Denis Napthine is leader of the Victorian Liberal Party, currently in Opposition. He was first elected in 1988 and was Minister for Youth and Community Services and State Treasurer in the Kennett Government. He has been a veterinary officer with the Victorian Department of Agriculture and a manager with the Victorian Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs. He is a Fellow of AIM.
AIM: When did you start in management?
Napthine: I graduated as a vet at the end of 1974 and worked as a vet for a number of years in the Department of Health, where I also managed a team of staff and animal-health officers. That was my first experience of management. It was difficult, because I was trained as a vet in those technical skills. To be suddenly involved in financial management and people stuff was new.
AIM: How did you approach it?
Napthine: I did an off-campus MBA at Deakin University, which was a great opportunity to learn about management. I learnt that you have got to work as part of a team. You have to give staff responsibility. You get a much better decision from that collective process.
AIM: How do you compare commercial management and political management?
Napthine: In commercial management it is easier to set objectives and measure success. In a manufacturing company, for example, you might have a target of 10,000 widgets, and you can measure how successful you have been. The ultimate political test is every three years. In the interim, it is hard to get feedback.
AIM: I suppose there is a lot in politics that is outside your control.
Napthine: In business there is a lot that is outside your control. Business is a hard game, and management is a hard game. We are learning a lot more about management as a community. In the 19th century there was a fixed view of management: it was about telling people what to do and making sure that they did it. Now, management is more about getting everyone committed to a common goal. In the past, people were kept in the dark because it was believed that they didn’t need to know what management was thinking. That has changed, too.
AIM: Is that the same for political leadership?
Napthine: Often you see in the political environment that people think it is about “Let’s find a good leader to lead business, or the state or the country”. Often it is seen in terms of the “generalissimo”. People want a strong leader, decisive; and at the same time they don’t want arrogance. We consulted with the community over heroin injecting rooms, and we had Labor and the media portraying us as weak. But we thought it was important to consult. Once the decision was made, we followed it through. Conversely, the Kennett Government was criticised for not consulting sufficiently on issues. In that way, there is a strange irony: the same thing can be seen as a strength or weakness.
AIM: Internal politics in a business environment tends to be seen as a bad thing, yet in politics it is a core activity. Have you any observations?
Napthine: You have small “p” politics in all areas. There is always manoeuvring: people looking for promotional opportunities and pushing their personal ambitions. It doesn’t matter whether it is a footy club, a global business, a university or a local business, there’s always politics.
AIM: So how is it best dealt with?
Napthine: I think the best way is to have as much transparency as possible. The more people are secretive about decisions they make, the more problems there will be. If you are not transparent, people tend to play Machiavellian games because they don’t see how they will have input or how their ideas will be dealt with.
AIM: What was your best and worst experience in management?
Napthine: The most instructive thing I had in management was probably the best and worst. A long time ago I was a new junior manager in the Department of Agriculture. I was ambitious, so I went away for a week and thought about what I wanted my staff to do. Then I told them, and just about had a mutiny on my hands. I thought it was reasonable, so I talked to an older and more experienced member of my staff over a beer. He said: “You are right, but you went about it in the wrong way.” I had a meeting with the staff and told them to come back with a plan. They came back in a fortnight with a plan that set targets 25 30% higher than mine, and we bettered those again. That was a valuable lesson.
AIM: Any advice?
Napthine: My advice is that, even if you think you are the best manager in the world, you can always learn from other people.