforts and a number of the politically adopted initiatives in the school area (especially motor skills and movement initiatives). Collaboration with other public bodies outside the administration (e.g. social authorities and health initiatives) is non-existent.

A little over a month later, the school center manager receives a written complaint from some of the special education staff. The employees point out that they have significant difficulties in working with Lise. On the same day, Lise consults her doctor and is placed on indefinite sick leave with stress as the cause.


Public management

LEAD helps public organizations create increased value for citizens and society by strengthening their leadership.

We collaborate with KL and the Crown Prince Frederik Center for Public Management on knowledge and method development. In recent years, we have been the supplier for the majority of the interdisciplinary management training in the Danish state and have been a trusted advisor for several of the major strategic management challenges in the municipalities and regions.

N3 Lise's transition issues

Lise's leadership behavior illustrates a number of symptoms that she is struggling with the classic transition problem: Namely, shifting her core value from being an employee who appreciates and is motivated by succeeding in her professional tasks to being a manager of employees who appreciates and is motivated by succeeding through others. The symptoms are:

  • She takes on all the demanding tasks herself and is even seen as a competitor by co-workers.
  • She is too busy with her professional duties to be available to her employees.
  • She doesn't develop her employees professionally for the new organizational context.
  • Leadership team meetings are seen as a less important and disruptive activity.
  • She doesn't work to build the right relationships for the sake of the organization. As a result, relationships with other professional leaders and other strategically important partners in the municipality are neglected.

All this happens despite the fact that Lise works incredibly hard, and it may seem unfair that she still receives criticism from almost all sides. Working hard is important, but doing the right things is even more important. This is where Lise fails.

In terms of the special qualities required of a public manager of employees, there are two problems in particular: Lise's communicative competence to make the politically agreed upon meaningful to the professional employees leaves a lot to be desired. She may have the skills to do so, but in terms of values, she is not loyal to the political decisions. In doing so, she also fails on another key parameter for public managers of employees: acting as a role model for the organization's decisions and values. Different skills and priorities are needed to succeed as a public sector employee manager.

In the model below, we have reproduced the leader of the employee level in the Public Leadership Pipeline. The specific requirements for the public leader are highlighted in italics.

In the following, we turn to John's experience with the same transition.

Skills, priorities and work values as well as typical pitfalls for the manager of employees in the Public Leadership Pipeline:

N3 John - stepping up as a leader

Some time after Lise has gone on sick leave, John is invited to Niels' office for a cup of coffee. An hour later, he steps out into the hallway as acting head of the special education unit, and shortly afterwards he takes up the position.

The reactions from employees are positive: "Finally we get a manager who actually understands what special education is all about. Now you have to give them a good shout at the administration - Lise unfortunately didn't get the message across!". The enthusiastic welcome quickly turns to disappointment, however, as John makes it clear through words and actions that he has no intention of being a 'stick-in-the-mud'. Among some of the old colleagues, the attitude is that "now the confirmand has really sold out of professionalism and is striving upwards!".

John has a new role, and he feels the effects when the invitations from the Friday beer club, soccer games and private parties soon stop arriving in his inbox. John is not entirely unaffected. As he says to an old student friend who is a pedagogical manager in another municipality: "It's not easy to put your foot down with old colleagues who you've sung karaoke with in a Christmas party shower". Throughout the start-up, John tries to keep his old school principal in his mind's eye as an ideal image of a leader who managed to be professionally inspiring without usurping tasks. A leader who was close, yet kept his distance and was honest about the leadership role, and who was clear and directional, but always only after consulting with employees. John is humble about his own role as a leader and openly tells his boss, colleagues and employees that he needs their help and feedback to find his feet as a new leader.

To get started on the job, he starts with Lise's calendar. It's packed with special education assignments that he needs to complete. After two hectic weeks, however, it quickly becomes clear that there are not enough hours in the day to keep Lise's calendar
running. One of the first tasks is to give the calendar a thorough cleaning by moving the majority of the professional tasks back to the employees' desks.

It quickly becomes clear that the new structure only exists on paper and that there is limited collaboration across the organization. Similarly, some of the employees spend a lot of time bemoaning the change. John therefore initiates a joint seminar for all employees as a starting point for a development process that will create ownership and show the way forward. An important foundation for the seminar is created by involving MED committees and union representatives. The day of the seminar arrives, and John welcomes everyone: "It is not up for discussion whether we should have an interdisciplinary special education unit. We should, and there are some possibilities - even though it worked well in the old special needs education. We must work to find out how we can succeed together in a good way that matches the political goals in the area and the needs of the children." By the end of the seminar, a number of ideas have been developed on how the unit can move forward, and interdisciplinary groups are set up to work on implementing the ideas in the following months.

Of course, daily life is not without its problems, and there are many knots that need to be planed off. Here, John works hard to clear the stones out of the way. He supplements this with an ongoing dialog in the corridors with the union representatives and co-committees on how to tackle the many challenges that arise as the unit settles into the new tasks and routines. At the same time, he strives to keep his hands off the professional tasks. The most important tool here is an insistence that employees can handle the tasks themselves through coaching and professional sparring. In addition, he consistently tries to engage in dialog with employees when he hears complaints about the new structure. The starting point is always an insistence that the unit will "muddle through" in the best possible way. In a conversation with a colleague from the management team, John explains this focus as follows: "By far, I see it as my most important task to make incomprehensible decisions "palatable" for my employees. What is conceived at a political level often doesn't make sense from a professional point of view to the employees - who see the situation from a completely different perspective than the politicians. Here it's my job to help people understand the logic of the decisions and see the possibilities in what seems wrong. If nothing else, help people to see that the world is not ending and that we can still come up with some good solutions if we think about it. At the same time, of course, I also have to take my employees seriously when they point out that conditions are deteriorating significantly. Here I have two tasks as a manager: I have to help employees figure out how to deal with what's bothering them here and now. In addition, I choose to bring the more cross-cutting or fundamental challenges into the management team so that we can find out together whether it's something we can do something about at our management level. If not, we have to learn to live with it, or alternatively, our manager has to take it further up the system."

John has been in management for almost half a year now and his efforts are starting to pay off. Getting the job done is taking precedence over his frustration with the new structure. In addition, he is working hard to position the unit constructively in relation to all "customers". He initiates interdisciplinary working groups where special education teachers, PPR employees and integration consultants from the administration work together to create programs for bilingual children. In the management team, colleagues also note that John is able to create coherence. The work of the leadership team is a top priority, and his opening line to the challenges the team faces is always: "What are we going to do about it?". Eight months after John's appointment, he becomes a permanent employee.

N3 John's successful transition

John handles the shift to managing employees with a completely different set of work values, priorities and skills than Lise. In this example, we see how his first task is to redefine his organizational position. He has been part of a strong professional collegial community, but with the role change, he can no longer be part of it. In other words: John moves from being a representative of the teaching profession and the professional ideals to being a representative of the organization and ultimately the political intentions that it must put into practice.

Conversely, in the example with Lise, we saw how she basically defined herself based on a professional employee's understanding of what a good manager should do. John defines his leadership role from a management perspective, thus stepping out of the professional role, but without letting go of professionalism completely. This requires him to step out of Lise's hectic producer role and instead place himself in a sparring role for employees and actively delegate and coordinate a number of tasks. He moves from cultivating his own professionalism to focusing on developing others'.

The fact that John has the professional insight, but has shifted his values to identify more with the organization than with his old profession as a teacher, provides a strong basis for making the new organization work. In this example, we see how he takes on the role of a kind of translator, making the politically agreed upon meaningful to the professional staff. He tries to tie two different logics together rather than creating a dichotomy between what politicians want and what teachers want. At the same time, he sets a clear management framework: "We shouldn't discuss whether we should have the special education unit or whether it's a good idea. We need to work together to make it succeed in a good way.". In this way, John acts as a loyal role model for the organization's decisions and values without losing contact and trust with employees. And he succeeds in involving employees in translating political goals into opportunity-oriented, concrete actions. In parallel with John's translation work, we see in the example how he also takes a leadership role in getting a wide range of processes up and running. On one level, he supports the changes by actively creating constructive processes with the union representative system; on another level, by stimulating employees to engage in concrete cross-functional and interdisciplinary collaborations. All initiatives that contribute to the organization becoming more connected.

Overall, the task John is working on is not an easy one. There are plenty of challenges and headaches on a daily basis. The leadership team is an important help for John - because he manages to use it. At the same time, however, it's also clear that John doesn't just see the rest of the organization as something that exists to support the special education unit. He identifies with the leadership team and is able to holistically see the special education unit as a part that supports a larger organization.

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N2 Transition 2: From managing employees to managing managers

In this section, we take a step up the Public Leadership Pipeline and describe the shift from manager of employees to manager of managers.

N3 Niels - new school center manager

Shortly after the adoption of the political decision on the school center structure, a number of school center manager positions are advertised. The central role of the position is to take on the overall management of the schools that make up the center. Niels, who is the headmaster of one of the schools that will be part of one of the new school centers, applies for the position and gets it. His first and most important task is to set up the cross-cutting functions across the school centers and have the responsibility for these distributed among the "old" school principals, who are now in new cross-cutting positions and report to him. A total of four schools are part of the center. Physically, Niels is still at his old school.

Tomorrow, Niels will officially wear the hat of school center manager for the first time. It's time for the start-up meeting in the school center. It is not without nerves that Niels prepares for the meeting, as it is in many ways a special situation. Niels explains to a good friend: "It's a bit challenging. Among other things, I'm now the boss of my former colleagues from the neighboring schools. I'm curious to see how they feel about not being the top boss anymore. I applied for the position myself because I didn't want to have one of them bossing me around! And I know that some of them also applied for the position because they felt the same way."

Niels' task is to get the team of professional leaders to actually become a team. At the first meeting, he adopts a monkey and dialogical style based on three questions: "What do we want with each other - and the school center? What are our political goals and frameworks? How do we do it?". Lise then indirectly states that she basically does not want the school center and is not interested in collaborating across the board. The meeting then develops with mutual discussions across the board. The subsequent meetings continue in the same style. Niels confronts Lise about her resistance to the new structure: "Why did you apply for the job if you basically don't believe in it?". But she slips away with some phrasing that she was looking for influence and is passionate about the professional work with special education. Niels then tries to create a common ground in the team and put common and interdisciplinary tasks on the agenda, whereupon Lise raises the basic discussion: "Should we even have interdisciplinary tasks and projects in this school center?". Niels hears this as another sign of resistance to the new structure. He is getting tired. Gradually, the pressure on Niels begins to mount. From the Head of Children & Youth and the administration, the various school centers are now given a number of fixed tasks. The other centers get things done, but Niels can't deliver. There are several situations at the joint management team meetings for the school center managers where he cuts a poor figure.

Something must be done, and Niels takes a meeting with Morten, the Head of Children & Youth. The message from Morten is that he understands the situation, "but Lise is popular in the local community and is also a civil servant. So you have to play the game with the hand you've been dealt. Within that framework, you have a free hand and my full support to push through and do what it takes...".

Taking into account the strengths and weaknesses of the individual managers, Niels now allocates responsibilities to the professional managers on his own. At the next management meeting, he sets the agenda: "We've talked enough. Now it's time for something to happen ... That's why I've put names on who will do what in the future". The reception of the proposal is somewhat mixed, but most of the managers have gradually realized that the organizational change is here to stay. They have also seen how the other school centers have responded. Over the next month, things start to happen in the leadership team. The fact that the basic discussions have been kicked to the curb makes room for the real work. Eventually, it's only with Lise that things are lagging. Niels tries to talk to her, but she is neither helpful nor persuasive. When a complaint from some of the employees lands on Niels' desk, it's clear that something needs to be done, but before he can act, Lise calls in sick. After that, she is no longer available.

The situation around Lise is given an extra dimension when Niels opens the local newspaper a few days later. Under the headline "A school and a local community in decline", members of the parent board have written an indignant letter to the editor in which the school center is described as a disaster. A few days later, the newspaper follows up with critical journalism, where dissatisfied parents are the main source. The Danish Teachers' Association and a politician known to oppose the school center structure are also interviewed. Niels avoids participating in the debate based on the idea that the story will probably take care of itself. He who lives in hiding, lives well ... However, it's not long before Niels is on the phone with Morten: "Now we have to get out of hiding, because the politicians are calling me down ... Can't you answer it first?". The next few weeks are therefore spent dealing with the many parties and making sure that some of the good results that are taking shape in the school center are also reported.

Another challenge comes from teachers around the different schools. Some find it difficult to see the deeper meaning of Niels' role: "What does he actually do besides sitting in meetings? We never see him. He's more of a bureaucrat than a school teacher.". From Niels' perspective, the situation looks like this: "I struggle with having to practice "pure" management. It surprises me how much it means to no longer have direct contact with teachers. It still happens that individual teachers from my "old" school approach me directly with matters that are actually the responsibility of the academic leaders. Here I really have to keep my tongue firmly in my cheek and get them on track rather than jumping on the task myself...". Niels discusses the situation with the management team, and they decide on an ongoing communication effort where the management team tries to clarify and explain the division of roles at every opportunity.

Gradually, the leadership team starts to work constructively. The basic tasks are solved and there is now the energy to work more strategically. The political justification for the school center structure is a need for significant savings. The municipality is short of money and the future forecast shows a declining number of children. Politicians spice this up with other important arguments about knowledge sharing across schools and learning innovation. Niels therefore puts all his efforts into creating quick initiatives that can be seen on the financial bottom line. In practice, he and the leadership team find common standardized solutions in a number of areas such as substitute coverage, building maintenance and janitorial services, IT, etc. Throughout the process, Niels works to engage the team and task them with coming up with joint, concrete solutions. This work gives rise to good ideas that immediately seem like they could be used by the other school center managers. However, from a political perspective, it is also clear that some of the suggestions are not feasible. Niels therefore often ends up having to help the team understand how something is a good input from a professional angle, but from a political angle is a dead end - and therefore pointless to spend effort on. Niels describes this as follows: "At first it was really frustrating, because I can really understand what my managers are saying - and see the sense in it. At the same time, however, I am also somewhat closer to the political system and can therefore understand a little better why politicians and administration do what they do. My job is to help my managers to also be able to see the rationale in what sometimes seems foolish - and to help them to be able to create meaning in relation to their employees in the schools."

During the first year, this work resulted in the implementation of a number of new solutions that will have contributed significantly to the overall result in the near future.


N3 Niels' transition problems and successes

One of the places where Niels is most successful is as a translator of political decisions and goals into everyday organizational life and vice versa. On the one hand, this task consists of ensuring that the often somewhat overarching political intentions are made into something concrete that managers can lead from. On the other hand, the task is to take the professional input that managers provide seriously and know what makes sense to bring upwards in the system based on the political reality. This really gets to the heart of one of the key functions of the manager of managers. The term "Rockwool layer", often used to describe leaders in this function, clearly illustrates what happens when a leader of leaders doesn't master this - decisions from the top bounce off and are not implemented.

In example 3.4, we see how Niels struggles with one of the most important challenges for a leader of leaders: creating a good leadership team under him - and leading them as leaders and not as employees. Firstly, the leadership space here is not something that is automatically given to you, but something that you have to actively create. Leaders don't necessarily automatically recognize leadership, especially when you are the messenger of unpopular messages. Niels is struggling to figure out how to deal with Lise. Here he almost loses focus, and Lise takes up a lot of time and becomes a hindrance to the rest of the team. During this period, Niels leads the team as a group of individuals with individual tasks rather than as a team with shared responsibilities. The key point here is that when a manager of managers focuses too much and too isolated on the individual manager of employees, it becomes very difficult to succeed in creating cross-functional, horizontal coherence in the organization. In this example, the special education unit takes up a lot of space, but it is basically just one element that is part of a larger context. It is the context that is interesting, not the individual element.

It also speaks to another important skill that the leader of leaders must master: The ability to on the one hand create processes that bind the organization together, but at the same time be able to balance the time spent on the processes against the results that come out of the processes. This often gives rise to a cross-pressure: From the bottom, you often want time to be spent on process, dialog, etc. From the top, you can't understand why things take so long. They want to see results - not just talk. In example 3.4, we see how Niels spends a lot of time trying to create engaging processes with the team, right up to the point where the pressure for results becomes so great that Niels can no longer live with the process being paramount. The result is that he cuts corners - and that's a correct assessment.

Another of the challenges Niels faces when stepping into the role of school center manager is how to deal with the increased distance to the employees. Before, he had direct contact with them - now the contact is predominantly through the professional managers. This gives rise to situations where Niels could easily sideline the professional managers. This happens when employees bypass their line managers and approach Niels directly. The old role is tempting, but he remembers to sit back and pass the ball to the union leaders. If he didn't, their chances of succeeding as managers would be extremely limited. In this way, he is also a role model who, through his own actions, shows support for the new organizational structure. In parallel with this work, we see how in his leadership of the leadership team, he has a very clear focus on making the work of the leadership team useful and relevant. His clear, but very inclusive approach to involving the leadership team in defining goals and initiatives and supporting them in finding their own ways to implement them in their units is paying off.

Working with the leadership team is based on Niels having a good understanding of what is happening at a strategic and political level in the organization. A number of goals and objectives have been announced with the new school structure, but Niels understands what is most important and works to deliver results accordingly. This includes actively using his own boss Morten and wisely exploring his options in relation to the potentially explosive situation surrounding Lise. These are all actions that help Niels land well in his role as a leader of leaders. In the model below, we summarize the key skills, work values and priorities of the manager of managers. These apply to both private and public managers of employees. The special requirements for public managers are in italics.

Skills, work values and priorities as well as typical pitfalls for the manager of managers in the Public Leadership Pipeline:

Public management

LEAD helps public organizations create increased value for citizens and society by strengthening their leadership.

We collaborate with KL and the Crown Prince Frederik Center for Public Management on knowledge and method development. In recent years, we have been the supplier for the majority of the interdisciplinary management training in the Danish state and have been a trusted advisor for several of the major strategic management challenges in the municipalities and regions.

N2 Transition 3: From manager of managers to functional manager

In the following, we follow the shift from manager of managers to functional manager, moving one level up the management hierarchy to Niels' boss Morten.

N3 Morten - strategic balancing act

Morten is a trained school teacher and comes from a position as area manager at the National Center for Evaluation, where he was responsible for four managers, each with their own unit within school and youth education. The leap to becoming Head of Children & Youth for an area with several thousand employees is a big one, but as Morten says: "In my old job, everybody had an opinion about our work, so I'm used to moving in a minefield.".

One of the first challenges Morten encounters is that six months into his employment, the municipality is running a significant deficit. It is therefore no surprise to him when the director of children and culture and the municipal director asks him and his culture manager colleague to make a proposal for savings of DKK 130 million in the areas of culture and children and youth. Top management and politicians do not define a clear distribution of the savings requirements in the two areas.

The cultural sector has had a couple of bad years, where several of the administration's high-profile projects have been heavily criticized in the press, a theatre stage with a runaway economy had to be closed, and the city museum had to be rescued, accompanied by the whining of bourgeois local politicians about irresponsible use of taxpayers' money. For a brief moment, Morten considers a proposal from some fellow managers in the children & youth area to focus on letting the cultural area take a disproportionate share of the savings, but he rejects the idea as unsolidarity. The municipality needs sports and culture, and the declining number of children makes it reasonable to make savings in the children and youth area. Instead, he agrees with his colleague Hans, the head of culture, that they will recommend savings opportunities on a proportional basis. From a financial and professional point of view, the optimal solution would be to close two of the smaller village schools with declining student numbers and difficulties recruiting qualified teachers and postpone a comprehensive renovation of two of the large old central schools. However, it doesn't take much knowledge of local politics to know that village schools are protected. Several of the leading politicians have just been campaigning with the slogan "Vibrant rural areas". Morten therefore puts out feelers to the politicians in the Children & Youth Committee regarding postponing the renovation of the central schools. Not surprisingly, there is support. Now part of the savings are in place.

After this, a number of other options come into play, but Morten and his CEO hear through the grapevine that the most viable solution would be to find savings in the daycare area by introducing a new structure and management style for the daycare centers. The idea here is to divide the institutions into local clusters, abolish the deputy head position, change the traditional head of institution role to a 50% pedagogical manager position and hire a joint administrative manager who covers the entire cluster. In total, this equates to savings of several positions. The committee decides on the measure as part of the overall budget settlement.

And then the legwork begins. The proposal is sent for consultation to all daycare institutions, interest organizations and parent boards. Morten also speaks at joint meetings for deputy heads and heads of institutions to inform and sell the idea. It's a demanding task, because the message is not very popular - especially not with the part of the audience that is likely to lose their management cap. Again and again, Morten tries to paint a holistic picture of the decision: "We are part of a big store, so we can't just run our own race. We have to contribute to the big community here and now.".

The organizational change is dragging on and the following year, reality changes with the municipal elections. The majority behind the proposal has now crumbled. Some of the supporters have also changed their minds and are now giving it the thumbs down. The reasoning is that it is a political payment that paves the way for other, more important matters (committee posts). Now Morten has the interesting task of communicating to the organization that the change is not going to happen anyway and at the same time doing this in a way that does not expose the politicians.

Fortunately, there is a great deal of concern and dissatisfaction with the proposal among parent councils. This provides an opportunity for politicians to listen to citizens and take their concerns seriously. At the next joint meeting, Morten can say: "You and the parent councils have been listened to. The politicians have taken your concerns seriously, so we are parking the proposal for now.". Morten and his team must now get back to work to find an alternative way to save money. One option that can be supported is a revision of the municipality's school structure. This proposal passes quickly.

Six months later, the new school structure comes into force. This has been preceded by intense work to get the solitaire with the school center manager positions to work out. A major challenge here is what to do with the school principals. Many have applied for the job as a school center manager, but did not get it. Rationally, the managerial positions should be eliminated, but the price of getting the school leaders' association to accept the new structure is that all managers from the schools that are part of the center must have some kind of leadership role. Similarly, the placement of the schools in the respective school centers has not been without controversy. Now it is important to get the school center managers off to a good start. Morten therefore initiates a series of seminars with the participation of the center managers, himself and visiting members of the children & youth committee, where they spar with each other and develop joint strategies for the upcoming tasks. He also finds time to talk to the individual school center managers in order to help them create a strong team with their professional leaders.

One of Morten's most important tasks here is to spar with the school center managers on how to handle the many different challenges. A typical example is Niels, who is struggling to make his team work - with particular reference to Lise. The situation around Lise has the potential to become a hot potato, as she is a well-liked person with a large network in the local community. Morten spends a lot of time thinking about this: "Ideally, she should be kicked out of the organization, but this is obviously difficult and would be a giveaway to the opposition of the school center structure and the teachers' union. It would make it all too easy to fan the flames of latent dissatisfaction with the cuts in the local community.". Therefore, Morten encourages Niels to do what he can within the existing framework. Niels' school center is one of those places where it is important to find the right balance between the demands of the administration and the pace at which the school center is actually able to work. Morten therefore reduces the demands a little and chooses to wait and see.

A few months later, Morten is sitting in the middle of breakfast. A headline sets alarm bells ringing: "A school and a local community in decline" by the chairman of the school board of one of the municipality's schools. The criticism is that integration efforts, health efforts and support for vulnerable children have deteriorated. Morten has barely finished reading the article before he has the first politician (the chairman of the committee) on the phone: "What's going on? We need to get this matter resolved and closed!".

Morten tries to find a strategy with the chairman. They decide that Niels should take the case to the media in the next phase to get some stories and explanations from the professionals who are close to the children. Morten immediately calls Niels to hear his version of the story so the committee chairman can get more information. He also talks to Niels about how he can act in the media and, as a school center manager, actively help set the agenda. Niels then starts to be more visible in the media, and more positive stories about the center structure and the interdisciplinary work for children at risk, among other things, start to appear. It seems that the school centers are well on their way. At the same time, Lise goes on sick leave, and after a bit of negotiation with the trade unions and employee committees, space is created for Niels to appoint a substitute to the position.

Alongside the new center structure, the administration is moving to a new financial management system, and it's not going well, to say the least. The system is up and running, but it is difficult to use for the decentralized employees and managers, and a few important functions are missing. As a result, financial management is running without complete and up-to-date registration and centralized control of expenses.

Morten has been too busy servicing the politicians in connection with the savings rounds and has let the CFO and IT manager run the project solo, trusting that they could handle it. It now turns out that the needs assessment and project implementation are beneath criticism. Morten will soon have to stand up to his boss about the project. Naturally, he has a hard time getting a grip on the project. "This could be another case like the one in '98," the director warns him, referring to a horror period in the administration's history, when they suddenly realized that they had spent far too much money on temporary staffing and new positions and therefore had to make severe cuts in the coming year.

Morten discusses the situation with his managerial colleague Hans and gives him a piece of advice: "You need to familiarize yourself with the basics of these two areas and allow yourself to be lectured on them. Otherwise, you won't be able to manage the crisis and control your bosses, neither managerially nor politically." Morten takes a deep breath and crosses himself in front of the IT manager and the CFO: "You have to explain this to me in depth: What kind of system have we chosen? What have we opted out of? What have you done to identify the needs? How is the project set up and implemented and where are the problems?".

Morten is shocked to hear about the substance of the project. Stakeholders have been given little thought, they have not been nurtured, and the system is consequently not calibrated with their needs. Instead, an overly smart system has been purchased with too many features that make it confusing to use. It's an honest talk, strongly motivated by Morten's honest statement: "I've been too far away from you and your areas, and now we have a critical situation. This needs to change now. I will set up a meeting structure with each of you, so we can talk more closely about the problem here and in general.". After this, they are equipped to crisis manage the issue. In addition to adjusting the financial system, politicians and the press must be handled, and the many other stakeholders must be reassured, involved and nurtured. One of the initiatives is to establish a reference group of decentralized users. Morten spends a lot of time supporting the two managers in making the project a success. In his quiet mind, he notes that the IT manager and the finance manager are probably doing well professionally, but that he needs to focus on educating them in the organizational and political conditions for their work in the future.

N3 Morten's problems and successes as a functional manager

The classic challenges of working as a functional manager are as follows:

  • Having to lead leaders who are working in "uncharted" territory, i.e. areas outside of their own professional experience.
  • Developing the right leadership maturity (meaning the ability to be humble and learn the unknowns so he can make decisions and decide if he can trust the work of his managers).
  • Understand your own area and the overall organization well enough to make decisions from a group perspective and create a holistic and long-term strategic development of the function as part of the rest of the organization.

Morten is both strong and weak at handling the initial challenge of leading managers working in "unknown" areas. He handles the school center managers very well (e.g. Niels, who is supported in handling press and staffing issues), but when it comes to staff managers, the IT manager and the CFO, Morten fails. Fortunately, Morten shows the right leadership maturity and learns quickly by taking feedback from Hans. This probably reflects the fact that Morten comes from a small system as a manager of four managers, where it's obviously much easier to have an overview of what they're doing and the projects. In a system as large as the one he's in now, he has to prioritize hard to get the right things done as a functional manager, and here he forgets his staff managers. When it comes to understanding his own area and the overall organization well enough to make decisions from a group perspective and create a holistic and long-term strategic development of the function as part of the rest of the organization, Morten is both strong and weak. He is clearly good at collaborating with his management colleagues in completely different areas (e.g. Hans) and at seeing himself as part of the overall organization and making decisions from a group perspective, but we don't see much in the way of long-term strategic development and creating continuity. Where are the child numbers, the long-term development in society, research in pedagogy, etc. and other trends that Morten could steer by and create a sense of continuity around despite the changing political constellations? Where is the communication of the vision of the organization's forward-looking and proactive needs and goals? The organization is only heard when there are crises. And Morten's employees see a boss who almost only dances and zigzags to execute changing political agendas.

In the following, we discuss Morten's leadership style in relation to the special requirements for public functional managers' mastery:

  • Strategy work: Can develop strategies in collaboration with top management. Can execute strategies without end goal execution. Can change strategic direction quickly and implement other things.
  • Leadership space: Can secure a flexible and maneuverable leadership space in the field of tension between the political level and the professional organization.
  • Communication skills: Must be a good communicator who can handle the many stakeholders and the interfaces between the political and the professional.
  • Political savvy: Can secure operations by avoiding noise and politically damaging individual cases. Can translate and mediate cross-pressures between the political and professional levels. Can answer questions in individual professional matters with political understanding and facilitate the production of political decision-making bases. Has a pronounced political understanding without politicizing.

In terms of strategic skills at the public functional manager level, what's new in the Private Leadership Pipeline is the ability to change strategic direction and do something new - perhaps completely different - without getting frustrated and without appearing untrustworthy. Morten is almost too good at this, as per our earlier comment that employees see a boss who strategically dances and zigzags to execute shifting political agendas. Part of the reason Morten has this ability stems from his loyalty to the political leadership (a loyalty that is almost too high). Overall, Morten demonstrates a high degree of political savvy: He "listens to the water pipes", puts out feelers to sense what there is support for before proposing solutions, and develops solutions that are politically viable and at the same time professionally and financially sound; he can translate and mediate cross-pressure situations between the political and the professional and is good at answering questions in individual professional matters with political understanding. But there is one place where his political acumen fails: He does not safeguard operations against politically damaging individual cases (cf. the financial system) - but he is good at the subsequent crisis management, where he also demonstrates managerial maturity, great leadership of managers and strong communication skills.

The model below shows both the skills, work values and priorities from the Private Leadership Pipeline and the Public Leadership Pipeline. The model reflects the overall key general requirements for functional managers in the public sector.

N2 Top managers

Now the scene shifts to Morten's CEO Jane. This explores the transition from functional manager to top manager.

N2 Top managers

Jane is one of the strongest and most experienced directors of children and culture in the country - 14 years in the post to be exact. Her critics say that she sits too heavily on the stool and that she sometimes acts more like a politician than a civil servant.

The municipal election creates a new challenge for Jane: The balance of power in the city council and in the children and culture committee is tipped to the right-wing side for the first time, and Jane now has to pair up with a right-wing chairman of the children and culture committee, who also has very little experience in the area. She is now taking it all in her stride. The committee's first step is to stop the planned new structure in the daycare area and instead decide on the new structure in the school area, contrary to Jane's recommendations. She is not used to this, and she finds it difficult to hide her displeasure, much to the annoyance of the committee. In private, she voices her frustration directly: "The committee chairman has to have everything written on the back of a napkin. Apples turn into pears in that process, and the decisions that come out of it are of little use in the real world."

In addition, the committee will create a quality contract with the citizens, including a revision of the municipality's school and children's policy. The trend is to move away from the previous focus on inclusiveness and integration and "the whole child" and towards setting targets for improvements in literacy and science skills. Jane has a hard time with this. As she tells one of her close bosses: "The organization will look at us like we're crazy when we bring this up. We have built so many units and hired so many people to run a long-term inclusion and integration effort. It will be like pulling the rug out from under them. There are also some fundamentally different skills that children need to develop today: It is the ability to learn and the ability to work together that is crucial - the other things are part of an old-fashioned, stable world." The strategy has fundamentally changed, and not only that, it requires the committee to be comprehensively and continuously informed about even small milestones and decisions in the action areas. Jane is used to having the implementation "on her own" and finds it difficult to adapt to the new requirements. A few times she forgets that the committee needs to be consulted on smaller decisions. This is frowned upon.

The new school structure needs to be implemented. Jane is really struggling to stay motivated for the project. It will be a short process with almost no follow-up on whether it is implemented in the decentralized management layers in the school centers and with the managers at the schools. The effort will be thereafter. Stakeholders quickly pick up that Jane is not there with the same tenacity and commitment as usual, and this creates a lot of room for critics of the new structure, who quickly realize that top management is not wholeheartedly behind it. Morten's father, however, has managed to deal with the problems with great difficulty.

The following year, the administration has to find savings again. Jane is angry. The children and culture area has already taken more than its share in the previous rounds, and the children's area has been corrected for the declining number of children. In the subsequent discussions about the implementation of the savings, she deliberately suggests to the inexperienced majority in the committee three politically sensitive areas where cuts can be made. Morten unsuccessfully warns that this is likely to create too many problems, but Jane says: "We have long since cut to the bone. This can't be done without hurting, and our dear politicians need to understand that - sooner rather than later." Among the three proposals, the committee decides on the following: A major effort to create more active children (sports, games, outings, etc.) is cut.

The decision creates a storm of protests from parents, experts, the opposition and especially educators, which makes the bourgeois committee politicians behind the decision look bad, and after a long period of heated debate in the city council chamber, the proposal fails. The debate had a profound impact on the committee's work and created a less cooperative climate. At one point, Jane is quoted in the press as saying: "We are employed to do what the politicians decide, and we do it, whether we like it or not.". The politicians on the committee are particularly upset by this, and when rumors start circulating that the recommendations for the savings areas have not been entirely loyal, the committee loses confidence in the director. Jane resigns with the label "cooperation difficulties".

N3 Jane's leadership issues with the demands of the public sector CEO

Jane's difficulties all revolve around the specific requirements of the public sector CEO. The Private Leadership Pipeline highlights the following as the most important for the CEO: Understand the overall business model and the contribution of each functional area in the organization and strategically develop the organization with both a short-term and long-term profit perspective. Furthermore, you must be able to set and drive the senior leadership team and resolve the issues, conflicts and struggles that will inevitably be part of this.

The Public Leadership Pipeline confirms these requirements (profit focus is changed to "financial focus" and to a more inclusive and versatile "bottom line thinking") and adds four competencies. The most important new competency is that the CEO has political savvy. This is a comprehensive field that requires specific work values, skills and priorities:

  • On the skills side, the top manager must be able to read the political game and relationships and deal constructively with contradictions between the political and professional systems.
  • On the value side, she must be able to accommodate what can sometimes seem like a lack of professional and organizational rationality in political decisions. She must be able to be "up front in a humble way" and be able to accommodate and deal with a dissenting board, which often takes up half of the CEO's time and sometimes doesn't know much about the organization.
  • On the priority side, she must be able to prioritize crises and make herself available to politicians on an ad hoc basis to inspire, influence and advise.

The top manager's leadership space (the second area of competence) logically becomes crucial to be able to clarify on an ongoing basis as agendas change.

The third area of competence is some specific aspects of strategy work: here it is crucial that the top manager can work with a strategic short- and long-term perspective at the same time and accept that the political leadership does not necessarily have the long-term perspective.

The final area of competence is navigating the public arena: At this level, the CEO's core task is to manage the interaction with the public based on an understanding of the organization's role in society and positioning the organization correctly in relation to the many key stakeholders - ministries, interest groups, trade unions, etc.

Jane's problems are primarily related to the value-oriented aspects of political savvy as well as to the definition of her leadership space. This is where all her difficulties come from. Jane is simply not sufficiently loyal to the political level. Some of the things she should have learned and taken with her from earlier in her career - particularly the functional manager's ability to have a strong political understanding without politicizing - are not strong enough in her value profile, and this runs deep into almost every area of her leadership style: Her ability to drive strategy implementation processes is severely hampered by her lack of commitment. We sense that she can, but she's not motivated to drive them properly, which creates weak projects and opens the door for critics. In the implementation of the savings, she tactically plays against the political leadership. This may be a case of running the organization with both a short-term and long-term perspective - but it is destructive in the long term and has fatal consequences for her.

The other major mistake she makes is that she fails to define her new management space in relation to the committee. As a consequence, she consciously or unconsciously oversteps her authority and irritates the committee more and more until the committee loses trust. Overall, Jane is so emotionally affected and annoyed by the significant shift in strategy and the changed leadership space that she is quite impervious to feedback. This is evident in the fact that she ignores Morten's warning that her alternative savings proposals are dangerous. The model below summarizes the skills, priorities, work values and typical pitfalls of the top manager in the Public Leadership Pipeline:

Skills, priorities and work values as well as typical pitfalls for the top manager in the Public Leadership Pipeline:

This concludes the overall introduction to the theory of the Public Leadership Pipeline. Interested parties can read more in "Leadership Pipeline in the public sector (Dahl & Molly-Søholm 2012) which goes in depth with the individual leadership levels in the theory and reviews the consequences and potentials of the Public Leadership Pipeline for organizations' work with leadership.

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