Former ComSuper CEO Jill Charker shares her top leadership lessons

Back yourself and give it a go! This was one of the many pieces of leadership learning shared by former ComSuper CEO, Jill Charker, in a recent Work with Purpose podcast for the Institute of Public Administration Australia (IPAA).

22 Feb 2022

The first 90 days

Work with Purpose is a series of conversations about the Australian public service. It recently featured a special panel discussion, ‘The First 90 Days: Lessons learned from public and private sector leadership’, and invited guests from different sectors, including Jill Charker, now an Associate Partner in McKinsey’s social and health practice.
Built around the concept of how to make an impact in the first 90 days in a new job, especially with the increasing call for future leaders to take up mobility opportunities, the panel discussed the difference between leading in the private sector and the public sector.
Jill recently transitioned to the private sector after a long career in the public sector.

1. Context is key

Rather than highlighting the differences, the discussion started by looking at context and how the similarities around team leadership are actually stronger than their differences.

According to Jill, some of the fundamentals that really matter with any team endure regardless of sector. For example, the ability to give the team a sense of purpose and focus, and the ability to create a genuinely safe environment.

Transitioning from one sector to another takes a long time, and it requires a learning mindset to realise the context of an organisation. Understanding how an organisation works and who you are serving while keeping an open mind, enables you to translate across sectors. A willingness to do things differently and having a long-term view will also serve well because it might actually be challenging in the short term!

'I still feel I'm very much in that transition, still making it. With that said, the best thing that has been useful for me has been a learning mindset.'

2. Strengths of public and private

There are strengths in different sectors in different ways. After recently transitioning to the private sector, Jill’s early observations are that she sees the private sector as often acting in its own interests. It is its own agent. The private sector is not typically acting on behalf of elected officials, and according to Jill this appears to drive a sharpness in clarity around strategy, and the actions that are needed to implement that strategy. The private sector has the ability to act on its own behalf -- notwithstanding shareholders and stakeholders, of course!

Yet, Jill sees that the real strengths of the public sector are around its big systems -- big, complex social and financial economics systems -- into which the private sector interweaves. The public sector has to be able to navigate multi-layered, federal, state and local governments across areas which are at best artificially designated between economic, social or other categorisations.

And as we all know, the problems that the public sector tackles rarely conform nicely to boxes! So this ability to understand and navigate big systems is a huge strength of the public sector.

3. Be flexible but be directive

Reflecting on how her leadership style has changed over time, Jill recognises that she is now much more explicit with herself and others about forming a view of what an organisation, team or group needs at a point in time, and consciously moulds her approach to that. Previously, her preference was to be less directive! She notes that there have been several instances where that wouldn't have been the right response in that situation. So she has consciously chosen to be more directive. A really conscious, explicit choice has featured much more prominently in her leadership style in recent years.

4. Treat people as individuals

Jill acknowledges that her core anchors have gotten stronger over time – and one of these is psychological safety. She sees this as creating a climate in your team where people feel safe to speak. She wants to know what people are thinking, and she wants to know what they're worried about in the context of their work. Jill believes that without that, she doesn’t have the whole picture. In fact, her belief in psychological safety has continued to strengthen.

‘We talk a lot about psychological safety; it doesn't matter what sector you're in, it's relevant. The ability to bring people's work together, pointing in the same direction to deliver a particular outcome.’

5. Sense of purpose

Do what makes you happy! Identify where you find your energy and try to shift your work and how you do your work towards that. Jill encourages us to be thoughtful about why we might want to make the shift; to think about the values and purpose of an organisation and whether these align with our own purpose or ‘why’.

Don’t talk yourself out of doing something. Have a level of confidence that you can have a go and it probably will be okay.

‘It might not be perfect, but it will be okay. Back yourself and have a go.’

Listen to the podcast

Noble, H. (Host). (2021, September 13). The First 90 Days: Lessons learned from public and private sector leadership [Audio podcast episode 47]. In Work with Purpose. Institute of Public Administration.

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