Executive Guest Blog by Anya Lisowski
I recently marked 20 years since I started full time in the public service. During those 20 years, I have been privileged to work in five geographic regions, including one position outside of the country, with almost 70% of that time as an executive. This anniversary caused me to reflect on the lessons I have learned, my values and how they impact my leadership style and how we lead in uncertain and unprecedented times. The values that shape who we are also shape how we lead. For me, those values feature prominently in the lessons I have learned over the past two decades. I shared some observations recently on social media and APEX invited me to share these with you as Executive Guest Blogger this month.
The power of community – The public service is small. We cross paths with the people we meet, collaborate with, work for, lead and serve many times in our career. It is important to nurture those relationships by getting to know our colleagues, team members, clients and service providers. Learning from those colleagues and being active in helping others who are starting out or whose networks are not as diverse, makes the public service stronger.
Another important way to be part of a community is by reaching out to others outside our team, and being deliberate in engaging groups that matter to us – such as new professionals and managers, but also groups focussed on advancing diversity and mental health and wellness, or those in the charitable campaign – whether they are in our own workplaces or virtual contacts. We grow, give back, are challenged and meet lifelong colleagues and friends.
Diversity and inclusion benefits everyone – It is imperative to surround ourselves with people who think, look and work differently than we do. It’s easy to have people in our circle who think and agree with us, but the real magic comes when we have voices, perspectives and approaches that are different from ours, and which challenge and complement us and our teams. Encourage and foster that environment. Real leadership means identifying the gaps and barriers to diversity and inclusion and helping others to get a seat and voice at those tables, at every table. We need to reduce barriers, open doors, and be an ally to those who have not been afforded the same opportunities. This is a leadership commitment that all executives must make and the Clerk’s Call to Action on Anti-Racism, Equity and Inclusion in the Public Service provides concrete steps for us all to take. Creating a public service that is reflective of our country is our responsibility.
Fearless, honest advice is why we are in the roles we are in – giving the best possible advice even when it is not popular and even when we are the only voice delivering that message, is paramount to our role. We are elevated to these positions to say what needs to be said even when it is hard. Be bold. Be brave. Be objective. Be fair. There can be a desire to say that everything is ok and a reluctance to tell leaders the real truth. We must do our research, share the risks and say what others aren’t willing to say in a respectful and objective way with the goal of making the outcome and organization better.
Telling our public service story is powerful – we are the public servants that our neighbours, family, friends and fellow citizens see in action. It is important to share the stories of our colleagues who buy vaccines and Personal Protective Equipment, protect our borders, approve medical devices, repatriate Canadians, process Employment Insurance claims and administer Canada Emergency Response Benefit payments. Communicating the commitment and service that happens every hour of the day is something we can, and should do. Many times, I get asked about something that has nothing to do with my own job or even department, but I am truly pleased to be able to provide useful information (a “warm transfer”, as we called it in the client service world – such as to a 1-800 number, website, department with the lead, service location). Being able to help a fellow Canadian speaks to the broadest sense of public service, and is yet another impact we can have in our communities.
Being physically and mentally ready for the next challenge is our responsibility as leaders – we know that we need to be kind to ourselves and take care of our physical and mental health. It’s what we tell our employees, our colleagues, our mentees and even our leaders. Sometimes following our own advice is not as easy. Finding balance and self-care is a critical aspect of leadership. If we start in a crisis with our fuel tank already on empty, our ability to effectively lead is severely compromised and the long term-impacts will take their toll. Finding ways to rest, recover and recharge are critical. Everyone has different limits. Figuring out our own boundaries, ensuring our teams know what is expected of them and we know what is expected of us, modeling the behaviours that support balance and self-care and ensuring the devices and tools we have support balance rather than impede it are all part of it.
Being kind to others. Always. When we start by assuming that people are good, their intent is positive and they are doing the best they can with the tools and competencies they have, we learn and help to make people better. Taking time to listen, mentor, coach and share our journeys can go a long way. We also only see a fraction of what any person is dealing with, so leading with grace and giving the benefit of the doubt will go a long way in bringing out the best in all situations and with all people. If there was a single message on leadership that we should take away from 2020, it’s a simple one that stands the test of time: Be kind.
Anya Lisowski is a 20-year public service veteran, who has served in locations across Canada and internationally. She is currently Director General for Strategic Engagement and Change Management at PSPC, based in Halifax, Nova Scotia.