In spring 2021, APEX convened a dynamic and diverse group of new executives* to hear their perspectives on the development of leadership capacity and culture in Canada’s public service. Representing different departments, provinces and areas of work, this group shared their vision for the future, covering issues from investment in learning, to mental health and addressing inclusion and racism.
Their collective views and observations – shared here without individual attribution – should offer useful guideposts to senior managers in creating a foundation for the success of the next generation of leadership. The conversation should continue across government, however, and with diverse voices and ideas needed to shape the leadership culture.
APEX thanks for their contributions (*all participants were part of the November 2020 APEX Recognition of Entry to the Executive Ranks ceremony):
Alain Belle-Isle, Treasury Board Secretariat – National Capital Region
Christan Bertelsen, Fisheries & Oceans Canada – Northwest Territories
Dean Dubois, Indigenous Services Canada – Québec
Stacey Gellately, Western Economic Diversification Canada – Alberta
Rachelle Grannum, Canada Revenue Agency – Ontario
Josée Grimard-Dubuc, Canadian Heritage – National Capital Region
Grace Kim, Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada – British Columbia
Christian Lachance, Shared Services Canada – Nova Scotia
Jonathan Yendall, Global Affairs Canada – National Capital Region
Shaping our Leadership Culture:
- Public service leadership has set many positive, essential goals that we all strive to achieve. One recurring observation is that, despite this, government is often too entrenched in its comfort zone, whether about organizational structure, HR practices, technology or the larger vision of how government delivers value.
- More focus should be given to learning how to drive initiatives and guide change at all levels, and how leadership practice can, and should, evolve, even well into an executive career.
- There is rising attachment to the concept of character leadership, and fostering a culture that values courage and honesty, along with greater awareness of how leaders impact their staff and organizations.
- The trend towards more regular engagement by senior leaders with staff across their organizations is positive and must continue. However, the engagement must focus on listening and creating safe spaces for staff to express their ideas and experiences.
- Recognition that sometimes staff will project their assumptions that senior managers won’t allow time to invest in training, and may cut themselves off from development opportunities available to them.
Fostering True Inclusion and Addressing Barriers:
- A growing momentum to build inclusion and address racism is evident, and the Clerk’s Call to Action created an important, and inspirational, foundation. The public service must avoid the trap of treating the issue as this year’s initiative, and instead make it a way of life.
- For executives at all levels, we need to focus on measurable goals around inclusion and discrimination – look at what we can each achieve within our span of control to take meaningful steps forward. Above all, leaders need to listen to the real experiences of staff on racism and discrimination, and ask themselves ‘what will I do about that?’’.
- Managers have to be deliberate in the choices they make to foster diversity and inclusion through recruitment, hiring and sponsorship. Often HR staffing processes are too inflexible and filter out talented individuals from diverse backgrounds who may not match the narrow experience criteria required. We need more flexibility, and bravery, in hiring processes to gain the diversity that will really benefit our organizations.
- The group also looked at official languages as an element of diversity and inclusion. Executives in all regions want to ensure that they, and their teams, have the tools to foster a bilingual culture. Further reflection may be needed to ensure that official languages policies do not create barriers for people in special circumstances that prevent them from learning the second official language; and to ensure that language training is part of the learning path for public servants in all regions, thereby providing equal opportunities for career advancement.
Leading Safe, Supportive Work Spaces:
- The starting point should be leaders who model openness and make it safe to be
vulnerable. Frequent messaging on mental health is positive, but cynicism can grow
when people feel there is a lack of safety when real challenges arise. Lower level
executives spend their days taking care of their teams, but wonder, when it comes to
their own mental health, “who takes care of me?”.
- The COVID-19 crisis has brought a number of issues to the fore, including the
importance of setting boundaries between work and personal life. This remains a
constant challenge, to bulwark time for personal wellbeing and to maintain some life
balance. The notion of resilience needs to be viewed through the lens of wellness, and
not only recharging our capacity to work.
- Workloads are unrelenting, and we are all in a “culture of instantaneity” which
translates to unabated pressure to read, respond, act, and task. Leaders need to have
credibility with their teams that the work requested is relevant and important. When
leaders ask staff to make that effort (sometimes an extraordinary effort), they have to
be able to trust that those results really matter.
- The pandemic has also opened opportunity, by demonstrating that flexible work
arrangements are viable – even on a large scale. And it has lifted the veil on mobility by
making so much of our work virtual. This should allow the public service to capitalize on
talent from across Canada as never before.
- New executives view both mentorship and sponsorship as key tools for leadership
development. They would like to see mentorship opportunities from across government
to build a wider understanding of Canada’s public service, its priorities and leadership
culture. All executives have a role to play in offering sponsorship to lift up others,
particularly as a tool in achieving the goals of the Clerk’s Call to Action.
- Managers also want more flexibility to act in the face of bullying and harassment or
other actions that threaten healthy and psychologically safe workspaces. In some
instances, differing interpretations of HR rules may overly limit the ability of managers
to act quickly and sensibly in the interest of their teams. A more consistent approach
that empowers managers to take action would be desired.
Finally, the new executives are proud to be part of the Government of Canada leadership cadre,
and to contribute to the tradition of excellence and service to Canadians that has marked
Canada’s public service for so long. They look to model the type of leadership and behaviour
that fosters commitment and creativity, kindness and respect for all public servants.