Home' Defence Magazine : Issue 4 2017 Contents 14 Defence Issue 4 2017
A CAREER OF
Brendan Sargeant, who is retiring after more than 30 years in Defence, reflects
on his interest in public administration, leadership, literature and political science
“NO MATTER WHERE
YOU ARE IN THE
HAVE AN OPPORTUNITY
TO BE A CONTRIBUTOR.”
What was your first role with Defence and
how did it come about?
I started as a base grade clerk in the stores ledger sec-
tion of the ammunition factory in Footscray in 1978.
In those days you did a public service exam and that’s
the job they allocated me.
While I was doing that job I went to university
part-time and studied at night. When I finished my
degree I applied for the graduate program and started
in Canberra in February 1983 as an assistant research
officer. I worked in various parts of the department as
part of that training year and then I went in to what
was then Strategic and International Policy Division.
You have held senior appointments across a
range of areas, including personnel, policy,
strategy and, of course, as Associate Secretary
and Acting Secretary. What role have you
enjoyed best or found most satisfying?
I’ve enjoyed every job I’ve ever done; they’ve all
had their rewards and their challenges. Every job has
something in it worth doing. I’ve always tried to do as
much as possible within the limits of the role, rather
than just doing the in-tray or the paperwork.
I’ve always felt that every job gives you an oppor-
tunity to contribute. Part of being a public servant is
trying to create something that makes the organisa-
tion better and contributes to Australia.
What’s been your most significant
contribution in your career with Defence?
In recent years I’ve focused on helping to build a
governance system appropriate for an organisation of
this size and scale, and to put in place the machinery
that would enable the Secretary and the Chief of the
Defence Force to ensure we had One Defence.
That is something I’ve worked on in every senior
role dating from my appointment as Deputy Secretary
Strategic Reform and Governance in 2010. I’ve pur-
sued that agenda because I thought it was important
to put in place the right governance and management
processes for the organisation to be effective and to
drive the creation of value in the form of capability
through what the enterprise actually does.
What were the main obstacles you had to deal
You’re asking people to think about things in a differ-
ent way, to work differently and to be accountable in
ways they haven’t had to be in the past. So you have
to be patient and make the case and learn by doing –
that’s really important.
I always felt that we were building a toolkit to
enable us to better manage Defence. You never know
how useful or effective a tool is until you actually use
it. And once you start to use it you’ll change it, so I
think any major reform process must understand that
time needs to pass and people need to experiment and
evolve the new world view and ways of doing that
you’re bringing into place. The other thing I’d say is
that the past is always more powerful than the future.
It’s always harder to bring in new things than to rein-
vent what we’ve had.
What’s been the measure of success in how we
are adopting and adapting those tools?
We now have mature corporate planning, business
planning and risk identification and management pro-
cesses. And as we’ve used them we’ve increasingly
had discussions around how we understand perfor-
mance, how we create capability, the relationship
between our organisational processes and outputs,
and how we understand and manage the Defence
In the area of risk, for example, we now talk
about risk as a matter of course whereas in the past
it tended to be an add-on. There has been a definite
change in culture and a definite improvement in our
understanding of, and capacity to, manage from a
That’s not to say we’re perfect; we have a long
way to go but we’re much better than we were 10-20
years ago. That’s a recognition that as the world
changes we need to keep pace.
The Public Governance Performance and
Accountability Act was a big driver of reform
because the government was looking for more
accountability and more professional management
from the public service, including Defence.
You have promoted the importance of
leadership through initiatives such as Leading
for Reform. Why has this mattered to you?
If people in positions of authority aren’t leading, then
the organisation won’t deliver.
Much of the day-to-day work and leadership in
this organisation is done at the EL2 and EL1 levels,
so the capacity of that group to exercise leadership
and feel confident in their leadership role has a direct
impact on Defence’s performance as a whole, on the
quality of the experience for the people they work
with, and the quality of their own work experience
and their ability to do the jobs they should be ena-
bled to do.
Building leadership capability in all parts of
Defence is important, but I concentrated on that
group first because of their significant effect on
Defence’s ability to deliver. I spent something like
12 years as an EL2; I know what directors do, I
know how important the role is, and I know that if
they are able to step into their role, and the organi-
sation allows them to do that, they have big jobs that
can have a big impact. My view is that they should
be helped to achieve that impact.
I believe that everyone has a leadership role and
part of that is supporting the leadership of others. I
prefer to think about a leadership system rather than
about individual leaders.
I’ve always felt that part of my job was to support
the leadership of the Secretary and the Chief of the
Defence Force, my peers and people who reported to
me to strengthen their leadership as well as my own.
What was the lesson of greatest value in your
public service career?
Many years ago I made what I thought was a cata-
strophic mistake. I was all ready to leave the organ-
isation with my tail between my legs. My boss said,
‘Brendan, it’s not your mistake, it’s our mistake and
together we’re going to fix it.’ I learned that nothing
is as bad as it seems and the issue is understanding
why things happen and then dealing with them in a
sensible and practical way; not blaming people but
looking for how we can improve in future. It was
a big lesson and I’ve never forgotten it. It’s easy to
blame but you’ve got to get beyond that.
What was your most defining experience?
I was working in another department and I’d devel-
oped a proposal for a policy review which was
accepted by the senior management. I was a director
at the time and I remember being in a meeting with
the Secretary, the Minister’s staff and others and
they said to me, ‘Well, what do we do now?’ In that
moment I realised I had to be a contributor, not just
someone who sat in a room and watched and took
notes. It was a scary moment but once I got through
it, it gave me enormous confidence.
That’s one of the reasons I say that no matter
where you are in the organisation you have the
opportunity to be a contributor and you need to be
confident to step up.
What have been your guiding principles
throughout your working life?
You need to be respectful of others and to give peo-
ple space. I’ve always felt that if you give people
space and support, they will respond. I’ve always
wanted to create the conditions where people can
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