Observations of authentic leadership

Neil Scales and Sara Gaffney
Neil Scales and Sara Gaffney

In October 2015, the Department of Transport and Main Roads launched its inaugural ‘Shadow the CEO’ program, an initiative borne out of the Director-General’s Innovation Challenge on Diversity. The program sought expressions of interest from across the department to shadow Neil Scales 1 day each week for 3 months.

My professional background is 10 years of technical experience in traffic engineering and transport planning. In applying for this program to shadow the Director-General (DG), I saw an opportunity to improve the way I work for the department due to the invaluable insight I would gain into Transport and Main Road’s highest level of decision-making. Also the environment where I work in the Policy, Planning and Investment Division is very positive, so I was personally interested to learn how positive and authentic leadership starts at the top of the organisation and translates across the 5 divisions and thousands of employees that make up the department.

Observations of authentic leadership

On my first day it became clear that the Director-General’s role is positioned at the interface between public service and politics. Over the 3 months, I accompanied Neil to almost all meetings, including with politicians, representatives from industry, community groups and other levels of government.

These are some of my observations of Neil in action, leading the Department of Transport and Main Roads to serve the government and the people of Queensland.

Know the business

The first thing that struck me was the breadth of the department’s portfolio. Facilitating drink driving regulation, maintaining shipwrecks, pursuing unpaid tolls, managing properties, conserving valuable cultural heritage, managing the 33,343 km of state-controlled road network and the 2.3 million go cards in use – the list goes on. All of this moves through the DG’s office and Neil’s depth of understanding across such an expansive portfolio is impressive. The DG must engage in and direct all of it, and this is made possible because Neil reads and values the inputs and advice from Transport and Main Roads staff.

Meet the people

To stay across this breadth of responsibility, I observed that the DG works constantly to keep in touch with the department’s people and travel the network. The travel demands are extensive but a key learning I took from the experience was that it is worthwhile given the benefits of meeting people face-to-face and inspecting the network firsthand. Neil maintains his commitment to hold DG Roadshows with staff around the state and takes the opportunity to have meetings with stakeholders on site wherever possible.

Steer the ship

It must be a challenge to lead such a large department and its diverse portfolio in a unified direction, but at every opportunity, the DG reminds his audience of our department’s vision. This applies regardless of whether his audience is departmental staff, industry or other levels of government. By implementing good systems and strong, capable support in Transport and Main Road’s Executive Leadership Team, Neil steers the department to achieve the vision, all while doing so with a sense of humour.

Future of Shadow the CEO

This program has been an invaluable learning experience for me, as I now have a much greater appreciation of the input and advice that is useful to the DG’s decision-making, and the importance of taking a department-wide approach when providing that advice. This has benefitted not just me and the way I work, but also my colleagues across the department as I’ve shared my insights. The program would be a fantastic opportunity for other Transport and Main Roads staff and their wider teams into the future. I would also encourage other Directors-General to consider this initiative, or variations of it, in other state government departments.

Sara Gaffney
Principal Planner, Transport Planning Projects