Other people's drafts: clearing a brief without breaking a mortal heart
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Other people's drafts: clearing a brief without breaking a mortal heart

Supervising with sensitivity doesn't need to be a divine mystery.

In the Department of Gods and Mortals, which doesn't exist, a junior official called Xena (let's face it: she doesn't exist, either) is about to have a go at her first brief. It's already been assigned to her on the departmental system and she's read the material attached to the notification email that landed in her in-box the day before. It makes no sense to her, but she's in the first months of her APS career and she's getting used to the sensation of having no clue.

Having drunk the bitter nectar of his morning coffee, her supervisor, an experienced middle manager called Apollo (he's kind of hot, but that's ancillary to this story) emerges from his office and heads over to see whether she has a moment. She does, so he asks if he can sit down with her at her desk.

INDUCTION: Welcome to the Australian Public Service.

INDUCTION: Welcome to the Australian Public Service.Credit:Network 10

Step 1: Task from a position of support and equality. Tick

In his hands, Apollo is holding a copy of a letter from the Prime Minister (Zeus?) to the Minister for Gods and Mortals, requesting a policy position on the nature of Time. (Esoteric, I know, but plenty of public servants have briefed with tenacity and skill on themes more arcane than this.) Xena has good writing skills but she hasn't written a brief before. Although experienced in the effluxion of Time, she doesn't consider herself a technical expert. Who cares about the nature of Time anyway? The Prime Minister, apparently.

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Sitting next to her, Apollo talks Xena through the Prime Minister's letter. Apollo sets out the parameters of the task. He is armed with instructions from his branch head, Aphrodite.

"Look, Aphrodite thinks we need to take a soft approach to Time," he explains. "The government's policy platform is a bit vague on Time, but if we read between the lines of the Prime Minister's speech on daylight saving, you can get a sense that they don't want to ruffle the feathers of their rural constituency. The drought is playing havoc with the olive groves on Mt Olympus this year, so we're going to run Time strictly as mother nature intended. On Time."

He adds: "Speaking of Time, this is due back in the minister's office in three weeks, so I need to see a draft this Friday."

Step 2: Discuss the policy and corporate context (including due dates at team, branch and MO level) at the start of the task. Tick

"What do you think we need to cover in our brief?" Apollo resumes his task of prepping Xena. Every minute he spends planning the task will save him about 10 minutes later, when the pressure's on; and every minute invested in developing his staff will increase morale and effectiveness in the team on a celestial scale.

"What else is going on in the policy space that might influence what we say?" Apollo continues. Xena, who spent all the summers of her youth working in olive groves, answers him as best she can.

"The groves reach almost to the heavens," she begins, then trails off. Clearing her throat, she starts again. About half of what Xena says is off the mark, but Apollo is pleased to see some good thinking amid her guesses and he draws Xena out on ideas that he thinks they will be able to use. "Lots of Space," he says. "I like it." Apollo is an abstract thinker – and Time is, after all, connected to Space. Lots of things (everything, really, even daylight saving) happen in the intersection of big Nouns like these.

Step 3: Involve the writer in the design of the task. Their struggle is their learning: good supervisors wouldn't deprive their staff of the struggle to master a task. Tick

Apollo hands over a recent brief to give Xena a sense of departmental writing style and to provide a template for a logical structure. Together, they agree on an outline for the brief and Apollo leaves her to it. "Come and talk to me if you get stuck," Apollo says, as he gets up to return to his office. Xena, who is so nervous she wants to throw up, promptly gets up from her desk, finds her former supervisor, Hera, and goes for a walk with her around the building. Its marble columns gleam in the afternoon sun.

Step 4: Back off. Well done, Apollo

Wishing to prove herself, Xena doesn't approach Apollo for the rest of the week. She waves away his periodic check-ins with airy reassurances that she's doing fine – but branch head Aphrodite needs to clear the brief by the end of the following week, so Apollo needs a reasonable draft by the end of this one. He sends her an appointment for a quick catch-up in his office on Wednesday afternoon, asking her to provide him with a draft of her work so far.

Step 5: But not too much. Tick

Xena arrives at Apollo's office promptly at 3pm but he's just about to leave for an emergency section heads meeting (something's going on with the Climate and they need to act fast) in a coffee shop in the building next door. On his way out, he hands her a printout of her draft brief. Looking down, Xena sees it has so many track changes on it she can't follow the amendments. He's rolled up his sleeves but she doesn't think he's cute any more, that's for sure. She's too inexperienced to know what briefing etiquette looks like but, on a human level, Xena has a feeling he's being really rude. Under Time pressure, Apollo has more or less rewritten the brief according to his own particular style.

Step 6: Preserve the drafter's work wherever possible – and consult on rewrites. Cross, Apollo

Irritated, Xena hunts up her old supervisor (Hera) again and explains what's happened while they take another turn around the building. "I don't think he's being rude," Hera suggests. "But I know it's hard at first to get used to having no ownership of your written work."

Climate must be back in its box, because in the distance they see Apollo approaching on his way back to his office. They duck around a corner and keep walking. "You need to let him know how you'd like him to give you feedback on your written work." Hera, who struggles as a supervisor with the same tendency to rewrite other people's work, makes a mental note to do the same. "You need to ask him to explain every change to you so he gets in the habit of asking you to shape the brief rather than writing over the top of your work." Looking over at Xena, Hera sees she's on the verge of tears. "Do it tomorrow after you've calmed down," she cautions. "If you want to manage upwards, you need to be calm and assertive."

Step 7: Seek feedback from the writer on their preferred rewriting process. Cross

The glorious dawn arrives on Time on Thursday morning. Xena, well prepped (she spent the night researching "managing upwards") for a character-building conversation with her supervisor, arrives early and seeks out Apollo in his office. "I'd like to let you know how I prefer to have feedback on a brief," she says, smiling. "This is an experiment in upward management, just so you know." Apollo wants to bluster but is forced by Xena's grace to reign himself in. Reflecting that next time he'll read the brief through twice before he makes a single mark, he takes a deep breath then spends a few days mulling the whole process over and thinking about how he could have led it better. Later, Apollo will take his learnings to the team meeting and facilitate a discussion there on what works best within the team.

Step 8: Review the process, and pass your learnings on. Well done, Apollo

Jacqueline Jago is an executive coach and the principal of Bloom Coaching & Consulting.