Back in April, I blogged about Starting the Official Job Search of 2017 and I added it to the list of “50 things to do before I’m 50” i.e. find and start a new job. I mentioned at the time I started my search that I have been in my current “box” for the last nine years, and while the job changed a bit in there — six years of performance measurement plus special projects and three years of planning — it has been a similar job for most of that time. I thought about leaving before, and I’ve had offers, but either the timing wasn’t right or it wasn’t the right job. And, as I like to be brutally honest on my blog, one of the main reasons I didn’t leave was that I was comfortable.
I had good files that I liked and that I’m good at too, I had a good team, work/life balance was near perfect, and I had bosses that trusted me and gave me autonomy and room to work within my sphere. What was there not to love?
In a word? Variety.
I have a very high threshold / capacity for corporate work. I actually like it most of the time, when most people run the other way. And managing corporate planning files lets you dip your toes into a lot of pools. Public engagement through reporting, ties to policy priorities, budgeting and operational priorities, high-level management and low-level operations, audits, evaluations, risk, business planning. Lots of things that other people hate and that I quite enjoy, if enjoy is the right word. But the planning cycle is, indeed, a cycle which means that it repeats. And while it is a bit or a lot different each year, it is variations on a theme, not true variety per se. And I didn’t realize how much I needed a change until back in April when I started the official search.
Now before I tell you where I went, or even how I got to the decision, I have to confess something. I completely screwed up. Out of arrogance, mainly. But I could have really screwed my career doing what I did, I just happened to luck out near the end.
Here’s the thing. I’m a manager, and I’m not looking for promotion. That means just deployment at level. And I’m a good manager. Separate from my opinion, I entered my job search with three 5.0/5.0 ratings in a row for my formal performance, and nothing less than a 4.0/5.0 since the formal numbers started. I have had job offers with acting promotions, I have been recruited by people in the know who believe I’m good, and my own employees give me higher than average feedback as a manager, usually markedly higher in 90% of the categories. And, even without that, I’ve had other managers seek me out for advice on management issues because they’ve heard from employees i.e. word of mouth that I’m a really good manager. So my employees told other employees who told other employees who told their managers, and their managers have said, “Hey, I was curious if you have time to go for a coffee to talk about something I’m dealing with.” Even if I wasn’t naturally arrogant, I have external evidence to suggest that I’m good. Which is not to say I’m not a Grade A whack-a-doodle on a regular basis, but overall, I’m good at my job.
So I went into the job search with high expectations. Which turned out to be way too high. Unreasonably so, apparently.
When I did my last full open-ended job search, it was almost ten years ago and I had nowhere near the experience I have now. I searched pointedly for two weeks and had five offers. One was okay, two were good, and two were great. But five offers. And my network is better now.
My first tactical error was in assuming that I would have similar opportunities now, and thus I was quite comfortable telling my boss to go ahead and find my replacement, even though I hadn’t found a job yet. Just because of the environment, and a lack of immediate succession planning for my position in a narrow niche for the type of job (planning is common, but reporting directly to a DG and flying solo as a manager is not), I agreed that I would do overlap with my replacement. Which means I would leave after they started, and working backwards, we would likely need to find them before I found a new position.
That is NOT the way most people manage their careers, and as per my experience, with good reason.
I also had a small glitch…my french was expired, which means I needed to renew my written and oral before moving on. Written was no trouble, and I was confident with my oral, but there were no guarantees. Plus I got messed around with on my scheduling, and I missed my level on my first try. But the big issue for job searching was that I didn’t want to have conversations too early with my potential targets.
I didn’t want to meet with Jane Manager and say, “Hey, do you have any jobs available?” and have them say, “Here’s one, can you start in two weeks?” because I couldn’t. I not only had to fix my french, but I also had to train my replacement. So I approached a couple of mentors and said, “How do I handle this?”.
Their advice was that as long as I said that I was looking for late Spring, early Summer (i.e. end of June), it would be very clear I wasn’t looking for “now”. So I started my search.
And I perhaps made a second tactical error. Many of my larger network contacts have moved up in the world. Ones that were formerly Directors and Director Generals have now become DGs and ADMs. Of my first eight meetings, I targeted three directors, four DGs, and an ADM. I expected by the time I finished those eight meetings, I would have about 4 offers. I had 0. Add in the next four, and I had approximately 1 real offer, 1 soft offer, and 1 soft interest. But here’s part of the potential tactical issue…DGs and ADMs don’t hire EC-07 managers; managers report to directors. So perhaps some of the people I was talking to weren’t exactly the right level to give me an offer per se so much as information.
Which is partly why I am not sure it is exactly an error. It was more an error of expectation, even though I wasn’t actually asking them for offers. I was in a very formal “environmental scanning” mode, and I was looking for a very specific type of job. In earlier posts, I mentioned that I really like projects. So I wasn’t exactly looking for “here’s an established job for day-to-day duties”, I wanted a large initiative or project. Equally, I wasn’t looking for just any project…I didn’t want to be spinning my wheels or pushing string, it had to be something that was recognized as needing to be done, preferably something that was broken and needed to be fixed, and which people in command actually wanted fixed. If that sounds too abstract, let me be precise. I believe our user / security policy in the department is incredibly dysfunctional and broken, and greatly in need of modernization, reorientation, and well, replacement. With my experience with privacy, risk, policy, corporate, IT, etc., I’d even have a pretty good set of skills to bring to the project. And there are lots of people around the department who agree with me on the need. Except for two very important people who like it as is — the Deputy Minister and the DG in charge. There is no desire or traction to make changes. So working on it would be completely like pushing string.
So I was looking for a pretty unique type of job — manager position not executive, problem to be solved, likely corporate, recognized to be fixed, and a desire to fix it. Kind of my dream scenario in some respects. With one extra obvious wrinkle. The position has to be open or about to be open. Of course, if a DG or ADM has a problem to be fixed and there is buy-in to fix it, they probably have already assigned someone to that task. Was that a third tactical error? Looking for something specific in too short a timeframe? I don’t now. An ADM I spoke to later argued it was the main reason, and I don’t doubt his judgement, just not sure that it was the only issue at play.
I met first with an old boss who I have used for mentoring and career advice before, and who is now an ADM. I appreciate his willingness to meet with me, and he gave me a good “practice” run in describing what types of things I was looking for in my search. For example, I described it as wanting to fix things that were broken, and he countered by asking if there were any enabling services in the department that weren’t broken. Good point. Hence the narrowing to “recognized problem and desire to fix said problem”, a much smaller list. He had one big suggestion, but it wasn’t active yet, something to perhaps work towards in the future if it got going — department wide implementation of the GCDocs system. A major challenge for a department of 25K people and little to no IM practices in sight. And he did advise me that I as I talked to others, I would need to narrow my “request” if I wanted to get job offers out of it. I wasn’t worried at that point, I was meeting with people who had offered me jobs before, and I suspect I didn’t listen as strongly as I should have (hence my fourth tactical error, not being pointed enough in my approach).
I also met with a DG who I have worked for and with three times in the past. While the last time wasn’t a rousing success, she has offered me two jobs in the last four years and so I wanted to chat with her, see what was happening. She also has a job that interfaces with a lot of the corporate operations, so a good source. I confess I fully expected a job offer of something, and she openly said she had nothing right then (she had just staffed something). She didn’t have a specific idea of a problem to be fixed anywhere, but she did steer me toward a branch that is undergoing massive transformation right now. Not very specific in targeting, but general steerage in that direction. Or perhaps TBS.
Now, I had already known of this branch’s massive change agenda, and to be blunt, most of it left me feeling blah. Not because it wasn’t ambitious, but more so because I kept seeing fuzzy descriptions, template processes, and not a lot of actual strategic governance going on. In a branch known for bogging down in processes. Perhaps not rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, more like giving you a template to report how many deck chairs were still available and giving examples of how the policy on deck chair use needed to be simplified. It looked more like barely contained chaos than a well-run corporate process. And while I could see that as an opportunity too, I didn’t know any of the people involved well-enough to want to work for them or to be able to choose which pieces might move and which pieces would self-destruct. Major risk for a career move. I put it on the back-burner for now.
I also ruled out TBS. Which is weird in a way. I was looking for a problem to be solved, something to run like a project, with buy-in to fix it. From what people tell me, that’s 50% of the work at TBS. All the time. But going with that is an almost universal disdain for anything resembling work/life balance. I don’t mind working OT for crunch activities, but I don’t want to start working an extra 10-20 hours a week just for fun. Just not the environment I want to part of, and while I have had offers to go there, it wasn’t on my list of desired places.
I approached a contact I had, actually a former boss of my wife. She offered me a great job about three years ago, and the timing was terrible. If she had been in the same position, with the same offer, I would have said yes now easily. But she was in a new area, and it seemed good too, so I wanted to chat with her. Not for her area per se, but good info on life in the HR world. It was a very pleasant conversation, and she offered to set me up with her replacement in her old area, but I already knew that area was “full”. Always a pleasure to chat with her, but nothing that added up to a specific lead per se.
I threw a Hail Mary pass towards a director that I didn’t know at all, but had found out she was in charge of two HR files that interested me — student hiring for the summer and post-secondary recruitment. Lots of stuff going on, good work, potential to expand if there was an opening for me, but she was full up. She had a manager in charge, and it was a great conversation, but more like being outside with my nose pressed against the window. There are other ways to be involved, but no job in the area. It was a very focused conversation, made so partly because it was easy to say no, i.e. she had no openings. Plus, while she didn’t say it outright, I don’t have a huge HR background for the types of things they’re doing — I’m good at HR processes, coaching, etc., but not a lot of formal experience with the stuff they’re doing. Put more bluntly, I’m an EC, not a personnel (PE) specialist.
I wouldn’t say I was panicking at this point, but I was finishing my fourth interview, and nothing resembling much of a lead had poked up in my e-scan. Nor any job offers. I’m being somewhat disingenuous as I say that, as I did have a previous job offer back in February.
When my boss started the search for my replacement, she had to go to our branch workforce management committee to seek approval to launch a deployment notice. So all of WMC i.e. the DGs in our branch and two ADMs all knew and heard I was officially going to be leaving. And one of my former bosses, now a DG, reached out to say, “Hey when are we going to chat?”
I thanked him for the question, and pointed out that I needed to finish my french, it wouldn’t be for another five or six months, I wasn’t really looking for conversations at that point (I hadn’t started my search yet), etc. So he replied, “So how about Thursday?”.
We met, he described the job, and it was a good job. But I wasn’t convinced it was me. Stakeholder relations, open-ended, targeted to business. I’ve done some of that work before, but not really what I was looking for — I was looking for the Mr. Fix-It type job.
But, while I wasn’t panicking, I thought I should shore up my plans with a good old-fashioned firm job offer. So I contacted my former director who had offered me jobs twice in the last three years, and told her that I was now officially looking. And in the interest of transparency, I told her she had to make me a good pitch. Her first pitch three years before had been a back-handed pitch. We had been talking about her job, she told me all that was wrong with it for about 30 minutes, just sharing and venting our own frustrations, and then said, “How about coming to work with me?”. Umm, how about no? 🙂
Her second pitch had been better, but wasn’t my dream job. Yet I was willing to consider it because I really like her management style. We worked really well together before — she generally would treat me as a near-equal for the files, lay out the full gamut of management work to be done, and we would just divvy it all up. There was very little of the “I’m a director so I’m doing the fun stuff, you’re a manager, let me dump stuff on you”, and it was very open and collegial. One of the best experiences I’ve ever had as a manager, and partly as I have a lot more experience now than I did before, so it’s easier for my director to do that with me. And she made me a good pitch. Not my dream job, but again, more interested in working with her than the job necessarily. I explained however that I couldn’t say “yes” yet, I was doing a full search until the end of May at least, and wanted to know if that would cause her problems. No, for me, she was willing to wait.
Great, a firm offer.
What I haven’t mentioned in this post is my boss. She had been, up until this point, incredibly supportive. Whatever I needed, whenever I needed it, what could she herself do to help? Could she make calls, what did I need from her? All great. And she had said repeatedly that I shouldn’t take the first offer, take my time, do a proper search, etc. And I was keeping her up to date as I went.
When I told her about this job, and it was good, but not perfect, I fully expected her to say the same thing as I was thinking. It was a baseline, etc. Except instead she suddenly said I should take it, firm it up, was my french a precondition, etc. The complete opposite of what we had talked about. I was like, WTF?
So I waited a day and then followed up on the job, tried to firm it up. And it evaporated. She didn’t know if she could take me as an EC, they didn’t really hire ECs, not sure she’d have the budget, was I really serious, etc. WTF?
My confidence took a major nose-dive. Was that offer back in February, the one I said no to, was it the only one I was going to get? The one that I thought was a sure thing was gone, disappearing into the mist of the branch that was in chaos. I have no idea what happened, I’ll get the full story some point in the future I guess. Things happen.
So I sheepishly went back to my DG, told her it wasn’t solid, and she went back to full support mode. Totally supportive, no issue at all. I realized afterwards it was a bit of a push/pull thing for her with my replacement. She had found someone and didn’t want to lose them, but also didn’t necessarily want to issue an offer to them until I had found something or had a good line on something. And so when she saw that I had a firm offer with a good boss, it seemed like perfect synergy for us to close both deals simultaneously. But then she realized she could always use me on special projects in the short-term if she had to, so no worries. We worked out a deal for the replacement to start, and I would keep looking. Full support. Whew.
Interestingly in this list you’ll see that I didn’t talk much about my branch. Other than the one offer that I said no to, nobody was knocking on my door. And, truth be told, I was surprised. I thought more than one would knock, and they all knew I was looking, with no invites to chat. Okay, no worries. And truthfully in retrospect, I was looking for corporate problems to fix, none of which they had in their areas. They were all mostly program policy people.
Soooo, six interviews down, no job. Umm. Yep, I sucked apparently. Maybe I wasn’t as good as I thought. I reached out to contacts in two other branches, never heard back from either one. Okay. Maybe they missed the emails. I personalized them, so they weren’t cattle calls. Or maybe they were just busy. Either way, moving on.
I reached out interdepartmentally. I wasn’t looking to leave the department necessarily, but I also needed to expand my interests. A friend knew of some needs at Environment Canada, but they went more internally for the job that I would have been best suited for…she offered to share my résumé more widely, but I held off on that for now.
A former employee of mine had interviewed with ISED, and since she has a similar profile to mine, she wondered if I might be interested. She referred me, the director interviewed me, and there was some interest. But the job had three main files — one that hadn’t started yet but could be interesting at some point; a trade-related file that tied in well to stuff I did before and would like to do again, but is generally responsive only; and a third area that she suggested was quite “minor” but involved a lot of parliamentary relations. Which I’ve also done in the past. But then I realized. The first two files weren’t really active at the present, and she had five employees in the team. Which meant they were ALL doing the parliamentary relations file somewhat, or at least, it was eating up way more than a small part of their time. Definitely NOT the job I wanted to be doing, so I didn’t firm up interest.
At the same time I was doing all this, I was interviewing candidates to join my team at the EC-06 level. While I was doing reference checks for one of the candidates at Public Health, their manager asked me about my team, and I mentioned I was moving on myself but I didn’t know where. We were doing similar jobs, and we chatted a bit about our experiences, and he asked if I thought about working at Public Health. One thing led to another, and we set up an interview with his boss. I interviewed with them, seemed okay, but there were a few structural issues that seemed “off”. And there was an element that it wasn’t going to be “new” . It was the same job I had now, just in a different department. But a change is as good as a rest, as they say, and I was interested still. Until I did reference checks on the area. And while I expect a few pluses and minuses to come back in any real reference, I got more of a “run the other way” response from people. Poked a little further and suddenly the structural anomalies made more sense in that context. I withdrew my interest, citing my desire for a change. Which was entirely true. The more I considered the job, the less interested I was in replicating my current role.
I am likely missing some interactions in there a bit, but basically at this point I was nearing 8-9 formal interviews, and nothing to show for my search. I needed to be more pointed.
I reached out in the short-term to a colleague in one directorate in our branch, and got the lay of the land for her area, but it didn’t look like a good fit in any open positions, and I put that area on the back-burner.
I contacted a DG contact in the IT branch, and had a GREAT conversation with her. Exciting opportunities, and one in particular sounded promising. She offered to follow up with him, and I wanted to think about which area for a couple of days. I also was targeting another branch, and met with the DG, but it was a short conversation, and she didn’t have any suggestions for me.
But something weird had happened in that timeframe too. I had contacted a DG who formerly worked in our branch, and to be honest, I had forgotten she was in this other branch that I was interested in. It was an area that interested me but I had no management-level contacts and hadn’t figured out yet how to contact them. It was also very different from what I was doing. Anyway, I realized she was in that branch, contacted her, chatted, she asked me what I was interested in, etc. I told her the one general area and she knew one of the DGs was actively looking. I didn’t know him, but would be happy to have a chat.
The program was Canada Pension Plan – Disability, or as they refer to it, CPP-D. I have had some exposure to it over the years. Back when I was in university, my father was on a disability pension for a while, which meant I could get a “Disabled Contributor’s Child’s Benefit”. Plus I have family members who are receiving CPP-D and I’ve been dealing with an employee who’s gone through medical retirement in recent years.
And I’ll confess…from a policy perspective, I think pensions are just flat-out cool. I don’t care about the finance side, I just mean all the policy issues that go with them. And disability pensions takes that “vulnerable group” and “rich policy area” dynamic, and feeds it steroids. Sure, I was looking for those corporate problems to fix, but if I was to go more policy-oriented, pensions would likely top the list.
I met with the DG and the acting director, and I really liked his management style. Open, transparent, plain-spoken. Kind of a blue-jeans and sports jacket vibe to him. We were supposed to chat for about 30 minutes, and I didn’t treat it as an interview really, mainly because I’m not a pure policy wonk nor am I a stakeholder specialist, which the job entails. But the 30 minutes turned into 90, and I grilled him like a fish on the policy issues. I just let my full policy wonk side run wild during conversation. Pilot projects, program issues, links with the delivery, Parliamentary engagement, FPT roles.
And I found myself really thinking about the job. Normally, if someone said “Stakeholder Relations”, I would run the other way. Often very responsive, too many dockets coming through. But CPP-D doesn’t deal with “all” disability issues, there’s the separate office for that (Office of Disability Issues). It is geared specifically to stakeholders of the program itself. Clients, insurance companies, FPT partners. And they have a formal roundtable set up that meets on issues through-out the year. Put differently, it’s not “open-ended” stakeholder relations, it is very structured SR. More like managing a large interdepartmental / FPT / client / partner roundtable plus doing bilateral relations. Now THAT’s a different type of Stakeholder Relations that I can manage. I’ve even done variations of that before. Plus it’s for a vulnerable group that appeals to me from a policy perspective. Kind of like when I was at CIDA — “developing countries” writ large didn’t excite me, but Small Island Developing States did. And I did work on the negotiations on the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities back in 2005-06, so it isn’t like it is completely foreign territory either.
I thought about it for a day or two after the meeting, and my interest didn’t wane. I followed up to confirm my interest, and was happily surprised to find they were interested too, and they didn’t have too many other candidates left to consider. I provided references, we figured out some options around my expired french levels. They were ready to offer and I was ready to accept. Win-win.
Way back when my “open-ended” scanning process was on, I thought to impose upon my current ADM for some advice. He is involved in stuff all over the department, and has a planning background, so I thought he would be an ideal candidate for some advice, if he could spare the time for coffee. We scheduled in early April, and then I got bumped. Again and again and again. It wasn’t urgent, and he’s a pretty busy ADM. A couple of times he had openings when I was off in May with Jacob’s series of appointments. No biggie, we rescheduled. But that meant that by the time I had a chance to meet with him, it was two days before I was to get my formal offer from the new area. I was going to let it go, but my DG encouraged me to meet with him and get his reaction to the job.
We met, I was pretty candid with him about my early experiences in the job search, and mentioned I had zero offers in the initial stages. He asked me why I thought that was, and I mentioned targeting DGs and ADMs rather than directors who hire EC-07s. While he agreed that might be part of it, he thought it was more the narrow type of job I was looking for, and that those don’t come around every day. Might take six months to find a specific example of that type, and I was moving faster than that timeline. An interesting thought.
He asked me if I was set on leaving our branch, and I said no, but that I hadn’t really found much interest within the branch either (both from my own searching of work to do / openings or their own expressed interest or not). He pointed out though too that the management all knew me in one specific type of work, and thus might not have considered me for other types of files. We chatted about what he thought my real skills were — comfortable creating and telling evidence-based storylines that combines data, policy, and programs together — and about a couple of areas in the branch that might be a fit. And then he offered to reach out to them.
Umm, okay. But I was set to say yes to the other job in two days. He asked if I could extend that deadline by a couple of days, which I agreed to explore. My advisors all agreed that I could be straight up with the new DG about the ADM’s offer, and he fully understood. I told him I was leaning towards accepting his offer, and honestly I would have said at the time that I was 98% sold. It’s just a huge policy rich area, and the DG told me that partly what sold him was that I had an obviously curious mind for policy and I asked a lot of the right questions during the interview, the exact issues they had to deal with behind the scenes and balance out against the public commitments.
So, at the ADM’s nudging, I met with another directorate in my branch. Huge program, lots of policy work across the board. And they had two openings with some great work to do. Two very good jobs. Which left me with an actual question. Stay and do good work in the same branch, where I was comfortable and knew everyone, and would be able to hit the ground at a full run, or move to the new branch, new area, and a huge learning curve.
Interestingly, way back about 20 paragraphs ago, I mentioned that I had met with someone in the branch, this was their area, and I had put it on the back-burner at the time. I had not pursued it as I didn’t see a fit for what I was looking for, and this was very different still. Opportunities we didn’t even know about a month before.
In the end, I realized that I was more attracted to the Disability file. It ties in closer to my social roots, I like the client group, and as I said, it’s a huge policy area with lots of rich pockets to mine.
So I said yes to the new job, and started the countdown from my old job. There were still lots of hoops to jump with various approvals, and I didn’t really tell that many people where I was going officially unless they pointedly asked. There are always chances something will come up, stuff happens. But I started yesterday in the new job so I guess it’s safe to say where I’m “going”. 🙂 I have a slightly smaller team than before, with five employees, including a co-op student, plus a potential sixth coming later. And I probably understand only about a tenth of what the job entails (I only got the basic elements of Stakeholder Relations above, haven’t even touched long-term disability yet).
But it was time for a change and I took the leap on faith.
And then something strange happened. A bunch of people in my old branch said, “What? I didn’t know you were willing to do full policy work? Why didn’t you approach ME?”. Including two areas that I probably would have said yes to early in the process if they had been on the table. Meaning I wouldn’t have considered a larger move to an area that likely suits my interests and skills for the long-run a lot better. But they weren’t on the table, given the way people saw me and that I was originally looking for that narrow “fix-it” job. It all worked out in the end, as they say, but the trip was far more painful than I expected.
I know I made a lot of errors in my planning, which seemed good going in and there were reasons for each leg, but it added to my stress:
- Giving up my current job before finding the new one — While it motivated me to actually look, the added pressure was too intense;
- Not finding a way (ANY way!) to meet with my ADM sooner — It would have changed the conversation way back at the start, instead of force-fitting it at the end;
- Being overly confident — Sure I have high ratings and am flagged for talent management, but that didn’t mean it went well or was easy, although it made it easier for my DG to support me;
- Not waiting for my french to be fixed before searching at all — It just added a dimension I shouldn’t have had;
- DGs and ADMs are fine for scanning, but I likely should have aimed lower for job offers and been more pointed;
- My unique opening target niche was too narrow, and there weren’t any jobs of that type available in the timeframe I had; and,
- Since I had been in a specific role for a long time, I didn’t tell people I was open to other types of files too.
None of them egregious, and as I said, it worked out in the end. But definitely not the way to run my career in the future.
On the other hand, I stayed in my last job for 9 years…if I stay in this one for 9 years, I’ll be eligible to retire when I’m done.
I’m sure other thoughts will occur to me in the future…it’s hard to have perspective without some distance between me and the process yet, but this is what I have so far.