Transformers in disguise

Workplace personality assessments indicate the majority of public sector managers are 'transactional' rather than dynamic and creative 'transformational' types so the challenge is on to find out those who can lead the charge of modernisation

Last Monday, David Cameron gave a keynote speech at the Royal Society of Arts, claiming the coalition government has "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" to modernise public services, in particular the NHS.

This change, he said, could be brought about by freeing up "the hidden army of public service entrepreneurs, deeply seized with the public service ethos, but who itch to innovate and drive improvement themselves."

The big challenge for the government will be identifying this 'hidden army.'

Interestingly – and a concern given the modernisation agenda – is the finding from our millions of workplace personality assessment datapoints suggesting that the majority of public sector managers typically don't have transformational skills and are more operational in their abilities.

Although times ahead are less certain, a career in the public sector has historically been considered secure. It has tended to attract and keep hold of employees who were looking to work in a lower risk environment than the private sector.

SHL has assessed millions of people in the workplace over the past 30 years and has been able to benchmark the workforce in both private and public sectors.

This benchmarking suggests that public sector employees have tended to be compliant, analytical and operational – what we call 'transactional' characteristics – and often did better, or stayed longer than those who were more dynamic, creative and 'transformational.'

Employees with transformational skills might have left to pursue opportunities in the private sector or were overlooked when it came to promotion with jobs going to candidates who displayed more transactional skills.

Even in the private sector, which is constantly changing and transforming to meet new trends and patterns, 70% of all change initiatives fail. And the principal reason for failure is often having the wrong people leading the transformation agenda.

For the modernisation plans to succeed, projects and programmes must be led and managed by those that understand and have skills to bring success, and these tend to be led by individuals with transformational rather than transactional capabilities.

Therefore, one of the first steps for the government should be to assess the NHS managers for transformative skills and ensure those who clearly display them are given responsibilities to drive the modernisation agenda.

Talent management assessments can be used to define managers who are sufficiently transformational, as well as identify potential from the wider talent pool. And, if there aren't enough from within the public sector then they must be brought in from outside as part of a focused recruitment process. Without the right management fit the programme is at risk.

Reforming patient service, the NHS and ultimately the entire public sector is possible, but no one is under any illusion it will not be a huge challenge. Cameron calls for freeing up the hidden army and we agree wholeheartedly. The talent is surely there, and if not at least the NHS knows what to look for.

Talent management is a crucial step in ensuring the right people are driving the modernisation agenda and as long as the process is conducted with the right scientific rigour, then the changes taking place have a chance of succeeding.

Sean Howard is a senior consultant at talent management company SHL

Society Professionals

  • Welcome to Society Professionals, a place for public-service experts to share news, views, ideas and innovation. Because the bigger the picture, the bigger the potential

Visit our society networks

About Guardian Professional

  • Guardian Professional Networks are community-focused sites, where we bring together advice, best practice and insight from a wide range of professional communities. Click here for details of all our networks. Some of our specialist hubs within these sites are supported by funding from external companies and organisations. All editorial content is independent of any sponsorship, unless otherwise clearly stated. We make Partner Zones available for sponsors' own content. Guardian Professional is a division of Guardian News & Media.

Today in pictures