Friday, June 28, 2013

We all have our defining moments

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

Mine happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

I was in university at the time, working as a front desk agent for a hotel here in Ottawa. I spent a number of years with the company and during that time met thousands of people from all over the world, but one person in particular; a little boy named Jared not more than 5 years old, is the one I remember most.

I wish I could say the circumstances under which I met Jared were better, but in fact they were rather dire. It was Christmas time and the hotel had a partnered with the local hospitals to provide free accommodations to people in town visiting their loved ones receiving critical and palliative care in Ottawa. Jared came to Ottawa with his mother to spend Christmas with his father. I met the duo when they arrived at the hotel, I checked them in and bantered back and forth with a young man who was full of energy, his emotions pulling him any number of directions. He was excited to be at a hotel, but deeply concerned about his father, happy to finally have arrived but worried about being away from home on Christmas.

“What if Santa can’t find me?” I remember him saying to his mother one day while they passed me in the lobby. It was Christmas Eve. Without hesitating I walked out from behind my desk and told Jared that perhaps he could write Santa a letter and leave it above the fireplace in the foyer on Christmas Eve alongside some milk and cookies. Surely if he did that Santa would know where to find him. While his mother was skeptical, Jared was more than happy to oblige. I sat with him in the lobby as he crafted his letter. I took him back to the Kitchen where the chef helped us with some milk and cookies and we returned to the Lobby, placing the package above the fireplace. Jared went upstairs with his mother and I quietly asked her to call me once they got upstairs.

“Tomorrow, when you wake up there will be gifts for Jared under the tree in the lobby. Just give us 15 minutes advance notice to put them out. Merry Christmas,” was all I said to his mother when she called down. When I finished my shift I went to the mall with the woman who I would later marry and proceeded to buy gifts for a boy I barely knew and had met only a few days previously. We wrapped the gifts, delivered them to the hotel, and went to my family’s home for our réveillon.

I never got to see Jared open the presents. In fact, I never saw him or his mother again, but I'm certain they got them because I received a call from the Vice-President of the $4 billion company on New Year’s Day thanking me for providing exemplary service to the client (his words, not mine).

So what's the point?

It’s precisely what I told the VP on the phone: “What we did for Jared during Home for the Holidays wasn't an individual or isolated act. While it’s true that the team saw a problem and decided to act we couldn't have done it without a culture that supported it. The culture of empowerment at (the company) is so enabling that it shapes positive behaviour. The company’s trust in the professionalism and judgement of its employees is incredible; it’s a frame I'm thankful to be working in. We do things like this at varying scales every single day. You may not hear about it, but its happening.”

That experience set the benchmark for me and, despite it being more than ten years ago and in an entirely different sector; I feel strongly that we ought to be able to say the same thing about our current work environments. It’s also one of the reasons why I think the theme of the Government Technology Exhibition and Conference this year – Open, Collaborative, Mobile (which I take as a proxy for action/agency) – is so compelling. If GTEC can help people make demonstrable steps towards building more open, cooperative and action oriented organizations that enable dedicated and purposeful agency than the conference will have been a success.


  1. We've been exploring the issue of storytelling in the public service as of late so I figured I might as well share one of my own; however despite it being one I hold dear, it’s not often one I talk about so its only appropriate that I'd like to give a h/t to Blaise Hebert for encouraging me to do so. 
  2. If you are interested in further reading on this theme, I recommend you read this.
  3. This post was also published to the GTEC blog.

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