The great leap

Rasmus Tolstrup had it all sorted out. He was a ministerial department head with promising career ahead of him. Now, he’s rambling around Europe on a quest to find out what makes a good, attentive manager

He remembers it clearly. It was October and Rasmus Tolstrup was holding an annual performance and development review with a long-time member of his staff. From her comments, he could hear that people didn’t see him the way he saw himself. He thought he was attentive to his staff and their concerns.

“You run around like a headless chicken, Rasmus,” the employee had said.

The comment stuck with him. For three months. Then, one day, he quit. His inability to pay attention at work was a problem for him, and, he had noticed, others who were working for him displayed the same behaviour. On the first day after his Christmas holiday, he handed in his resignation.

A journey of 2000 km begins with a big step

A lot of people dream about changing their lives. Few do. Tolstrup is one of those who took the leap, changed the path he was on and made a decision that went against the grain.

After quitting his job as department head at the ministry for child and social affairs, Tolstrup set out on the ramble of a lifetime, 2,000km down through Europe. Along the way, he plans to spend three months in Bordeaux, at Plum Village, Europe’s largest Buddhist retreat centre. He’s been there before, and describes it as “undogmatic”, and “just a nice place to be”.

Quitting was just the first step on his journey, but it was a big one; in addition to leaving the job behind, he also left the regular paycheque behind. Now, Tolstrup’s mission is to get back in touch with himself and to learn how he can be a better, more attentive, manager.

Tolstrup only has the bare essentials with him. That keeps his distractions to a minimum and allows him to be receptive to any good ideas that come to him. Amongst his possessions are a notebook that he writes things in.

Rethinking the daily grind

He has a mobile with him, an old Nokia 3310. Compared with today’s smartphones, it can do little, but Tolstrup only takes it out once a week to check in.

The philosophy is simple: the less you have, the less there is to distract you. Tolstrup wants to have a clear head as he reflects over why people have become less attentive, and what he can do to become the attentive person he thought he was. Or, as he put it in one of the postings on his blog, nærværendeleder.dk:

"All of the managers in the public sector, who, like myself, slave away, day in, day out. Rethinking, implementing, renewing, writing memos, holding meetings, holding more meetings, setting goals, impact-evaluating – and then doing it all over again. We run, and then we run a little more. Sometimes in place. More and more of us get sick. People change jobs faster than ever before. Too many burn out too soon. To what avail? 

I think that a lot of the reason why we feel this is all so useless has to do with managers not being more attentive – of their assignments, of their staff or of themselves."

Today, Tolstrup’s daily grind involves lacing up his boots, strapping on his rucksack, packing his tent and hitting the trail. He's stepped off the hamster wheel, but for others it still turns. And the faster it goes, the less they realise what’s going on around them.

Tolstrup ventures a guess as to how things have turned out this way.

“A part of it is that we start so many things that we never see through to the end. Six months from now we’ll be trying something else new. We use oceans of time changing the work we’ve done, knowing that nothing will ever come of any of it. And on processes that are never seen through to completion.”

A journey of understanding

Tolstrup’s hope is that his journey will give him a better understanding of why he wants to be a manager, to reinforce his foundation so that he can stand up better to what his job throws at him.

“Managers have the opportunity to say no, to have an influence on the decisions that other people make,” he says. “But I feel that it has got harder to do that recently. Instead of sticking with what we’ve accomplished, we try to come up with new solutions.

“Our staff see their managers constantly moving to the next task, without ever really taking an interest in what they are doing – or in who is doing the work, for that matter. Instead our staff see us being concerned about structure and guidelines.

“It’s all incredibly frustrating and demotivating. People get sick with stress. People get assignments that are truly demanding, and they willingly put a lot of themselves into them, but, in the end, they wind up coming undone.”

Even though Tolstrup doesn’t see the public sector, per se, as the problem, he does find that, sometimes, things get restructured just for the sake of the restructuring. He recalls, for example that during his three years working for the tax administration he had six bosses.

In spite of it all, Tolstrup manged to keep his stress level down, and to steer clear of situations that might have run him down. He understands that walking away from it all, the way he did, is a solution few have the opportunity to copy; he has no family he needs to think about and he can sublet his flat while he’s on the road.

Inspirational, not introspective

Tolstrup’s decision didn’t go unnoticed; hundreds of people commented on his LinkedIn post announcing his decision, as well as on the various news articles in which he was asked to discuss it. He hopes the attention can inspire others in the public sector to think over their workplaces and how they can be better.

His blog, which was set up to prevent his project from becoming an exercise in navel gazing, is intended as a way to share his reflections with other managers in the public sector in the hope that they can be a part of improving its work culture.

“Two things have somehow happened at the same time: while we’re shrinking the public sector by cutting budgets by 2% a year, we’re spending more time reflecting about what we are doing. All this managerial introspection gives the people who actually interact with citizens even less time to do their work.”

That might sound like Djøf bashing – a popular way of blaming the union’s members, many of whom are public-sector managers, for being responsible for whatever ails public services – but Tolstrup is himself a member of Djøf. If anything, his criticism should be taken as a warning that inflated titles and increasing micro-management distances the public sector from the public.

“A part of it is that we’ve all got our master’s degrees after a long and glorious time at university. Everything needed to sound important, and we needed to show that we could analyse things properly. That sort of thinking sticks with us after we leave uni,” he says.

Changed for the worse

Ten years ago, when Tolstrup started in his first job, with the City of Copenhagen, he recalls that, as often as not, the people he worked with hadn’t gone to university.

“Some were teachers. Not everyone had a degree. Today there are fewer people like that in the office who can supplement the legal and economic expertise grads have. All things being equal, we’re better off if there are people who can tell grads what life in the real world is like.”

The best results arise, he feels, when administrators and specialists each bring their respective forms of expertise to the table and work together.

Another difference he notices today is that it has become fashionable for legislators to try to make changes to the public sector.

“When a new government comes to power, we can count on a school reform, a labour-market reform et cetera et cetera,” Tolstrup says. “Things need to get done faster, but it’s just not possible for us to get things done in so little time. Rarely – if ever – does there come anything good out of restructuring. Seeking to do things in a new way can have some benefits, but the point shouldn’t be reorganisation for the sake of reorganisation.”

Make the public sector great again

Instead, Tolstrup has three recommendations for how to implement changes in the public sector.

Firstly, managers should be more attentive to their key tasks and lay out the guideposts of a plan that will lead to genuine, long-lasting improvements.

Secondly, managers need to care about how their staff is doing and whether they like their jobs. Tolstrup isn’t suggesting that bosses get touchy-feely, but they should think about the way they talk to their employees.

Lastly, Tolstrup feels managers need to be more aware of themselves. “One minute we’re high on dopamine or we’re on an adrenaline rush, and the next we’re short-tempered, or we don’t really listen. We need to take a deep breath.”

None of this, Tolstrup stresses, is designed to give managers more work. The idea is that they spend their time working with their employees, not sitting up late at night writing memos to them. Personally, he’s never done the work-after-dinner thing; his opinion is that it’s a boss’s job to delegate work to employees, not to second guess their work.

Right now, though, Tolstrup is a staff of one, and his work is to walk. The notebook is often out, and, of course, there is a plan with what he’s doing: when he gets home he wants to write a book about what he discovered on his voyage, if he can find a publisher.

Tolstrup expects to be back sometime around Christmas. But, even then, work won’t be the most pressing thing for him. When he does feel the need to sit down behind a desk again, it won’t be about the job, but about his role as a manager, and working with people who share his values and with other managers who want to be more attentive. With a job like that, who needs rambling?

Rasmus Tolstrup

Department head, ministry of child and social affairs, 2018-2019; department head, Skat; team leader/chief advisor, City of Copenhagen. Masters in political science, University of Copenhagen, 2012; currently on a seven-month ramble through Europe and stay at a Buddhist retreat centre in Bordeaux. Writes at nærværendeleder.dk.

This article is published by Djøfbladet. It originally appeared in Danish online at djoefbladet.dk.