A New Look at Executive Careers in the Public Service

 

Arun Thangaraj

APEX Conversation with:

Arun Thangaraj, Associate Deputy Minister, Transport Canada, and Deputy Minister Champion for the National Managers’ Community

APEX spoke recently with Arun Thangaraj, Associate Deputy Minister, Transport Canada, and Deputy Minister Champion for the National Managers’ Community, about the changing nature of public service executive careers, and the essential role that leaders must play to advance inclusion and well-being in our organizations.


 

What defines a ‘successful’ public service career for today’s generation of leaders?

I think the notion of ‘success’ has really evolved. In past years, you were rewarded for personal brilliance, for ambition and the drive to get things done, no matter what. Today, our concept of success is more sophisticated: results still matter, but how you achieve them is just as important. Speaking from my own background as a certified accountant, you look at how you leverage your assets to reach your objectives. That includes your team and your resources, but it also means how you leverage inclusion as an asset, how you incorporate wellness into your work culture, and understanding these as key levers for performance.

COVID has been a big driver for some extraordinary results in the public service, but it has also taken us to a deeper level of appreciation for how mental health affects individuals and the workplace. The pressures that people are experiencing – what is happening in their lives, with their health and their families – is very real, and we can’t have those incredible results without also protecting people’s wellbeing.

The Clerk’s Call to Action Call on Anti-racism, Equity, and Inclusion is a critical step forward – how do we make meaningful progess on these goals?

I look at this issue not only as an Associate Deputy Minister, but as a racialized person myself, being from the East Indian community in Canada. These issues have been there for a long time, but the momentum has now changed. I can already see a difference because, for the first time, we are talking openly about racism and discrimination.We are seeing Deputy Ministers and other executives starting to engage with their staff at all levels, and listening to the real, lived experiences of public servants who are Black, or Indigenous, women or LGBTQ2+, and persons with disabilities. Culture change can only happen when there is an acknowledgement that racism and discrimination exist, and a genuine understanding of what people face, day to day, and how that affects them. We are hearing public servants talk about the effect of power imbalances because of race or gender, or the pressure to subsume or neutralize their identity to fit in with the majority, and even about the dismissive impact of coded language – like ‘complimenting’ racialized people for being ‘articulate’. I give huge credit to all of the public servants, at all levels, who are making their voices heard in ways that we could not, even just a few years ago.

But it can’t stop there. Every single public service leader has to answer the question of ‘what can I do now?’ Leadership starts with self-awareness – acknowledging how our own words and actions affect others, and taking responsibility to change where it is needed.

We do need to increase representation at leadership tables – of women, of racialized people, and all the others we have long excluded – but we need to do more. Mentorship and allyship – raising each other up – matter more than ever. And it is incumbent on those of us who have reached senior leadership positions to create that space for others, and to demonstrate how our authentic selves, including race or orientation, our lived experience, upbringing and beliefs, are part of the success we have achieved as individuals and for Canada.

Do you have advice for executives who are building their careers and still developing their leadership practice?

The best advice that I can give is, first, to learn about yourself and the impact that you have. There is always time for substantive learning – subject matter courses and the like – but having that sense of self-awareness is critical. And second, to cultivate your intellectual curiosity and ask questions; it is underrated as a skill but is essential to learning and having real effect as a public servant and a true leader.

The Clerk of the Privy Council, Ian Shugart, who has had such a profound impact on so many people, would always insist that we ask ‘why’ – why should this thing be done, and why in this way? He liked to say that ‘the answers are always in the questions’, and I can think of no better advice for any public servant today.

Arun Thangaraj is Associate Deputy Minister at Transport Canada, and, over his 20+ year career, has served at Global Affairs Canada and the former Canadian International Development Agency, as well as the Canadian Transportation Agency. He hails from Toronto, and is a passionate Maple Leafs fan.