What Are the Challenges of Leading a Regulator?

Adam Beaumont talking with John Merritt and Cheryl Batagol on the challenge of leading a regulator and leadership in regulation

Leading a regulator is different from leading a business or even a department of government. As a regulator we’re always in the public eye, and constantly take criticism from all sides. We can’t be inertial. We can’t sit back and do nothing. And yet when we do act to prevent harm, it’s often those who are harmed nonetheless that make headlines. The drowned, not the saved. And when we do our best work it isn’t noticed at all. Like bridges that don’t collapse or houses that don’t catch fire. In such a profession how can we create a positive culture? A culture of action and initiative? How do we promote morale?

‘The lives of regulators are rich and complex and full of contradictions and pitfalls’, says Cheryl Batagol, Chair of the Victorian Land Registration and former Chair of the Victorian EPA. ‘As a regulator you live that every single day. You’re between a rock and a hard place, being vitally aware we’re in the harm reduction business. Our job is to stop the bad things from happening before they happen. If we do our job really well, no one notices!

‘This is so different to departments. They develop a policy or program to an absolute peak and then celebrate a job well done. A freeway opened, a grant awarded, a media opportunity with smiles all around.

‘There are very few smiley-faced photos and photo ops for regulators. But the job’s not thankless. I take satisfaction from turning up to emergencies in the wee small hours, or working in the office to provide the best scientific evidence to the field, or organising community meetings to inform the community about the hazards. This and so much more is the work of a regulator. We’re at the front line.

‘But because the positive feedback doesn’t come externally, but internally, regulators need to build the confidence from within their culture and leadership.’

Regulators, unlike many leaders, are super accountable for outcomes. When something goes wrong, the first ten seconds is about what happened, and the next fifty seconds is about what the regulator didn’t do.

‘One of the biggest challenges in leading a regulator is tackling learned helplessness’, explains John Merritt, Chair of Work Safe Victoria. ‘We are in the change and influencing business. We are looking to appear ten or a hundred times bigger than we actually are. The leadership challenge is to accept that the pressures cause you to run in the opposite direction. When is the last time you saw a senior leader in a government department give a press conference? But if you’re a regulator you can’t do enough press conferences. You’ve got this voracious appetite for exposure. Because a lot of harm goes unsighted. And part of our earned authority is to say, “This should not happen”.

‘So regulatory life is very public compared to department life. Departments don’t care about their brand. Many change their name regularly. But we spend millions on building our brands up because we’re desperate to be bigger than we are because that’s how you prevent harm.

‘You have to accept accountability for whatever harm the community wants less of. Seize, capture and hold the moral ground. Everything we do is to prevent harm. Otherwise you are a sitting duck for everyone who wants to tell you what to do and how to do it.’

But how do you create a positive culture when bad things do happen and you have to deal with bad actors?

Integrity, trust and respect, in addition to accountability, are essential in Cheryl’s view. ‘No ifs, buts, or excuses’, she insists. ‘It must be actively modeled by the senior leadership team. Perfection is a trait that is a real trap for regulators. When we stuff up we need to be transparent and use that as an opportunity to explain that this is how we want people to behave when they stuff up. What we are saying is, “We have your back”. When we do this as leaders it builds trust in the system, it builds trust in us and it builds respect. But it involves very personal vulnerability.’

‘Nothing changes until the leaders change, and when the leaders change, everything changes’, John points out. ‘We have to say to our people, “We need you to use your judgment to fix the problem. And if in your judgment it requires x, and that turns sour, we will be there for you. If you make every effort to prevent that harm, that is easy for us to defend. Those are good mistakes. But if you leave something in the tank, if you take short cuts, if you say you can’t do it, that is not defendable.’

Measuring the culture is another necessary element, according to Cheryl. ‘You can’t just assume because you see a good culture in one team that we’ve got a great culture. You need discussions about culture. What does it feel like to work here? Is this a great organisation to work for? You seek out the pockets where the culture needs to be improved by talking about what’s not working. How do we all get onto the same page? Some people won’t make it. But most people want to work in a culture that is supportive, especially in a regulator because it is so hard.’

John says, ‘The underlined question you will have to answer is did you and your team do their absolute gut-busting best? Did they err on the side of doing? Was every decision we made and every action we took premised on what will protect the most number of people the best way?

‘Picking the unfixable problems, that’s the exciting part of being a regulator, that’s where the joy comes from. Because the fact is, our best is enough. If you can mobilise that, you will be staggered at how much authority and power you have!’

I think we would all agree that breaking inertia and just having a go is not a general characteristic of government. Governments are slow and risk-averse, sometimes by design. But taking clear and immediate action needs to be the characteristic of a regulator. So how do you get people to take action? To give their best?

‘Your starting point is most people are not giving their best’, John provocatively asserts. ‘If you ask, “Why are you here?” four out of five will say, “I came here to make a difference.” “Well, are you making one?” “Eh, I’m not sure.”  Poor culture erodes confidence. Life in a sense is a confidence game. If you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re generally right. So if you are in a leadership role in a team or a group or a geographical area you are in the confidence building business. You need to assume people are not giving of their best because they fear looking stupid and failing.’

‘That’s the nature of being a regulator’, says Cheryl. ‘External pressures will always be there, no matter your size or what you’re regulating. Make sure people understand they have come to make a difference. We want our work to mean something. We have to create that environment as leaders. Communication becomes the critical tool of a leader. We have to say it. We have to say it over and over and over again. We don’t explain away the external pressures on our organisations. But if you can say you’ve done your best and talk it through, I think it ameliorates some of the pressure.’

‘This is not a career for people who are shy about criticism’, says John. ‘I like a bit of cockiness in regulators. Bugger this shrinking away. When you’re in the business of achieving massive results with limited resources, you’re in a leveraging business. You’re in the business of mobilising thousands and thousands of people. We are the energy source that gets them all going in the right direction. It’s our job to make difficult calls, and it’s their job to criticise them.

‘Are we comfortable we’re doing the right thing? And are our stakeholders and critical partners feeling respected? Are we transparent to them? Are we admitting our mistakes?’

‘When John and I worked at EPA I could hear him talking to people as he climbed the stairs’, recalls Cheryl. ‘John knew if someone’s father was sick. John knew all sorts of things about people’s lives because he did that walk. And I think that’s leadership.

‘John and I spoke to each other regularly. We immersed ourselves into the organisation. It takes a toll sometimes. But having a mate beside you who can share the load is important. That was our leadership style.’

‘Leadership in organisations isn’t just about chief executives anymore’, John explains. ‘The job’s too big for any one person. It’s about combinations of people, and complementary combinations. Cheryl and I had so much fun because we felt that when we were together we were better than when we were on our own. We were supercharged. It’s a classic thing you get in leadership groups when one plus one equals more than two.

‘The bloody curse of regulatory work is that everything is measured in degrees of failure. We’re here to prevent harm, but fifty people still lost their lives in workplaces in Victoria this year. But what version of life can be led without celebration of achievement and success? It’s just completely contradictory to what we know to be a good life. So our job as leaders is to celebrate the hell out of anything that represents progress towards what we’re doing.’

This blog post is based on the full webinar which you can watch below. For more information on the NRCoP visit ANZSOG’s Regulators webpage.

If you are interested in regulatory culture, you might like to listen to the podcast or read the article I did with Cheryl on ‘Culture as a defence against corruption‘. If you want to further explore the topic of building robust strategy, you might like the podcast and article with Kelly O’Shanassy on ‘Building strategy in complex organisations‘ or with Stan Krpan  on ‘Strategic Planning in a Reactive World: Is strategy still important for Government.’

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