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Young graduates in an old-world hierarchical bureaucracy

The challenge for agencies is to develop leadership models that keep their best staff engaged.

On the bus to Woden a few days ago, I found myself seated next to a young man, let's call him Huang, who is the best friend of a graduate public servant I coached recently. I had run into the two of them mid-year at the screening of a movie, Angelina Jolie's Maleficent, so I knew Huang had graduated almost two years before with an honours degree in government and then taken a year off to work in Washington, DC. I also heard extracts from Huang's honours thesis (on public sector governance) had been published. Like many grads, Huang is a world-beater and has an instinct for power. This month, he is on his fourth rotation, working in one of the agencies in Woden.

Ever the coach, I ask him how work is going. "Don't ask," he answers, then laughs and says: "Us future leaders of the democratic institutions of the world just do as we're told." Huang seems to have swallowed with ease the unsweetened dose of humility that comes with the grad year.

Happy to have a sympathetic ear, he spends the rest of the ride recounting the mismatch between the brief he's drafting ("You're working on a brief!" I say. "Good for you.") and the policy response he would rather write. To that task, he would offer lots of smarts – the original thinking he wrestled into a graduate thesis at uni, and what he learned interning for a wily American senator.

Huang strikes me as adaptive: situationally smart, able to scan the environment and sniff out the means (whether procedural, technical or relational) to get the business done. Despite having skills and knowledge that would equip him to put together a better brief than he has been given room to write, he is able to operate within the constraints of hierarchy. This points to the paradox that the most effective public servants have learned: to be highly flexible and, at the same time, maintain a healthy, though not slavish, respect for bureaucratic culture.

So what is bureaucratic culture? Top down, for a start, which is unwelcome news for new PhDs and interns fresh from junkets to the great institutions of the globe. As organisational theorist Peter Senge has noted, bureaucratic cultures tend to undermine merit because they make influence depend on seniority, not knowledge. Given the increasing complexity in the problems of our age, this is disastrous, and will become catastrophic if left unchecked. Hierarchies come from an era of industrial production: they preserve the status quo, tending to undermine the authority and agency of people low in the hierarchy (like grads). Hence, the phenomenon of subject matter experts, like Huang, who are too junior to sit at the table of public service decision-making. And hence the contradictory spectacle of undemocratic institutions working hard (and public servants do work hard) at the task of husbanding a democratic nation.

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Although hierarchy is impersonal, to the extent that it depends on processes and routine, hierarchy also functions by means of impenetrable cliques of personal relationships. In modern public service agencies, it is alertness both to the inflexibility of process and to the power of relationships that will turn a good grad into a great public servant. Whether this will be so in the future is another question, and I'll get to that in a moment.

Because Huang is low-key and at peace with authority, the work style ("dazzle dazzle") that got him into an elite graduate program is undergoing a fairly seamless change. He is learning to direct his smarts, which got him into a sought-after role, away from standing out and towards a service orientation that will allow him not only to respond to his supervisor's needs and the government's current priorities but to find meaning in it, at least in the earlier years of his career.

Not all grads find this transition from star to servant easy, and as a coach I find it important to honour their sense that something (fresh ideas and a millennial genius for spotting the downside in the "way we do things around here") is being lost. In this sense of what's being lost are the seeds of tomorrow's (better) bureaucracy, and grads (and their supervisors) need to know where and how to store these seeds, so they can throw them out whenever fertile ground opens.

All of us need to feel like we matter at work, and the public service will find itself unable to retain millennials if it cannot absorb their contribution and allow them to influence issues that deeply matter to them. This would be its loss and its undoing. Eventually, Huang's flair for governance will reassert itself, and he will need to find a way to express it if he wants to be happy. Until he reaches seniority, his influence will likely depend on his ability to develop rapport with senior figures and to keep his line managers onside at the same time. But Huang's acute sense of integrity (he is, after all, an expert in governance) will mean that star-struck encounters with senior people who have pegged him as a rising star will leave him feeling gratified – and queasy.

Millennials are purpose-driven and mortgage-shy. The need for purpose-driven work asserts itself in their career trajectory earlier than was the case for generations Y and X, not least because the issues confronting them are urgent and becoming more so. Huang's generation is attuned to the 24/7 wired-in mode of production, to demographic and climate change, and the demise of the patriarchal model – and the consequences of past governments' decisions will weigh more heavily on it and its descendents than on other generations.

So what will future leaders look like? If he stays in the public service, Huang will likely be trained in leadership models that teach him how to adapt to complexity and to solve problems collaboratively. Huang and the organisation he works in will see diversity (race, gender, discipline, age) as necessary to sophisticated policymaking rather than simply a question of preference. In the future, leaders at all levels in the public service will create (by simple means of their harnessed genius) people-centred organisations. Democratic public institutions will harness talent, focus on outcomes, and be unapologetically committed to outcomes measured by their impact over time frames that increase rather than decrease.

The "trapped" profile of public servants willing to exchange a sense of contribution for financial security (not least because of the cost of your average mortgage) is giving way to the millennial profile – in which purpose is active from the outset and cannot be traded for security. These millennial grads are an exciting bunch. The challenge for government agencies will be to develop flexible leadership and accountability models that engage these staff's interest for long enough so that they can begin to make their mark on public service culture. Go get 'em, Maleficent.

Jacqueline Jago is a certified executive coach and the principal of Bloom Coaching & Consulting. She thanks Katherine Hilyard, of People & Strategy, for her assistance with this article.

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