By Akintola Benson-Oke
Marcus Tullius Cicero, who lived between 106–43 BC, was a Roman statesman, orator, and writer. As an orator and writer, Cicero established a model for Latin prose. His surviving works include speeches, treatises on rhetoric, philosophical works and letters. Many profound observations are attributed to Cicero. Of the many wise propositions attributable to him, this one stands out for me: “the welfare of the people is the ultimate law.”
The truism of this assertion can hardly be denied. Governments who deny it do so at the risk of ruining their stewardships and the trust of the citizens in governance. Furthermore, employers who deny this run the undeniable risk of ruining their enterprise and the trust and devotion of their employees.
The Lagos State Government is one of the most notable employers living by this ideal, if not the foremost. Indeed, the passionate and unrivalled dedication of the government to the welfare of its workforce (both during and after service) cannot be denied by any objective commentator.
In furtherance of its dedication to this ideal and philosophical bent, Governor Akinwunmi Ambode of Lagos State has mandated the Ministry of Establishments, Training and Pensions to embark on continuous training of the staff of the ministry in order to ensure the delivery of top quality service to the officers of the civil service.
This workshop is dedicated to the need to inculcate and sharpen the vital interpersonal skills that civil servants, especially the officers of the Civil Service Pensions Office, require to properly and fully serve the pensioners and retirees of the Lagos State Civil Service. I am, therefore, as the Commissioner for the Ministry of Government charged with the responsibility for ensuring the adequate exposure of the civil service to knowledge on an ongoing basis, pleased to underscore the dogged and irrevocable commitment of the government to all matters relating to the welfare of staff, retirees, and pensioners in Lagos State.
I will focus on the skills that are not learnt in schools but are important, though rarely visible. These are the skills that are less tangible, harder to quantify, challenging to teach and, sometimes, difficult to describe. They include attributes such as etiquette, getting along with others, listening and engaging in small talk.
Without doubt, these skills are related to the concept of ‘Employability’ but they are also related to the concepts of effectiveness and efficiency. Clearly, possessing the right attitude to work is a soft skill that is not taught in universities and other formal schools. This is, therefore, an attempt to help officers of the Civil Service Pensions Office develop the skills that are necessary for success. This initiative will also fully assist the participating officers to appreciate and acquire the benefits that skills training brings to bear on the attainment of the strategic objectives of the government and the effectiveness of the institutions of the civil service.
Larry Buhl, one of the outstanding business news journalists in the world today, reported the outcome of a survey of more than 2,000 businesses in the United States. The report revealed that employers are of the opinion that entry-level workers in a variety of professions are lacking in several areas, including communication skills, problem solving, conflict resolution and critical observation. He then noted that it is now fashionable to see the possession of vital interpersonal skills showing up in job descriptions, next to demands for technical qualifications. He reported that employment experts agree that while technical qualifications may get a candidate a job, the vital interpersonal skills will determine whether the candidate can keep the job and succeed at it.
This workshop will help officers of the CSPO to appreciate that officers will attain better performance heights if they possess, among others, good communication skills. This doesn’t mean you have to be a brilliant orator or writer. It does mean you have to express yourself well, whether it is in writing a coherent memo, persuading others with a presentation or just being able to calmly explain to a team member what you need.
The CSPO as a department will become more effective and efficient if public officers can work in a team and collaborate. Today’s institutions want people who play well with others and can effectively work as part of a team. According to Lyne Sarikas, the MBA Career Center Director at Northeastern University, “That means sometimes being a leader, sometimes being a good follower, monitoring the progress, meeting deadlines and working with others across the organisation to achieve a common goal.”
Civil servants are also expected to possess interpersonal skills that make them adaptable to different situations. This is especially important for more-seasoned professionals to demonstrate in order to counter the often wrong opinion that older workers are too set in their ways. Again, as quoted by Larry Buhl, Lyne Sarikas opined that “To succeed in most organisations, you need to have a passion for learning and the ability to continue to grow and stretch your skills to adapt to the changing needs of the organisation.”
Furthermore, this workshop will point out the expectation for pension administrators and other civil servants to have the skills to solve problems as organisations want people who can be left on their own to figure out how to resolve conflicts and avoid chaos and ill feelings. You are also expected to be able to identify and spot potentials for conflicts before they fester into full-blown crisis. Indeed, the ability to persuade, negotiate and resolve conflicts is crucial if you plan to move up. Sarikas is reported to observe that, “you need to have the skills to develop mutually-beneficial relationships in the organisation so you can influence and persuade people. “You need to be able to negotiate win-win solutions to serve the best interests of the company and the individuals involved.”
In the same vein, the pension administrators in the CSPO will benefit from having officers who are able to make critical observations. Because the world is fast changing and issues are becoming more complex, the people in charge of important organisations must be able to observe and critically assess the impact and consequence of developments as they arise and, sometimes, even before they arise. Larry Buhl pointed out that it is not enough to be able to collect data and manipulate it. You must also be able to analyse and interpret it. What story does the data tell? What questions are raised? Are there different ways to interpret the data? Summing this up, Sarikas is quoted as saying, “Instead of handing your bosses a spreadsheet, give them a business summary and highlight the key areas for attention, and suggest possible next steps.”
As you may have observed, these soft skills have everything to do with one’s attitude. Attitude is so important that most other coveted attributes flow from it. Shawn Ashmore says your “style is a reflection of your attitude and your personality.” Hans Selye opined that “adopting the right attitude can convert a negative stress into a positive one.” Maya Angelou, the famous poet wrote that, “if you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” Similarly, Lou Holtz observed that, ‘virtually nothing is impossible in this world if you just put your mind to it and maintain a positive attitude.” Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States of America said, “nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal and nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.”
Dr. Benson-Oke, Commissioner, Lagos State Ministry of Establishments, Training and Pensions, delivered this keynote at the opening of a workshop on Vital Interpersonal Skills for Pension Administrators organised by the Civil Service Pensions Office of the ministry.