Column: From Practice to Practitioner

Friday, November 6, 2009
It is funny that a friend and colleague just blogged that she finished reading Bob Chartier's book, Bureaucratically Incorrect: Letters to a Young Public Servant.

You see, I met Bob about a year ago and, although we haven't been in direct communication much, we always get along smashingly - which is one of the reasons why I was very excited to open for him on the last day of the 2009 Alberta Managers' Learning and Development Forum in Calgary a couple of weeks ago. The other reason I was glad to speak ahead of him is that he is an impossible act to follow. If you have ever seen him speak, you know what I am talking about. In short, he is awesome and I consider it an honour to be able to speak on the same bill as him. What really did it for me was when he suggested (to the crowd) that he and I should embark on a speaking tour, which he affectionately dubbed "The Geezer and the Grasshopper".

Anyway, I just wanted to share some of the wisdom that Bob shared with the group in Calgary, blended with some of my own thoughts.

Moving from 10% to %100

At one point, Bob asked us to envision a public service where we each devoted only 10% of our time to "do our practice", whatever that practice is. We all have varying interests and skills, many of which are lost when we simply do what our job requires us to do. He asked what we thought the public service would look like if we all embraced our practice as an integral part of doing our job? If my interest is public service renewal, then shouldn’t I be encouraged to make contributions to it when I can? If your interest/expertise is in alternative dispute resolution, but you are an auditor (the example Bob used), you should be able to take some time to participate in the communities that practice your practice, that practice your passion. There are a lot of spectacular learning opportunities for public servants right here at home - within the public service - but the dominant mental model isn't one that recognizes the opportunity as an opportunity but rather paints the opportunity as a cost: the cost of not doing one's job for that period of time.

Bob went on to explain that if we were all able to move from investing 10% of our time in our practice to 100%, we would become practitioners. In doing so, we would all become more connected with our work. We would be more passionate about it. We would be at the place that David Irvine describes as the "sweet spot" - where our interests and our responsibilities to the organization overlap (Side note: I had the pleasure of meeting and speaking after David Irvine at the Alberta Human Resources Conference in Red Deer a couple of weeks ago). This is exactly what I mean when I show this picture in my presentations and tell people that this is how I feel about my job.

Career Evolution

Looking at the evolution of my career in the public service thus far, I can say with great certitude, that I have made the shift from practice to practitioner, I have found the sweet spot that Irvine refers to and I have to tell you it wasn't easy, but being there now is pretty f***ing awesome. The other thing I can say with certitude is that the time I have invested in my practice (prior to becoming a practitioner) has done at least as much, if not more, for my career than my substantive work. My practice delivered new opportunities that would otherwise be outside the purview of my substantive role. Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying that I haven’t learned anything on the job, because I have. What I am saying is that the daily tasks of one’s substantive position are generally more static and (so the theory goes) you have already demonstrated that you can do them (by winning a competition based on the skill set/expertise to actually do the work). Practice on the other hand is considerably more dynamic and has no preordained areas of responsibility. Practice can shift with your interests and as you discover other things, people and passions through the serendipitous nature of that discovery.

But making the transition from practice to practitioner is difficult (it took me over 3 years), but the work is worth the reward. In order to achieve that transformation, the first thing you need to do is realize that your practice is in fact not a cost but a contribution, a contribution that, in some non-traditional or currently immeasurable way helps improve your organization. The second thing you need to do is start to convince others of this very same thing. Start a conversation with your manager. Ask them how you can better align your passions with what the organization asks of you. Public servants, Bob says, are not only dying for this conversation, but also for the more genuine relationships that this conversation engenders. I think that this is why Bob sees communities of practice as the most powerful/transformational tool at the disposal of the public service. He sees them as a tool that grows sustainable leadership within the public service.

Why We Do What We Do

This is why I think that you are so important - that the community that has formed around this blog and the blogs of my fellow public servants, on twitter, LinkedIn, Govloop, GCPEDIA or GCConnex are so important.

What we are doing with all of these social media tools is having the conversations we were dying to have; connecting communities looking to forge better relationships and in so doing, growing more sustainable leadership.

What we need to do now is rally more people into these conversations, increase the number and quality of these relationships, and uncover more of the leaders buried under the weight of the bureaucracy.

Are you with me?