Friday, April 3, 2009 Weekly Column: Career Paths

I had a whirlwind week last week; but one thing that really stuck out for me was a conversation I had with Amanda Parr. Over the course of our discussion Amanda asked me where I saw my future in the public service. It was a question to which I don't yet have a good answer; and truth be told I haven't been aggressively pursuing promotions as of late. In fact I am routinely being screened in only to pass on the opportunity to write the exam because I feel as though my time is often better spent elsewhere.

But what really got me thinking wasn't her question so much as her assessment of where I could be, or what I could do in order to have the largest impact on the public service.

Having had the opportunity to meet and converse with both Don Drummond on the way to Toronto and my Deputy Minister (DM) on the way back to Ottawa, I began to invest more thought into the question of where I saw myself down the line and of the type of impact I would want to make.

But before sharing my thoughts, I just wanted to say how incredibly brilliant these two people are and to thank them (again) for the opportunity to dialogue with them.

I truly believe that senior managers and working-level employees have completely different experiences of their daily work lives within the government. I know that you may think it an obvious point to make, but it is an important one that I never explicitly understood as of yet.

I am not trying to say that one experience is more or less real than another or more or less important - only different. Furthermore, I think that within this difference, public servants draw satisfaction and derive meaning from their work in unique ways.

So where is the best place for someone like me in the public service?

Well I think I am slowly finding it. Understanding exactly where I want to be requires a lot of introspection: getting to know my talents, my shortfalls, my likes and dislikes. All of these things impact my decision on where to go and where to stay within the public service.

During my conversation with my DM she asked me if/why I wanted to be an executive in the public service. The more I thought about the question, the fewer reasons I had to want to be an executive. Essentially what I am trying to say, and what I wish I'd told her, is that right now I am simply not in a place where I could draw personal satisfaction from that experience of work. Furthermore I think that a renewed public service is one that helps people identify how they derive meaning from their work and help them to find the work that can best deliver that meaning. This is a fundamental pillar of any engaged and effective public service.

So for me, for now, I am more then happy trying to engage other public servants within my organization during my day job and engage public servants across the country in my night job. I said in my presentation in Toronto that I firmly believe that you can lead from anywhere in your organization if you are willing to lead from the back. I also said that if your only motivation to lead comes from your desire to be out in front, then you probably aren't going to be a very effective leader.

Personally, I'm not yet ready to lead from the front. I enjoy being where the vast majority of my colleagues are, where all of you are, somewhere in the middle.

What about you? When was the last time you gave an honest thought to where you really want to be in your career?

(Make sure you click that last link - it's a gem, thanks Rick)


  1. Hey Nick, great post as always.

    I hate to bring this up again, but the biggest impact my leadership development program gave me is that exact reflection, at multiple points over the last 2 1/2 years. It kept making me challenge myself, asking whether or not I wanted to be an executive or not. A friend of mine in the program actually admitted before all that this program had made him realize he wasn't ready, and might never want to be ready, for that level. And it was a sentiment echoed by a few others in attendance.

    For me, I've realized my key motivator. To make a long story short (which I'll probably turn into a killer keynote speech someday), my personal mandate is simple: Make Canada better.

    As such, I've found a position that keeps me challenged, and is making me stretch and develop to succeed, as opposed to jobs in the past that were toxically boring. And I see my work having a direct impact on Canadians on a regular basis. I know I'm finally at the level I need to be for a while. Once it gets boring, then I'll look at the EX-01 positions and go from there.

  2. Hey guys.

    I agree that you don't need a nameplate to be an effective leader.

    Sometimes, though, it helps to have a bit of a budget and the authority to get things done.

    I have to wonder what has formed your perception of "that experience of work" - your characterization of an executive's role and responsibilities.

    Before you decide to dismiss a future as an executive, remember that each position (executive or not) is shaped by the organization around it.

    I can tell you, from personal experience, that it is possible to have two VERY different experiences as an executive in the communications stream in the GofC.

    It's important that you do not neglect career options simply because of a perception that a job is all grief and no belief.

    Your boss may be going through a briar patch, but there is no reason why you can't chart a path around it.

  3. A few months ago, I was asked to participate on a panel of "Do you want to be an EX?". I was surprised to find how negative the perception is about being an Executive. I can tell you that I've had many people ask me about how I got here...I tell them, I wasn't looking for it, it just happened. I only took the next promotion once I felt I was ready to take on the next challenge. There were several times when I was promoted and I thought to myself, this feels good, I'll probably stay here for a long time. Then, once I grew into that job, I was ready for more of a challenge. Everyone has a responsibility to do what they want to do. (and I am not a big believer in "trying" out competitions just for the experience. When you are ready for the competition, you won't have to study).

  4. RE: Career path

    It's a conversation I prefer to have with people I aspire. Determine what path they took, what they see vs. what I see from their position.
    For the short-term that is.

    Myself, I see some sr. positions I wouldn't dare see myself in - but others I would. Lots of factors involved: right confluence of place, time, situation, subject area. Charged with the resources to make things happen (it's really daunting if you don't).

    The idea of "following a career path" seems so out of step with the times, and if you have your influence in modernising the public service, maybe we can 'renew' it to be in step with globalising effects -

    Though my sources come from this hokey video:

    that: "the top 10 jobs that will be in demand in 2010 didn't exist in 2004" and that "today's learner will have 10-14 jobs by age 38" - that's not following a career, that's creating one, one that is more dynamic. We see that now among the Sr. PServants - we're seeing it now in the Public Service. Unfortunately that position is still based on hierarchy and silos than dynamism and shared human resources. The well-paid and less accountable consultants can't keep this perk all to themselves. I know the citizenry expect this to change. I do.

    (preachy part) I say you have the right approach, from what I know. Develop your skills now and see where you end up when you put your cards on the table - no one can take that away from you - ever. Just be sure to stay in the game before you cash out. And come back to the game when the table's good. Who knows what the future holds for the PS. (/end poker analogy)

    But then again, if you don't drink too much of the kool-aid I think it would be great to see you in an executive position. I'm anxious for it. You'd certainly be one to walk the talk, talk the walk, scheme virtuously, work for results, and be collaborative and open. That's more of what we need in the PS. Maybe not shock the system right away right now, but soon and gradually.

    But being a consultant too certainly has its perks. Forget everything - let's go form a consultancy!