Fresh perspectives of mid-career hires valued: PM Lee

They bring unique expertise and new views, so take in their ideas, he tells public sector leaders

The public service has not done well enough in recruiting midcareer entrants from the private sector, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

"This is not for lack of trying," he said. "Often, it fails to work out because the gulf in culture and mission between the private and public sectors is just too deep."

Yet, such mid-career hires bring with them expertise that the public service lacks, and see with fresh eyes what public servants may take for granted, PM Lee told public sector leaders.

These include direct experience of how the private sector operates, and what it takes to win business.

"It is not easy at all for someone to join the public sector mid-career, because when they first come in, they will almost by definition lack the knowledge and instincts that take many years to build," he said.

"But it is precisely this freshness of perspective that makes mid-career entrants valuable to us, because they can - when it works out - see with fresh eyes what we have long taken for granted, and ask some basic questions why that should be so."

Addressing around 900 public servants at the Public Service Leadership Dinner, PM Lee stressed that they should not make mid-career entrants conform to the service.

"We should not make mid-career entrants conform to what we already are. We don't need another person who is just like us," he said.

"Instead, we should help them settle in, integrate into and win the trust of the group, while retaining their unique experiences and differences and making an extra effort to take in their ideas and perspectives."

The Public Service Leadership Dinner is held every year to celebrate the contributions of officers in leadership roles.

Yesterday's event was the first time that leaders from both the Administrative Service and the Public Service Leadership Programme (PSLP) were present.

While officers in the Administrative Service are trained to work across domains and see things from a strategic perspective, those in the PSLP are typically profes-sionals with deeper knowledge in their fields. PM Lee said both groups maximise each other's strengths, and the public service leadership as a whole needs more diversity in officers' experiences, temperaments and mindsets. This is why mid-career entrants from the private sector are valuable, he added.

The public service is also working to more deliberately select and recruit its leaders to ensure diversity, PM Lee said. The Public Service Commission has started looking beyond intellectual acumen and good character to give weight to unique backgrounds and experiences in potential scholarship holders.

The public service should also be made more permeable between different schemes and services, he added. For instance, PSLP officers who show aptitude for an Administrative Service role should be moved there, and vice versa.

"To some extent this already happens today, but more officers moving across schemes will reinforce the idea of a collaborative network and a collective leadership," said PM Lee.

Civil service head Leo Yip, who also spoke at the event, said that leadership in the civil service needs to be transformed.

A year ago, it set up a committee to revamp its leadership development system, with an eye on nurturing more diverse perspectives, expertise and experiences in its leadership corps, and improving their development pathways. It has also reviewed its framework of competencies for leaders, including among others a list of "red flags", or behaviours that could make leaders ineffective, such as a lack of courage to make tough decisions or prioritising their agency's mission over the collective outcome.

Mr Yip added that more effort is being put into building a stronger collective leadership among senior leaders, such as chief executives, deputy secretaries and permanent secretaries.

He told his colleagues that one of their responsibilities as leaders is to drive change in the sector and ensure it is ready for the future.

"Those of you who lead organisations, continue to exemplify this transformation, make changes happen, and galvanise your officers to prepare for and embrace these changes," he said.

"The rest of you, be bold in initiating and implementing new ideas to improve how we work, embrace a growth mindset and seize upskilling opportunities yourself, and be a change agent in this transformation journey."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2020, with the headline Fresh perspectives of mid-career hires valued: PM Lee. Subscribe