Just prior to the holiday season I had the opportunity to attend a renewal mini-workshop put on by my friends at PCO's renewal secretariat and sponsored by outgoing Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet, Jim Lahey; it doubled as his unofficial retirement party, one of Jim's last attempts to spur on the renewal conversation.
This was my first interaction with Jim and let me say that, while I can't speak to his overall contributions to the Public Service in sweeping terms, his demeanour, candour and passion were inspiring. I also had the opportunity to meet some other great people, most notably Katherine Baird from the Public Policy Forum (who co-authored Canada's Public Service in the 21st Century: Destination: Excellence) and Bob Chartier, the GoC’s resident leadership expert.
There was a lot to take from the workshop. Here is just a small taste of the conversational flavour of the evening.
Katherine and I had a very interesting discussion on what the ramifications would be if we simply started to change the physical space within which we worked. How would breaking down the cubicle walls, creating open and bright collaborative workspaces while retaining a handful of shared offices for private meetings affect the work culture? Mike and I have often discussed enough, we even ranted about it once. I doubt this idea will gain much traction but if there is a manager out there willing to experiment, why not give it a whirl? You may find that your team is more innovative or collaborates more frequently if you liberate them from the physical rigidity of the typical workspace. Involving them in the physical act of tearing down the walls between them may even increase the magnitude of the impact on their approach to working together. So why not leave the accommodations people out of it? Consider it a team building exercise.
Bob and I spoke about the need to simply engage in conversations about some of the problems within our work culture(s) or rules-based systems something we don't do that well in the Public Service. More often than not we are quick to self-rationalize as to why we can't have the conversation, even if we know it is one that should be had or that could bear fruit. We need to move beyond avoidance and into engagement. Jim added that he often hears public servants say that they want to take risks without facing consequences, yet there can be no risk without consequences. We then got into a conversation around the fact that the risk adverse culture within the public service is confusing given the difficulty involved in terminating employees and documenting poor performance. If anything, we should be expecting to see more people taking risks than avoiding them altogether.
If this is not evidence of learned helplessness, I don't know what is.
In that spirit I want to try to drive the blog back to the discussions about work culture that originally prompted its creation. I don't think we have gotten away from that altogether; however I feel as though we focused a lot on technology in the workplace, and there are clearly other determinants at play.
In Jim's closing remarks he spoke a bit about leadership’s 4 components: courage, judgment, love and humility. Courage and judgment reside on one axis, love and humility on the other. Good leaders are courageous enough to get involved, to take risks, to stand on points of principle, and to call nonsense by its name. Good leaders temper their courage with judgment. Judgment, says Jim, can only be learned by making mistakes. Often the gain to one's faculty of judgment is of a similar magnitude to one's mistake. Good leaders love what they do, they are passionate and inspire passion in those around them. Yet good leaders remain humble, and know that without others, they lead nothing and can accomplish nothing.
The most important thing that I took away was something that Jim said to me when I was leaving. I was explaining that I am trying to direct my career so that I can be one of those leaders he spoke of. He looked at me and said, "Don't wait - do it now".