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CPSRENEWAL.CA Weekly: Speaking Notes on Leadership as Governance

Friday, August 29, 2008
As you may or may not know I was a discussant at an HRDSC Knowledge Talk yesterday on the subject of Leadership as Governance.

Here are some excerpts from the event poster:

Speaker

Dr. Gilles Paquet, Professor Emeritus at the Telfer School of Management and Senior Research fellow at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa

Presentation

Based on his recent research, Dr. Paquet will challenge traditional notions of leadership and governance. He will ask us to explore how the decision making process is affected by increasingly large and complex network based organizations.

Discussants

Bart Bakker, Executive Director, Leadership Ottawa

Leadership Ottawa works to broaden leadership skills and expertise of committed action-oriented individuals by connecting them with the knowledge, tools, experiences and networks they need to strengthen their communities and organizations.

Nicholas Charney, Program Analyst, Assistant Deputy Minister’s Office, Labour Program and Executive Member of YMAGIN – Labour

I think the event went well and I hope to follow up later with my reflections on Dr. Paquet's awesome presentation. Since I didn't get an advanced copy of his presentation I based my comments largely on his publication, Cats Eyes: Intelligent Work versus Perverse Incentives.

FYI there were 194 Public Servants registered from across the country (all within HRSDC), and my actual speaking notes are attached here below:

Intro

[Ask by show of hands how many people consider themselves to be new Public Servants]

I left probably the coolest job in the world to be a public servant – I worked for the Ottawa Senators Hockey Club. Interestingly I resigned my position with the Sens just prior to being flown out to Anaheim for the game 5 Stanley Cup final.

Understandably, when I tell people that, they always ask me why I left. Well, actually, it’s usually more of a statement about the kind of idiot I am.

But the reason I signed my letter of offer is simple, it’s the same reason that we all signed our letters: the opportunity appealed to us.

My career in Public Service started as most do – which is to say not according to plan. I went through the same on-boarding process that many of you have. I had the same conversations you are having with your friends, and I faced the decisions you are facing. I got to the point where I needed to make a decision about my future.

At around the same time, I had a friend leave her organization for greener pastures. But before she left she brought her concerns about her unit up with her manager. On one hand I was amazed by her courage, on the other hand I couldn’t understand why she would even bother.

She told me that she felt obligated to at least try. She explained that if she didn’t step up and take responsibility someone else would just inherit her problems. We both knew that that wouldn’t solve anything. Her simple explanation, and the fact that she took ownership, made my decision an easy one.

I engaged myself in public service renewal because I want to be able to look back on my career in the public service – the one that will make up the most of my working life – as the coolest job I ever had. I don’t want to look back 28 years from now and feel as if the best time of my professional life was a single year of working for the Sens back when I was 25.

Initially you may not see the connections between my story and Dr. Paquet’s work, but I ask that you keep it in mind as I go through the rest of my presentation. Hopefully they will become clear as we proceed. There are two main linkages between my story and Dr. Paquet’s work that I would like to draw.

1st Link: Designing a Living Organization

The first link is to ‘designing a living organization’. Dr. Paquet has written that the role of the designer is to intervene in real time in an existing organization in order to improve the four dimensional PARC configuration (People, Architecture, Routines and Culture) in a manner that generates better performance. (p7 Cats Eyes)

However, this role is not just the role of some abstract designer. This is our role as Public Servants. Understanding that our organization is made up of People, Architecture, Routines and Culture, and that changing any one of these causes the others to realign, is understanding that we each have a degree of influence over our organization.

Public Servants actively looking to design a living organization should naturally welcome the perspective of new hires because they are less prone to accepting the established order and more likely to be able to identify red flags. Therefore youth groups such as YMAGIN are particularly important because they focus individual influence by collecting people who generate ideas and question existing architectures, routines and culture. Moreover, as Dr. Paquet has written, young people are more willing to engage in experimentalism then are their older colleagues.

Our willingness to experiment may have something to do with the fact that older colleagues are generally in positions of greater responsibility and are busy dealing with the day to day administration of the government. However, the opportunity cost here is clear: we are losing the capacity to engage new ideas to the necessity of the day. Often new recruits have less on their plate in terms of the day to day and have more time to engage in creative thinking. Unfortunately busy managers are not only too busy to engage in serious play, but are too busy to encourage it in their new hires. This leaves new hires frustrated and idling, when they could be finding solutions that free up time for their managers.

For this reason, I think one of the core ingredients of designing a living organization should be incorporating new outlooks and creating safe spaces, particularly for new recruits, to generate ideas. I think that, much like APEX, youth groups constitute a safe space and a powerful tool to accelerate transition. Youth groups provide opportunities to deal with difficult issues, and generate better understanding and closer collaboration. (p21 Cats Eyes)

They facilitate the exchange of perspectives and advice from among people facing similar issues. Sometimes the net gain is small: a single issue, resolved on a personal level. Sometimes the net gain is much larger. While both are important, when something larger takes root within the youth group the group is well-positioned to develop it, generate interest in it, and find the resources to champion it.

For example, within the last two months, YMAGIN-Labour successfully held an Informal Discussion with our ADM for our new recruits, a Lunch and Learn for Students on staffing; and a fundraiser for Child and Youth Friendly Ottawa’s Tools 4 Schools Program. All of which were responses to needs that the group perceived, not tasks that were handed down from on high.

I also mentioned that youth groups foster closer collaboration. The truth of government is that while everyone wants to accomplish their own successes on their own merits, relationships matter, and they matter a lot. New public servants should seek out people with whom they share an affinity and similar ideas and interests. Some of your best resources in the future may be the people moving up the ranks with you right now. Youth groups are a convenient way to meet other people within your organization and start to build those connections.

Personally, some of my best resources are people I have never formally worked with but have developed professional relationships with. These are people that I have chosen to work and they are as important to my career as those people whom I am required to work with.

2nd Link: Perverse Incentives

The second link I want to make is to ‘perverse incentives’. In Cats Eyes Dr. Paquet wrote that poor performers are rarely dealt with by managers and that the tendency is to off-load problem cases rather then to confront them. He went on to say that the capacity to confront is a fundamental requirement for any leader and is a burden of their office. He attributes the failure to confront to a sense of disengagement, strategic silence and learned helplessness. Finally, he exposes the fact that the EX community is permeated by latent fear – that there is this survival instinct that manifests as self-censorship.

The truth is that these things extend well beyond the senior management cadre. The lack of capacity or willingness to look a person in the eye and say “this will not do” in the public service is a particularly powerful example. How many unhappy, confused or underutilized new recruits are willing to look their manager in the eye and say, “With all do respect, this will not do.” My wager is not many.

Furthermore, I would argue that the capacity to confront is a fundamental requirement of any Public Servant, and a burden of anyone holding public office, not just senior managers. Similarly, disengagement, strategic silence, and learned helplessness are manifest across the ranks of the Public Service. This includes new recruits, where it is perhaps the most dangerous. Latent fear is also easily discernable in new hires. Again, how many new hires would confront their manager even if that was truly what was required? From my experience the majority of people simply choose to self-censor and start applying elsewhere. Perverse incentives are leading us to the path of least resistance.

According to Dr. Paquet, if this fear is to be attenuated, new structures and rules based on trust must be put into place. I think that new hires would tend to agree – they want to trust and be trusted.

Yet, in my experience, there is an implicit level of trust among new hires that has yet to develop between managers and new hires. This is not surprising given generational differences and power dynamics between new hires and managers.

In some cases new employees, especially contract or term employees seeking permanency, avoid the risk of alienating their managers because they fear repercussions. Things like further reduced workloads, withholding references or giving poor references, un-renewed contracts, and negative feedback spread by word of mouth, could all be detrimental to a new recruit, especially one straight out of Post-Secondary.

Outro

If you recall when I mentioned that youth organizations are a good way to alter the PARC configuration of our organization I failed to mention the People aspect. My conclusion is largely centered on People and what Dr. Paquet has referred to as ‘somebody is in charge and it’s not me’.

I will simply call it ownership.

I agree with Dr. Paquet’s observation that it is naïve to expect change until executives accept responsibility for addressing problems. However, I would like to again go one step further by saying that this requires not only educating people upward but in all directions that part of being a Public Servant is to refuse to indulge in strategic silence, acting to reinforce that commitment, and providing all the necessary support to others who deal with these problems (p11 Cats Eyes).

We need people at all levels to accept responsibility for both their successes and their failures. I have already said that I think it is the responsibility of every Public Servant to hold their colleagues accountable, and when appropriate, to let them know that certain levels of performance are simply unacceptable. But holding others to account is pointless if you fail to hold yourself to that same standard.

As Public Servants we all need to take ownership over everything that falls within our purview. Ownership can mean a lot of different things to different people, to some it might mean getting up here and making an honest appeal to others, for some it might mean climbing that career ladder and championing something at a high level, or for others it simply means finding a job they love and doing it effectively. The truth is that all of these contributions are equally important. All of these things make it easier for us to be effective owners in our own spheres.

Working in an organization that rewards people for taking ownership, is one of the first steps towards me being able to look back 28 years from now and say that my career in public service was the coolest job I ever had.

In this sense, leadership is about enabling others by helping them find the courage to take ownership, to play an active role in designing our living organization, and to overcome perverse incentives.

Thank you.