Thank you, Jacqueline and Daryell, for that very warm welcome.
To begin my remarks today, I would like to acknowledge that I’m speaking to you from the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishnaabeg People. Please take a moment and think about the territory that you are on and you are participating from today, and give thanks those who have taken care of these lands in the past.
I’m really, really pleased to be able to be with you for this celebration, even if it is being done virtual. I’d like to take this opportunity to acknowledge Jacqueline’s upcoming retirement and thank her for being such a remarkable leader and a great public servant. Jacqueline is the first Black woman and woman of colour to lead APEX, and certainly will not be the last. Thank you very much for your career-long contributions, Jacqueline. You will be missed and we wish you all the very best.
I would now like to congratulate you, all of you, the new members of the executive community. This ceremony marks an important milestone of accomplishment in your careers. So, take the time to celebrate your success. You will be receiving a certificate to mark this achievement. On that certificate, you will see that it contains an acknowledgement of your success, but it also underscores the responsibilities that come with being an executive.
It will say that the Public Service of Canada is placing special trust and confidence in you and in your determination to serve with integrity, to uphold the values of our institution, and to demonstrate leadership and professionalism. This is no small undertaking.
The theme of our session today is the “power of opportunity,” and you are joining the executive ranks of Canada’s public service at a very opportune time.
Everyone here today has already proven themselves as leaders. You are now moving into a different type of leadership role. You will be able to influence the people around you, the institution you work in and the country.
It won’t be lost on any of you that we find ourselves in a pivotal moment. You are joining the executive ranks while the public service is in the process of making tremendous changes, including:
- supporting the ongoing transition of the new government, and the need to help that new government to implement it’s ambitious agenda for the country;
- we are also implementing a new vaccine credentials requirement in the public service, which is going to help all of us and our teams to return to the workplace gradually and safely; and
- working together on the need to move forward with the Call to Action on diversity and inclusion that was issued by Clerk Ian Shugart, and the important work that lies ahead for all of us on Indigenous reconciliation.
And these challenges are coming as well at a difficult time. People are tired, after more than 20 months of a global pandemic that continues to impact families and communities right around the world.
This pandemic has proven to be a test of our leaders in all areas of business and society. I am very proud that leaders across government rose to this challenge so very well. They have done an extraordinary job of delivering on operational needs while attending as well to the human impacts of this crisis. Thank you for agreeing to lead, for being adaptable, and for being such shining examples of what quality leadership can do when under extreme pressure.
Now, these pressures include the pandemic, but as well the impact on Canada’s economic future in an uncertain global environment. Our work in the public service is also about strengthening the institution for the future. There is work ahead of all of us on the path to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. There are heightened public expectations in order to address social injustices, such as systemic racism and discrimination in our ranks and more broadly in Canadian society.
All that to say that the context within which you will be serving the public, and leading your respective teams, is daunting. You have shown you have the ability to lead at a time of great challenges. And we know that times of uncertainty and transformation people are provided with real opportunities to influence and help to drive positive and lasting change.
A Vision for Leadership
That’s not to say the work ahead will be easy—far from it. For example, the shift to more hybrid and remote work models has forced us to challenge what we view as good leadership.
Leaders have had to adapt and change. There are certain core principles of leadership that are the same whether you are in a virtual or physical environment, and whether you find yourself in the throes of a pandemic, or not. They include:
- having a vision of what you want to achieve and being able to communicate it and to motivate and inspire your team;
- leading with humility, being authentic and sincere, and having the courage to lead and own your decisions and actions;
- having the courage to work outside your comfort zone and to help other people work outside their comfort zones.
- leading with integrity and demonstrating ethical behaviour at all times; You are a model for all your colleagues;
- never forgetting that leading is all about people—treat them as you would expect to be treated yourself.
While leading in a virtual environment is different—and frankly, it’s not easy—we also have to realize it can also be kind of great. Because leadership is about people, and now more than ever leadership is not just about understanding people in the office, but about understanding people in the context of their lives and adjusting your leadership style to accommodate the whole of the person.
And while we slowly and safely reintroduce on-site work, the truth is that most leaders continue to interact with staff, colleagues and stakeholders through a single filter—a screen, like us today.
Working remotely has its benefits, but it’s much harder to gauge what is happening with workloads and the impact on individuals’ mental health. It’s not only a zero-sum game—we as leaders need to work hard to balance these priorities.
This means you may have to be more creative about how to motivate, to connect with and get the most out of your staff.
Accommodations are essential to customize work settings to the realities of individuals and their needs and personal circumstances.
Leadership Guiding Principles
So let me speak for a moment about leadership and provide some tips that I hope will help you to navigate both this present moment and the days and months that lie ahead. I will then talk about the most pressing issues facing you as leaders, the challenge of addressing systemic racism and contributing to genuine reconciliation efforts.
The first thing any leader needs to realize is that leadership can be boiled down to relationships. Relationships between you and your teams, you and your peers, you and your superiors. So communication and being honest about expectations are key.
Second, you are part of a community. They say that being a leader can be a lonely job, but you are never completely alone. You have colleagues, you have APEX and you have other resources for executives that you can turn to for advice and support. So build your network, ask for help and lean on your colleagues and other seasoned leaders. You don’t ever have to feel or be alone.
Third, really try to take into account the perspectives of others (whether they are on your own team, other specialists and perhaps another departments) and honestly assess the environment that’s around you. Don’t just base decisions on your own views and your own background and specialities. The pandemic has necessitated more whole-of-government and horizontal co-operation than ever before. We need to keep that momentum and we have the tools to do it more easily now given the virtual world. Assessing our environment means keeping the bigger picture in mind.
The COVID environment unfortunately has forced a lot of leaders into a very shorter-term view. An effective leader must focus on the longer-term horizon even while they address the many emergencies and crises and urgencies and priorities of today.
Fourth, there are various types of leadership, and they work better or worse depending on your own strengths, the situation and the needs of your team. Being an effective leader is about really thinking about your own leadership style and what your team needs at any given time in any situation, and how best to adapt what style to what the team needs.
Fifth, keep innovating, please. The motto of our ongoing renewal of the public service is a “mindset of agility, inclusive, equipped.” Who knew that “agile” would be as tested as it’s been these past 20 or so months? I believe that what we are learning and adapting to now will better prepare us for the future. As leaders, it’s important to also wear the hat of the innovator, so you can really help drive important changes to our processes and technology and in other areas. Never stop striving for better.
Call to Action and Indigenous reconciliation
COVID-19 and the work involved in responding to this threat came at a time when another long-standing issue had come to the surface. It is one that deserves our time and will drive our work for some time to come.
Over the last year, significant efforts have been made to build a more accommodating, inclusive and competitive public service, by hiring and attracting more diverse talent and by identifying and breaking down barriers to full participation by all.
This has been long overdue, and the drivers have been clear, including the confirmation of hundreds of unmarked children’s graves at former residential schools in Canada, and other tragic events like the murder of George Floyd, the killing of a Muslim family in London, Ontario, and too many other instances of hate. All of these events have made us confront the discrimination and racism that is still an unfortunately lived reality for too many Indigenous Peoples, Black people and other racialized groups across Canada.
These events have also forced us to acknowledge the systemic racism that exists within our own institutions. Since the Call to Action on diversity and inclusion was first launched, departments and agencies across the system have been working to examine their practices and what they are doing today to highlight and address racism and systemic barriers in their organizations. As a senior leader, as a member of the executive community, you have real influence, you are now part of the action—in the Call to Action.
You have a lot of influence in terms of hiring and promoting, recruiting, and accommodating more diverse talent, drawing on it in the design and delivery of policies, programs and services. I hope you take this responsibility to heart. Have ongoing conversations with your teams about the impact of racism and the importance of Indigenous reconciliation. Every decision you make as a leader should consider these factors in some ways before.
Be aware of the power you have, and the responsibility and accountability that comes with it. On this important question of accountability, the fact is that systemic racism, and the barriers it has created in our institution, stems from decisions and actions taken, once upon a time, by public service leaders like you and like me.
And now, as public service leaders, we have a responsibility and opportunity to do better and to be on the right side of history by identifying and eliminating those same barriers towards a just and inclusive Canada.
Building a diverse, equitable and inclusive public service, something I think we can all aspire to, requires focused and sustained leadership at all levels. In some cases, it may require a cultural shift.
As leaders, you have an important role to play in filling these gaps and addressing the disadvantages that exist for far too many of our employees.
We have a lot of work to do on this.
It’s work that really matters and it’s going to make a difference. When you are having a bad day, swamped with work and under pressure from deadlines, remember that you are helping to write Canada’s history. The work that you’re engaged in has meaning and purpose. Books are going to be written about this pandemic, about this time and about how Canada’s public service responded. I urge you to consider how you are going to use this moment and be part of that history.
I want to turn now to the topic of mental health. As leaders, it has become increasingly clear that we bear a responsibility to create a healthy and respectful working environment, where issues related to mental health and wellness can be openly discussed. And of course, that starts with taking care of your own health and resilience!
We are having more open conversations about mental health at every level and collectively working to remove the stigma that still exists.
During this pandemic and all the changes around it, there is an increase in mental health pressures. I am sure many of us are feeling it. And those feelings and pressures may be only compounded as the responsibilities mount.
This is a reminder that asking for help is not a weakness, it’s a strength. You have a responsibility to yourself to take advantage of the supports that are available to you if you need them. You cannot lead if you are not healthy and strong yourself.
Burnout is a real thing and no one is invincible.
You have to learn how to prioritize, and remember that the world keeps turning if some work is missed. That is often easier said than done, but we really need to keep working at creating a culture where the people come before the work and the constant expectations to produce.
I know we have discussed a lot of important topics in this event so far. They may come across you as insurmountable and perhaps even daunting challenges. But the truth is you’ve got this and I know you do.
You are sitting where you are, because you have proven your abilities.
Don’t look at this next career adventure as a challenge, but rather, inspired by the theme, as an opportunity. An opportunity to contribute to real change, and not just within the confines of your team or your work, but change that can help transform the institution you work in, the country and the world around you.
I am so encouraged whenever a new cadre of executives join the ranks, because I know you bring with you passion, innovation, energy and unique perspectives. And I can’t wait to see what you are going to accomplish and the more positive, diverse and inclusive culture that you are going to help build.
Thank you, merci, bonne chance. I wish you all the best.