I’m attempting a full-scale job search from scratch right now, something most of us in government don’t often do when we look for a job. Instead, most of us look for something that is just a bit different from what we have — a new area, or a new boss, or a new level, etc., but rarely do we step back and say, “Before I even look for a job, what do I want to find? What’s really important to me?”. By nature, employed people tend to be incrementalists.
So I wanted to look back at all my previous jobs — all the way back to being a paperboy — to see what I had learned in the jobs, and what I had liked about the positions. As I wrote, I found myself talking about experiences, not the “lessons learned” or even “what I learned about myself”, and I felt like I needed to get all that info out of my head and onto the page to allow myself the time to now look back at them and see what the outcomes and common elements were…in short, I wrote it all out so I could analyze it as if it was someone else.
So here is what I learned, and now I have to figure out what’s really important to me moving forward.
This last post is a bit challenging to write as it is about my current job. And I don’t really have any distance or perspective from it yet, because I’m still doing it. But I’ll give it a go.
v. Manager, Planning and Accountability — One thing that frequently bugged me over the first six years was that we were fairly siloed in our division. There was a planning team, a reporting team, and my performance measurement team, but I really wanted them to mesh better together. We did what we could, but we were three separate teams with three separate managers. Sure, we reported to the same director, but we didn’t seem to be making much headway.
We merged with another division — horizontal policy — and another manager eventually left. We had no one to take those files, and I mentioned to the director in passing that if the planning manager wanted to shift things around, I was completely willing. I wanted to switch off the performance management file and on to the planning file, and I was either willing to shift completely or take it with me. I had zero interest though in the horizontal files. Been there, done that.
The other manager was interested in a change too, apparently, and she shifted to the horizontal policy team, freeing me to become manager for planning and performance measurement. The Director moved on, and I got to act for a while. But when that ended, there was a question…did we need a director? Was it a full EX level position?
With planning and horizontal policy, yes. With just planning, no. And so they moved horizontal policy to another team in the Directorate and I became the team lead for planning, performance measurement and reporting. Over time, the manager for reporting wanted off the reporting files, so they stayed with the larger team reporting to me and she became more of a special advisor. A full team handling all three aspects.
My DG liked it. The team seemed to like it. Me? I loved it.
I could not only see some synergies, but there was also no structural barrier to stop a link from happening. It just happened. And over the last three years, we — my team and I — have managed to make all the little parts work well together.
Almost too well for me, in fact. There isn’t much new each year, just the ongoing cycle. The big projects that I did in the first six years in the division have not re-occurred, I’ve more or less been doing the same job. Which isn’t a bad thing, it’s a great job. Lots of autonomy. I’ve had good bosses. I’ve established good rapport with the DGs around the branch. I get along with the ADM. I’m kind of left to my own devices on most of my files. The team is good. And there aren’t any painful ugly files causing headaches too often. Routine ones, sure, but we usually have a way of handling them. Plus we all have a high tolerance for administrative planning files that would drive other people insane.
Yet three years ago I was going to leave. But then I got to take over the whole team, and I stayed. Two years ago I was going to leave, but I really liked working with my boss, Michel. A year ago I was going to leave, but well, what was the rush? And there was a slim chance I could take over another job in the area that I wanted if the person moved on. A potential dream job for me. As it turned out, it went to someone else. Hard to complain when you would have made the same choice if you were the manager.
But, as I said, there are no big new files at play. Last fall, I was updating my resume for a competition and I was shocked. I looked at my resume and while I could have spun lots of different things, and would do so in an interview, the reality is that the standard description was completely accurate. I only had to add six words.
If you have read any of the previous posts, you know that my jobs were always changing, even when I wasn’t changing jobs. Lots to talk about, lots to update every year if need be. But here I was updating, and it hadn’t changed in two years.
Gobsmacked, I was.
And so I started planning my exit. I needed to renew my French, and that has been beyond painful to get the training or even a test date now.
I’ve had to manage reaching out to people vs. my french renewal vs. also agreeing to do overlap for a month with whoever replaces me.
But it will happen.
And I have to ask myself what I have learned or enjoyed in the last three years.
On the substantive front, we’ve made progress on all of the parts in the planning cycle, and I like the way the team runs. We’ve added the finance function this past year, and that has been interesting to manage with the other manager. Deliverology has been crisscrossing our files, and while it could have had the potential to be big, it didn’t strike me as the best file for my team to invest in for the year. Too much policy spin, not enough performance measurement.
On the professional front, I guess the last three years has been about becoming a full manager. Embracing it from top to bottom. I’ve been a manager for 12 years now, but up until three years ago, it was always very small teams when I did it for any duration. One, two, three or four employees. I’m up to 8 now, 9 including me I suppose, and I’ve had to deal with the full gamut of management issues including performance. Plus, as painful as it was for the employee, I also was exposed to the intricacies of extended sick leave of an employee. I’ve gained insights into the way it works, and the way it doesn’t work. My former boss was a mentor in that regard, and I learned a lot from him just in how to approach the file. Which mostly means being human, not a formal automaton sending form letters that do more harm than good. It’s tricky to navigate the role between manager, mentor, friend, advisor, etc. and over the course of the last three years, or even the last nine, with all the employees in my roster, I’ve had a decent exposure to a large panoply of management issues.
Does that mean leading the division made me an EX? No. And that is because the job isn’t really an EX-level job. I wouldn’t disagree that it is more than an EC-07, more like EC-08, if those still existed (they don’t, not really, we’ve eliminated them). An EX level job is usually defined by the level of complexity, visibility of files, size of the budget, and the number of reports. I only have 8 staff. That puts it on the low end for a Director in my view, at least not without something else to bump it up. My budget for my division is non-existent. Sure, I manage the branch budget, and that is a significant development. But not quite full Director-level work since we aren’t a full BMS, more BMS-lite. If we had more staff, more responsibilities in there, probably yes. I’m extremely visible — but only within the branch. My files rarely extend across the department except as inputs to other processes. I do deal with people, but just functionally. And the files aren’t that complex. They have their moments, sure, but not like a tricky policy file with lots of budget or people and regular dealing with the Minister. It could take on some other roles, and it would jump back up, but in my view, it is not an EX job. And while it might have prepared me for an EX job, I am not yet an EX. Nor do I have a burning desire to move up. I’m only looking for lateral moves right now.
On the personal front, I really like my team. Each one is different, and it is going to be hard to transition out. I have been in government for almost 21 years and nine of them in this division. Three of the employees that were there when I started are still there, and that is a pretty long time to work together as friends and colleagues.
It is one of the reasons I’ve stayed so long. I like the people I work with, I enjoy the files, and I’ve had a good set of bosses. I can’t help but feel like leaving is one of the stupidest things I have ever done in my life. Who gives up a great job without even knowing what they are moving on to do?
Me, apparently. The job search is in full swing. So the real question remains…what am I looking for next?
I was in need of rescuing at the end of the previous post…after 18 months of pushing string, and feeling like I not only had nothing to show for it but that the time had been a complete waste, I was spent. Literally. Figuratively. Mentally. Even physically. I had nothing left to give them. And to be honest, any self-confidence that I had previously was completely gone.
u. Manager, Performance Measurement, ESDC — I started working in the Skills and Employment Branch in May, and it was almost instantly a refreshing change. I wasn’t pushing string with abstract policy theory to combine social capital or human development, I was looking at concrete things like the Program Activity Architecture, performance metrics, indicators and logic models.
Things that were relatively straight-forward to me, particularly in comparison with the big ugly Integrated Policy Framework.
In addition, a lot of the work with the Branch was already done. They had consulted widely, a working group had given lots of info, and it was all in pretty good shape. Except for one thing. I didn’t think it was very strategic.
This was home to me, after having done the Sustainable Development Strategy + Gs&Cs + the Millennium Development Goals at CIDA, along with the traditional RPP, DPR and PAA stuff. Standard Government of Canada performance measurement. It was all very familiar.
So while I was new to the branch, and to labour market programming in detail, I wasn’t new to telling an integrated performance story at a high strategic level, and we didn’t seem to be there. There were the standard three levels, and in my view, the top-level should have had 3 or 4 key indicators. Not unlike what is asked for now. The branch working group? They had come up with 15. The next level down was another 25 or so and the bottom level added another 40-45. There were almost 75 indicators across the branch.
Now, sure, I got that there were 18 or so programs, and they were big and important. But how would you craft a story with 15 indicators just at the top? I was determined to get it down.
But remember how I was missing my confidence? I wasn’t confident I was right. I thought I was, but I really didn’t know. I was second-guessing just about everything. I did market-testing with some other colleagues around the department, and they agreed. The consultant agreed. My staff agreed. I still wasn’t sure. I tried my boss, and he agreed. Okay, I was confident that I at least wasn’t an idiot, I was on the right track.
My boss was taking the summer off, and I would be acting for at least half of it. Which meant I needed to be sure before he left. We did some more work, we tested it with some of the branch, and he left for holidays. Just me and the DG left. I knew her, she trusted me, we were ready. Time to present to our branch management team.
But the week before I was to present, I got some info about my old job. My replacement had gone into a meeting with the ADM and after presenting on something else, they had said, “Oh and by the way, we’ll be giving you a new way forward on the IPF.” He was confused, he didn’t know what they meant. After all, they had submitted it to him a month or so before, and he had approved it and sent it upstairs, didn’t he? And they all realized something.
The ADM didn’t know the difference in products between the Medium-Term Planning Team’s “Integrated Diagnostic” and the Integrated Policy Framework.
Which was not his fault, it was the Directorate’s fault. I had said, before I left, REPEATEDLY, that I didn’t think he knew the difference. That a lot of what he was asking for to be included in the MTP document was pushing it very close to a barebones IPF, and I wasn’t sure he knew the difference because the names were similar. I was basically pooh-poohed on my input, of course he knew. These were two of his big deliverables, of course he knew. But I wasn’t convinced. I went with their verdict, but I wasn’t really sure. It sure looked to me like they were confused in his mind. Nope, I was told, I was flat out wrong.
Except I hadn’t been. We had so badly managed the files in briefing him that we had confused him on two of his four deliverables, and spent a quarter of a million dollars on a product he didn’t even know existed (my version of the IPF). He never saw any alternative presented, he just assumed it was all the same thing. I was initially embarrassed for the whole group, including me, when I realized something. I didn’t work there anymore. And the people whose judgment I had relied on in stripping away all of my confidence, whose negative view of my work had left me convinced that I didn’t know what I was doing, had just completely messed up the most basic of communications with their boss. And, on top of it, I hadn’t been wrong about it. My judgment of his approach and feedback had been dead on.
The person who told me the story did so a bit reluctantly, and when he was done, I started to laugh. Hard. And he said, “You know, I thought about many possible reactions from you, but laughter was not one of them.” I couldn’t NOT laugh — I had relied on other people’s judgment of me and my ability, and while I may not have given them what they wanted, my strategic management judgment had been correct.
I’m not sure I like being that shallow, but knowing I wasn’t wrong about judging the ADM gave me back all my confidence. Which I absolutely needed the next week.
For context, the meeting to finalize the logic model and indicators was with two ADMs and 10 DGs. Plus me, as acting director for planning. The new guy. I hadn’t even met the lead ADM before. But I was sitting right across from her. And we went ten rounds on the logic model to fight to a tie. She wanted the 15 indicators, maybe even 18, and I explained no, she could have 5. She looked at me like I had two heads. Except I was serious. And we went round and round, slowly grinding her down and getting her to focus on what she really wanted to say with the storyline at that level. The other ADM was there, but he deferred to her. None of the other DGs said a word. I think they were watching the train wreck that was me.
Because NOBODY, and I mean NOBODY, ever would take on that ADM as I did. Except nobody had told me that. So we just went head to head. For forty-five minutes. It was all about the document, the story, none of it was personal. She had a signature move — she would cock her head a little bit to the side like she wasn’t really hearing you. And the stupider she thought you were being, the more the head cocked. I ignored all of it and we plowed through. At the end of forty-five minutes, we had five or six indicators. And we were exhausted.
There were two more levels to go, but my DG stepped in and called the bout by suggesting that we could take that feedback and cascade down through the rest of the document. Huh? Umm, okay. I had just been warming up, but okay, they needed to move on to other files.
After the meeting, I met with the DG and she was like, “Oh. My. God. You are absolutely fearless! I can’t believe you took the ADM on like that! NOBODY ever does that.” Because the ADM was tough. The previous week, I probably would have folded like a house of cards. That week? I knew my advice wasn’t wrong. My approach would make for a better storyline. But she was an ADM so my role was to let her dictate the final approach, and what she wanted, and mostly just challenge her traditional approaches to get down to the base level.
But I heard rumours for weeks. “Did you hear about that new guy in Planning? He’s CRAZY! He fought with the ADM at SMT! He’s NUTS!”. Umm, okay. Except when the revised version went up, everybody agreed and we had a brand new storyline. One that wasn’t down in the weeds.
I’d been in the branch for less than 3 months and I had a concrete deliverable. No more pushing string, I had actually ACCOMPLISHED something.
Although when I started I had been looking for rescuing, I did manage to negotiate one thing in my agreement to work in the Branch. For the Director, it wasn’t a hard sell — I asked to do Strategic Review when it happened. We knew it was coming, not sure exactly when, but when it did, I wanted to lead the Branch approach.
In most branches, this would be like asking someone to work for you and them negotiating to work for free or do overtime too. It wasn’t a “perk” he was giving me, it was a problem that he would have to deal with, and here I was openly requesting that I take a problem off his hands too. Sold.
For me, I thought it was an incredible opportunity. They were going to review all 18 programs in our branch, as well as the other 50 or so in the Department, and it was a full review top to bottom. A giant process. Separate from the fact that I thought I would be good at it, I thought the learning potential was enormous. Plus it doesn’t hurt to have those types of exercises to talk about when you’re doing EX competitions. “Tell us of a time when you lead a branch-wide exercise…” for example. High-level engagement, lots of writing, use of performance information, and the equivalent of 18 hybrid MCs/TB Subs all at once. For me, that’s fun.
And I got to do it. It was everything I hoped for, and more. I learned SO much about the operations and the way political decisions are made on stuff like that. Honestly, a once in a lifetime opportunity. And I got to do it simply because I asked for it. Plus, in doing it, I worked closely with EVERYONE in the branch. All the DGs, and the ADMs too. It was awesome.
What wasn’t awesome was the ethical challenges. Most people think of ethics in government as something as simple as not taking concert tickets from a contractor, for example. But those are exceptional situations, and they’re relatively simple to know what is right and wrong. Yet the real ethical challenges come when two principles of behaviour come into direct conflict, and both are positive so you can’t prioritize them easily.
I believe strongly in the principles of transparency. One of my biggest strengths in managing staff is providing vision and direction, they are never in doubt as to where we are trying to go. From my five year plan for global domination to just basic year-long work plans, the overall direction is clear. And often that is a direct result of sharing info as it becomes available. In fact, most of my staff would say I over-share and over-explain. Yet on Strategic Review, all the deliberations were private and confidential. We’re talking proposals to cut entire programs, subject to Ministerial choice, not ours. Over the course of four months, probably half of our programs were on the potential chopping block at one time or another, until the end when there was really just two chosen. And for the people on those programs, those cuts were traumatic. Their jobs were gone, they had to find new ones. The programs they had built were gone. Which would be challenging enough on the HR side, knowing that this AWESOME project was going to be devastating for some employees, but added to that was my ethical challenge. I knew some of these people. I was friends with them. And in one case, it was a couple who worked on two different programs and at one point, both of those programs were up for elimination. While the guy was telling me about how he was going to buy a new house, maybe have another kid. And I was sitting there thinking, “What the hell do I do?”. I couldn’t tell him, the info was all protected. Yet I couldn’t leave him to twist in the wind either.
In the end, like most real ethical challenges, you find a compromise somewhere in the middle. In my case, I talked to him about risk, the uncertainty of Strategic Review, and asked him if now was really the best time to be making big decisions with huge financial implications. While most of the people would find other jobs, there was a real risk of full termination. I warned him without violating any privilege, but it sure sucked to be in the situation of having to choose.
The project also cemented something in my reputation that you often see in branches. Regardless of actual file responsibilities, there are often people in branches that regularly get assigned “special project” files by the DG or ADM. Corporate files usually, but not always. Just something a wee bit different that requires a separate approach, not just routine management. And once you do one, you get pegged for another. Often to the detriment of others who would like the opportunity to do them, but never get asked. The projects are often great for career management too. You get the reputation as someone who can “get it done” or who can be “trusted with an important file”. Note too though that these are not usually hot policy files, there are lots of people who get assigned those, but usually within their area of responsibility. No, these are special files not unlike the business case example way back in my CIDA days — it was clear to three levels of management that this was a corporate planning file, yet when it got to my DG, she diverted it to me as she needed it done right the first time, and quickly, without much hand-holding.
When Strategic Review was over, at least the review portion, I handed off all the results and responsibility over to our Branch Management Services group. We were moving into implementation phase for the cuts and they would lead. We also started into this new thing called the “Deficit Reduction Action Plan” aka DRAP, and there would be a lot more cuts coming. Across the board.
About five months after I transferred everything over, I got a call from the head of the other unit. DG-level. He wanted to know if I could come brief him on Strategic Review. Which was odd. I had briefed him five months before. And he had been implementing everything for the last five months. What could I brief him on? What had I missed?
Whatever, I went to meet. And tried to find out what he was asking. What did he need more info on? But he just asked for a general briefing. I figured there was something specific he wanted to know but he wasn’t allowed to tell me what it was, so I gave him a full briefing top to bottom. He thanked me, I left, and all I could think was, “WTF?”.
So I went back to my Directorate and spoke to my DG. Told him I was puzzled, explained why. The DG said that the guy probably just wanted the official numbers. But that didn’t make any sense to me … the other DG had been implementing Strat Review for over five months, he was managing the branch budget, there were multiple scenarios being calculated, the ADMs had been going to meetings, and of course, presumably, the DG was briefing them on the current status, numbers and scenarios.
Except he wasn’t. Nobody was briefing anyone. There were no scenario documents. Nobody had a table with the info. Nobody even had a table of our starting point. The ADMs were flying blind in the meetings.
Now, I had been in the branch for a year doing general performance measurement and then another year pouring my lifeblood into Strategic Review. So I had just over two full years in the Branch. We were big. We were important. We were significant for any budget discussion. And the ADMs were going to meetings completely unsupported.
I couldn’t wrap my head around that concept. I really couldn’t. How? HOW? HOOOOOOWWWW???
If this was an EX interview, I’d describe it as initiative. I stepped up. I said I would do a simple table to get them started. My DG was thrilled, sure, I could give it a go. I figured I’d do the first version, hand it off, all good. Except I forgot my reputation was now someone who could do corporate projects. I did the first table, and it was relatively simple. Well, simple for me.
It had the branch total, followed by disaggregated data for salary and non-salary for each Directorate. I was working closely with the Financial Management Advisor for the Branch, and we were ripping apart proposal after proposal to figure out what it meant for us. We applied the Strat Review cuts, some other sunsetting elements, etc.
The ADMs were impressed. So it was now my file. I couldn’t hand it off, there was no one to give it to, it was mine. Umm, but I wasn’t a finance person! It didn’t matter. It was mine. Mr. Special Project Manager.
They decided to consolidate from ten Directorates to seven. We reduced a whole bunch of admin expenses in different areas, we applied multiple scenario options. We split the effects over three years so it would show the cascade in each year. I ended up with a table that was about 75 columns wide and 150 rows tall. We were the only branch that had it. Other branches were looking over at our ADMs at the meetings and asking if they could have copies of the templates for their branches.
And while I might describe it as initiative for a competition, it wasn’t initiative. It was horror. How could my two ADMs be looking at a huge set of possible scenarios with no idea of what it actually meant to our budget? And nobody else said that it wasn’t okay? It wasn’t the first time I had that reaction. There had been a standing practice that notes for Executive Committee meetings would routinely move around, mostly by availability or the topics for the meeting. And sometimes we would do no notes at all — so the ADMs would go to ExComm meetings and discuss things related to our files, with no input to draw upon. It was ludicrous to me. So I insisted I take the file over and there would be a note every meeting, no matter what. Yes, I gave myself work. Because the alternative wasn’t acceptable to me.
Over the course of four months, I learned all the ins and outs of the branch budget. It was mind-blowing. Almost as much learning for me as Strategic Review had been. A project that no one in their right mind would have taken on, and I was loving it.
Well, almost loving it. I remember taking holidays at Xmas, and they needed an up-to-date chart before I left. Friday afternoon, December 23rd, 4:00 p.m., I was at my desk. I was done, but the dang spreadsheet wouldn’t balance. I could NOT figure out why. I was only $122K out on an $80M budget, but that’s not the point. It WOULD NOT balance. I threw in the towel. I sent a message to the DG and the FMA to say I couldn’t find the error, but it was close as I could get it. Then, just before I shut down, I added in this other piece of info, and I noticed something odd. There was an extra $10K or so in this one field that shouldn’t have been there. It should have just been a formula, which was there, but there was also an “added” $10K for no clear reason. It wasn’t in my notes. But it was my spreadsheet, I had to have put it there.
Then I noticed something else. The field beside it had it too. And another one. I had manually adjusted an overall total in one place, and then had copied the formulas to ten other directorates. With the stupid extra change in there too. I deleted the extra, the totals balanced, and I almost felt like crying. I was so deeply embedded in the document, the project, I needed it to be RIGHT.
When I came back after Xmas, I got a huge shock. The DRAP scenarios were complex and detailed, and I had been telling the ADMs that whenever we got to the point where some of the scenarios “disappeared”, then I could delete them and we would see the final real totals. Basically, I was telling them that we should prioritize the cuts we were doing so we could see what it really looked like.
Except they were no longer scenarios. We were doing ALL of the changes. With Strategic Review implementation involved, plus a large transfer of personnel to another branch, and a large number of actual cuts in positions, our Branch was going to reduce by 30% of its staff.
Holy Something or other.
I was the first to see the numbers. First to see the totals. First to see the reality of the devastation that was to come. How? How could we possibly do 30%? Not just the impact on individuals, that was unreal, but even the best business advice was that you could turn a ship by 10% maybe at a time, not 30% in three years. It was unheard of, and the numbers were horrifying.
I knew the size of the cuts, I knew where the cuts would be, I didn’t know how they would be rolled out. There was another “corporate project person”, someone who would eventually become my boss, who would handle the HR side of the implementation. That would take place in May. We were still in February.
I met with the associate ADM. We ran the numbers. Some directorates needed massive adjustments to their base budgets just to keep the lights on as the cuts would be disproportionate in their raw form. We figured out an option, and he seemed okay with it. A tweak here, a tweak there, okay.
I thought I hadn’t been clear. I went over the totals again, and he said, “Yep, I see that, okay we’ll do this, we’ll do that, it’ll be a start.” All very reasonable.
I looked at the FMA. Was I being too vague? Was I hiding the stark reality? Was I hiding how bad it was? I was a bit blunter, and the ADM said, “Oh, I see what you’re saying. You’re not sure I understand. No, I understand. We’re totally f***ed.” Yep, he understood perfectly.
Once the rejigging of the Directorate budgets was done, my “project” was basically over. Over to the other person to handle all the HR fall-out. I don’t know if I could have done that job. I was stressed just knowing what was to come, and of course, I couldn’t talk about it with anyone. Beyond uber-secret.
Everybody in the branch was affected, and I don’t mean in the technical term that the DRAP process used. I mean literally affected — emotionally, sometimes physically, intellectually. It was a LOUSY place to work. As it turned out, even though I didn’t know in advance, I wasn’t personally at risk of lay off, nor any of my team, as we made some cuts through attrition in advance. There had to be some perk to knowing what was coming, and our Directorate implemented some of our cuts ahead of time. My wife had to go through the “Selection for Retention or Lay Off” (SERLO) process — a mouthful to say she had to compete to keep her job.
And yet, when it was all over, virtually no one left government unless they wanted to i.e., they volunteered and took a package. Anybody who wanted to stay found another position. It was brutal, it was heart-wrenching, it was devastating. And regrettably, probably needs to be done in government every so often. Everybody grows, nobody reduces. It is very hard to right-size a group after it has been running for a while. But lord, there have to be better ways to do it.
I continued in my job. I was now almost four years into the job, and while my staff had changed, the main files were still performance measurement. There were lots of things to do — update the logic model for the branch, revise the PAA, create new performance reports, adjust our Dashboard process for monitoring implementation. But I kept getting new little projects. It kept life interesting.
As my last topic for this job, I had an unusual experience. Back when Strategic Review finished, the Department’s recommendations had been accepted, but with one small caveat — the Department would do some sort of benchmarking study to create comparators for some of our large statutory programs.
I’m exaggerating for comic effect, I confess, but it went kind of like this…At the end of the first year, TBS asked us about our Benchmarking work, and the Department said, “Oh yeah, that thing. We’ll do that.” At the end of the second year, TBS asked us again, and the Department said, “Oh, you meant for us to actually DO it. Okay”. At the end of the third year, they asked again, and the response was, “Oh, you meant for us to do it NOW.” And TBS said, “Yes, and if you don’t do it, we’re freezing your budget.” Suddenly we had a new priority.
Most of the work would be done by the finance branch. But it would be led by the service delivery branches who represented the bulk of the operating expenses. From the policy side, each policy branch would need to be involved in the work, and since our branch had one of the statutory programs of interest, we would have a strong reason to participate.
No problem, I would support whoever participated. I had done Strategic Review and the DRAP scenarios, I understood our cost structure, sure, I was an obvious choice. They set up an ADM committee to run the work. Except mainly we were involved as an accountability function, not because we had huge cost implications. It would be the service delivery arm that would be the most relevant. So my ADM delegated down to the DG. Who delegated to my new Director (the woman who was also a “special project specialist”). Who delegated to me.
This meant that for most of an eight-month-long project, I was the sole branch rep. To an ADM committee. It did NOT go unnoticed. The fact that I knew what I was talking about, and could contribute to the discussion, did not go unnoticed either. So I was allowed to stay.
I can honestly say that I learned a lot, but I don’t really like negotiating approaches at a table with 8 or 9 other ADMs and me.
After it was over, and the study was done, I started to get an itch. I had now been in the same box as the manager of performance measurement for almost six years. I wanted something more. I needed a change.
My director was open to a new idea, the other managers agreed, and suddenly my job changed. I didn’t need to leave, I had a new job anyway.
When I worked at DFAIT, and worked for a shouter, I thought I had pretty strong tolerance for bad behaviour. In fact, up until SDC, I was known for having worked for or with some people that others wouldn’t even consider. And honestly, I never had a problem with any of them. Until I worked for the DG that got fired in the last post. I needed a bit of a cleanse after that, and so I went to work with a Director that I had worked with previously.
t. Manager, Strategy and Integration, HRSDC — When I look back at this job, it is extremely difficult to separate the final result (bad) from the experience of working there (good). There are times afterwards that I felt like I wasted 18 months of my life. I didn’t, not really, but it sure felt like it at the end.
I was the manager in this group, and our team had three major deliverables — medium-term planning, an integrated policy framework, and the policy work to support creating HRSDC as a Centre of Excellence. MTP was with another manager, I was responsible for the other two. In actual fact, our team had more deliverables than just three, but these three were significant — they were three of the four commitments in the ADM’s performance agreement. Do the math and you see that two of my files equated to half his year’s commitment.
No pressure, right?
The team was virtually non-existent when I started, and I quickly reached back to my old division and plucked Tim from a pool. We didn’t have my five-year plan for world domination anymore, but we could at least try to dominate HRSDC. Rather than go blow-by-blow, I’m going to talk about four things during the 18 months, and you’ll see why they were good near the beginning and soured at the end.
First, on the HR side, I loved working with Tim again. Don’t get me wrong, we didn’t always agree on stuff, we pushed each other on certain areas, but we could make it work and create ideas and synergy that were re-invigorating. Working with the Director was always good, lots of trust and autonomy, etc. and she reported to a nice DG. Plus I got to hire some other support staff in the team, it was good. After the bad taste left by the previous DG, it was nice to just “be” at ease with a team. No drama. Mostly.
Second, on a related note, I got to see that how other people approached HR was not even close to how I approached HR. I mentioned another manager was in charge of the MTP side of the shop, and his people routinely struggled. A sister division also had challenges. Their staff was unchallenged at times, often complaining they didn’t get opportunities at certain files, people all thought the bosses were playing favorites. A policy person came in at a senior level, and while she came in with lots of oomph behind her, she was new to government. It took her awhile to get up to speed on how to “do” horizontal policy. Meanwhile, there was someone two levels below her in the hierarchy who had been doing the job for 2-3 years, and was great. So imagine the dynamic in a division when the boss would routinely bypass the more senior person who was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in favour of an experienced workhorse who was more junior. The optics were terrible, even when the manager was settling for the “easy” answer that got work out the door, and it sucked for individual development.
And I noticed that happened a lot. The easy answer.
I had an opening in my team, and I was looking for someone who could do comparative research, approaches of other countries. I was essentially looking for almost “bilateral” profiles, but the international group didn’t really have any. They sat nearby but I didn’t like their approach to international, one of the same challenges when our groups had merged. Too responsive, too “one-off”, no real policy approach. So I needed some work done to support our framework. And there was someone on the other team, at the level I needed, who could do the work and wanted to do it, plus I had worked with her before back at CIDA so she wanted to work with me too. But it would look like “poaching” from the other team. I put it to the director another way…how could I staff a job that someone else in the same division wanted, would utilize her talents better, and who I would be happy having, just because it inconvenienced the other manager? And when I ran it, we knew she would apply and I would choose her. Why would I run a full comp to get her? Good point, and the move was underway. He was furious. He said I should have asked him first. I pointed out that this was a business deal in the labour market between employer and employee. He didn’t “own” her, nor was I asking to date his daughter.
This wasn’t a small point to me. There is a “professional” agreement amongst managers to, you know, be collegial. That you won’t run around and poach staff. That you’ll talk to the other manager first. But what exactly am I talking about? Am I asking permission? No. Am I informing him? Perhaps, but why would I do that before I even know if the person wants to leave or is interested in the job? If they’re not interested, it could damage their relationship with the manager for no reason. So why would I talk to them first? Nobody had an answer to that, it was just “nice” to do. Except then you ran into a guy like this who thought it was a rule, and that he could say “no”. That’s not how an open labour market works. Ironic since one of our files was removing barriers in labour markets.
The same manager had been brought over with a promise of a promotion to ES-07 or EX-01, and so they were running a competition. I was caught a bit off-guard when it launched as no one had mentioned it was coming. All of the managers in our group were surprised. I spoke to the Director to ask why she had never mentioned it to me, despite talking about HR regularly, including my career plans. Mostly I just wanted to know if she thought I wasn’t ready or just didn’t need to mention it as I was self-sufficient in managing my career. Neither, she just thought everyone knew it was coming because he was acting and it had to be run at the end of a year. She fully expected me to perform, succeed, and potentially even outperform the incumbent. Oh, okay.
Except two days later when the poster came out, they had played with the educational requirements. It now required a Ph.D. The only position in the entire government doing that type of work that had a Ph.D. requirement. Not an asset, an actual requirement. Nobody else in the entire group of managers and only a very small handful of people in the whole Department could even apply. I know it wasn’t entirely her decision, it was the DG who dictated final requirements, but she was the one running the comp. Everybody else was PISSED. I was pissed too, but more disappointed. This wasn’t just an accident. They were guaranteeing him his promotion through some questionable HR practices. It was the easy answer. No muss, no fuss, exclude everyone else.
I haven’t talked about something in these posts, as it is more extraneous to the work, something I did on the side. I was getting good at HR comps, good with the rules and processes. I had been giving presentations on how to apply, write and prepare for interviews. Not from a manager perspective, but from the applicant perspective, but I was getting more expertise on the management side too. Even other managers were starting to seek me out for advice, as I was getting a reputation for being “one of the good ones”. One thing I did, and still do, is read the administrative tribunal decisions when someone challenges an appointment. There are certain red flags that administrators look for in reviewing cases. And one of them was when an essential requirement was suddenly drastically inflated without cause. It was clear abuse of authority and process. A deliberate bias in favour of one candidate over everyone else. And they weren’t even being subtle about it.
I thought about applying just so I could get screened out. That might sound counter-intuitive, but once you are screened out, you gain certain appeal rights. And I thought very seriously about doing it so that I could file an appeal at the end and get it tossed. I only did a year and a half of law school, but at this point, I had almost six years of learning from HR decisions by courts and tribunals too. I’d have a challenge bypassing the union, but I had a few tricks up my sleeve to do that too.
Did I want to do that? Absolutely. Nothing pisses me off more than bad HR. Integrity of policy, integrity of process, integrity of operations. Violate any one of those and you get a bad result. Maybe an easy answer for a one-off, but a bad way to run a railway.
But here’s the problem. I was also part of the management team. I did not always agree with them, but there was some residual duty there too. Plus it was a director I liked. I wouldn’t just be smacking the manager being promoted, I would be smacking the person I liked, cared about, and had worked with a lot. A person who I modelled myself after for a long time. A role model, a mentor, a friend. And my boss.
I waited until the application process closed, and didn’t apply. But I didn’t want it to pass unchallenged. The only thing I could do was send her a strongly worded email, if only to create a paper trail in case someone else outside our group decided to challenge the appointment. If someone else challenged, they would have to turn my email over in any grievance procedure / litigation request / ATIP request. I removed any reference to the individual that would get it held back, and talked only about the process.
How it had been openly communicated when the manager arrived that he would be getting a promotion. How he had been put into an acting position that nobody else had been offered a shot at, including me — who was offered both jobs (mine and his) at level. Only when he came did it get bumped up a level. Not for work, for the individual. How the comp was run, was said to be for everyone, and how it was suddenly restricted to Ph.Ds. only against an evidence-base that they had looked at other jobs around the government, and used a similar job poster, but none of them had required Ph.D. Even PCO and Finance, who routinely went higher on their qualifications for these types of jobs, had only gone to the Masters level. And, not for nothing, they had done so when they had a viable alternative.
All they had to do was make it an MA requirement for education, and use the Ph.D. as an asset. They even had a way to justify it…the person occasionally dealt with outside academics, many of whom would respond better to someone with a Ph.D. It wasn’t a significant part of the job, hence an asset not an essential requirement, but it was EASY to do. And they could STILL have given him the job at the end, but others would have had a chance to apply.
Instead, they went for the easy answer. And any long-term commitment to the division by any of the other managers was now gone. It also changed the relationship for awhile with my boss. I didn’t quite see her in the same way anymore. If she had given me a nudge to say, “Not right, but what can you do?”, I might have been okay with that. That she didn’t completely agree with it either, but it was what her boss wanted. But she hadn’t done that, and it bothered me. I knew why, she was a Director. It wasn’t her job to make me feel better about the decision, it was her job to defend it. But it made me question my previous evaluations.
Something that started a small snowball rolling down the hill, except I didn’t see it until it was too late.
The third thing I experienced was the challenge of a file that nobody quite understood. The buzzword of the day was “centre of excellence”, and the Department was “seized” with the idea. Except nobody really knew what it meant. Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great, was popular with PCO, and around town, and it was driving the conversation, but like most best-selling business advice books, it was hard to adapt directly to the world of government.
And like with HR, it was easy to default to the lowest common denominator, i.e. the easy answer. Our deputy was no slouch, one of the biggest DMs in the community, and even for her, it came down to “excellence in every thing we do”. It’s a viable approach, but honestly, I disagreed. I don’t believe you can really commit to excellence in everything at once. You can commit to improvement, you can commit to removing stupid things, but true excellence? That requires something else. Which is what the book was also saying VERY clearly. Commit to ONE thing, not EVERYTHING.
In my view, that requires something akin to the approach to policy coherence. Back when I wrote about my time at CIDA doing the OECD Peer Review, the big discussion in OECD circles was around policy coherence. And like being a centre of excellence, it requires something more than just doing “more of the same” and yet most accept the easy answer. Policy coordination or even collaboration. Certainly not “coherence”.
As we were situated in the policy branch, we were tasked with looking at what it would mean to be a policy centre of excellence. Not just for the branch but for the department. Our ADM wanted to go in that direction, and we prepared memos and docs for his use, but we weren’t really influencing him. He was already there. But it wasn’t what the department wanted since most of them would not see themselves in the result. In a department of 26K, only 3K or so were officially doing policy. If done right, that wouldn’t matter who was the lead, all could support that “model”, but there was no traction and eventually, the Department moved on to creating pockets of Centres of Expertise everywhere. A major lost opportunity.
Yet after I left, over the course of the next year, I heard from the Director that she was using a lot of the material we created in those eighteen months. Call us ahead of our time, perhaps. On a bad day, I just felt like I was wasting time.
For the fourth heading, an Integrated Policy Framework, if I was wasting time on the CoE, I don’t know what to call our IPF work. We were doing cutting-edge stuff in some ways. Attempting to combine learning policy, social policy and labour market policy, we managed to come up with an eventual framework that was a little bit Amartya Sen’s and Mubub Ul Haq’s view of human development, a little bit Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a little bit lifelong learning, and a little bit Robert Putnam’s Social Capital theory. We’re not talking small potatoes here. We were trying to meld some pretty heavy philosophy and social theory into a working model for the department.
I’ll digress for a moment to talk about how I saw it (I’ll leave Tim out from my summary, he may have had other views!). Essentially, we would have three elements to our model.
a. The inputs — these were the standard drivers, trends, etc., all part of the operating environment, including political pressures, views, announcements, etc. It was basically the external “view” of what was important vs. what the evidence told us was the current situation. In terms of actual operations, it is where medium-term planning would get us with initial diagnostics and political review — what was the state of Canada and the world, and what we would do about it?
b. The “machine” — in the middle was the model. I would have just called it the model, except in retrospect, it was far too mechanistic for the powers-that-be. It was going to be our actual view of the world — how learning translated into income, how income turned into resources, how resources turned into social capital, how social capital turned into capacity, how capacity drove learning. The virtuous circle. It would talk about research, best practices, policy instruments, maybe even down to functional direction and delivery design. We didn’t get that far, but it was possible. Put in its most simplistic form, this was the model that would say, “This is how HRSDC thinks the world of learning, social and labour markets work”.
c. The outputs — depending on which “levers” you pulled, so to speak, you would generate a structure for your corporate reporting, or public reporting, or policy responses to new initiatives, whatever.
Does that sound rather academic, mechanistic even? Of course. But I’m also not an idiot.
If the Minister said in “a” that youth were important, that would mean the “machine” would treat that as gospel and generate priorities outputs for helping youth. The inputs and outputs were not irrelevant, nor unimportant, they were just “separate” from the actual policy framework. If inputs and outputs always changed, how could they be “part” of what was to be a stable framework?
The point was to separate them from the model in the middle. Inputs could change, outputs could change. The model should be relatively static in the middle. Some people said, “But if your government changes, your model changes.” Well, not really. No, I’m serious, and that isn’t me being naïve either.
The non-partisan advice wouldn’t change, in the ethical world, nor the model. Which instruments were deemed more important than the others would though. Put more accurately, the political views/philosophy of the current government might put a thumb on the scale to tip the balance in a specific direction, but it wouldn’t alter the original full menu, just which options were currently available. We still had to know ALL the options available, regardless of the government of the day.
In eighteen months, we did the equivalent of a Masters degree in policy frameworks — what they were, how they worked, what was viable, what was not.
To make progress though, we needed three main things, and we didn’t have them.
First and foremost, there had to be demand. HRSDC was a huge department, and it had and still has a distributed policy model that separates strategic policy (the branch I was in) from program policy (one each for learning, social and the labour market) from service delivery (two huge groups that vastly outnumber the policy people). While our bosses thought an IPF was a good idea, nobody really wanted anything aggressive. Some didn’t want anything at all that might constrain what they did. Some were open but wanted something light. Something mainly with the inputs and the outputs, and very little policy in between. If the Minister said “help youth”, then they spent more money on youth. No analysis if that was the best or even if it was the only option. It was simple. One input, one output. In short, there was no broad-based demand, some outright opposition, and no deadline. It didn’t help that in the previous fifteen years of operation, the Department had bopped along without one, so why start doing it differently now?
Second, we needed a vision and direction. I had one, sure, but that didn’t count for much. After about a year, we got into see the ADM to show him a draft of what we were thinking. As an aside, this ADM was known to be a tough brief. If he didn’t like something, you would know. Fast. Heck, he would rip it to shreds. He was tough. But he never made it personal, it was always about the document in front of him. As expected, the brief was tough.
He had major problems with the mechanistic nature. He didn’t want to separate the inputs and outputs form the model since those were the two things he had to live and breathe daily with the Minister’s office. Why would we separate them? Plus, he wasn’t sure we had the balance right between the models…maybe it was more Sen, less Putnam, more lifelong learning, less Maslow. I hadn’t expected to sell him, but he gave us his views for about 45 minutes. Almost all negative.
When we left, my DG and director were a bit rattled. It had been a tough brief. The Director asked me if I was okay. Okay? Why wouldn’t I be? Well, she said, that was pretty rough. Rough?
That wasn’t rough, that was AWESOME!
A senior policy ADM, head of the second-largest policy shop in all of the government. Years of experience. Engaged. Wrestling with our model. Having views, a vision, a direction.
That wasn’t rough, that was HEAVEN. I wanted to do a new version and immediately go back in that week. I wanted to strip his mind and experience and craft something he saw as useful. It was like we had finished all our course work and were going into to propose our approach to our thesis, and our advisor told us we weren’t there yet. Alrighty, let’s do this!
Alas, that was the last time I got to meet with him.
Because we were missing the third thing. Buy-in and support from our immediate management. My director was mostly deferring to us and the DG, which was fine most of the time. Except our DG was not the risk-taking type. He was not prepared to go back in to see the ADM until he was sure we had what the ADM wanted to see. He wouldn’t risk another rough ride.
By the time we reached the end of the 18 months, I was on version 89 of the deck. And nothing was sticking with the DG. None of our ideas, none of our approaches. I was on fumes. We tried putting some different staff on it, younger staff for a fresh perspective, but it wasn’t jiving with him either.
When my director suggested that perhaps we could move the file to another manager, the Ph.D. guy, I was done.
And honestly, I thought I was the most useless manager on the planet. I couldn’t get ANYTHING going. I couldn’t do the job apparently. The small snowball that had started down the hill after being excluded from the competition earlier now grew into a complete lack of self-confidence in my ability. Maybe they hadn’t steered the competition TO HIM so much as AWAY FROM me? Was I really this useless that I had to have my files taken away?
The spiralling was out of control. I took a week off to regroup, although mostly to lick my wounds, and I realized that I couldn’t stay either. I had lost the confidence of both my director and my DG, and after 18 months of pushing string, I had no energy left to keep pushing. I needed something concrete.
A chance encounter with a contact mentioned that another branch was looking for someone to do planning work. Something concrete. Tangible. No pushing string. Hard, real. No soft theory there.
And my director had suggested that whatever I pursued, I aim for something that I wouldn’t necessarily invest in personally. Because that was part of the other problem. After spending 18 months defining an IPF from almost nothing, crafting with Tim and others a vision that was as much the source material as it was now us having adapted it, the rejection of the IPF was almost like a rejection of us. I internalized that, I couldn’t help to do so. So much of ME was in the model, the way I saw the world from a professional and personal perspective that dumping it and starting over was tantamount to dumping me and starting over. Bear in mind too that I was still relying on the fact that a director I trusted and a DG I admired and respected both were of the opinion that I wasn’t doing the job right and we needed someone else to take over. That stung.
I met with the Director of the planning team. He had an opening, and he was looking for an experienced manager with some corporate planning and business background, plus exposure to performance measurement. He actually needed two managers, and he thought he might have a line on a second one, but I had some choice in which I did. I was open to either, and the other was more experienced with planning, so I angled towards the performance measurement side. I didn’t know the director. I didn’t know the team. But I knew the DG and thought highly of her. I hid my insecurities, he checked references while I held my breath. I had no idea what the Director would say. I wasn’t being “fired”, but it was next to it.
My references held, he took me on. I had my escape route.
As I finished my previous post, I was finishing up what I had thought was going to be my best job ever — a senior policy advisor position in the Deputy Minister’s Office at CIDA. Instead, I was pushing too much paper. I also had another problem with my career — I was under-classified. While I was routinely offered, accepting and performing at ES-05, ES-06, PM-06 and even sometimes EX-01 levels, I was still an ES-04. I was in a competition back in Policy Branch to “regularize” my level with an ES-05 job, but I had my eye on a higher prize…the newly-created Social Development Canada ran a competition for their Manager of International Affairs position.
s. Manager, International Relations, SDC — HRDC had been through a big scandal at the end of the 1990s, most of which turned out to be more smoke than substance. But a new government direction was set in 2004/05, and the huge department split into two — Human Resources and Skills Development Canada and Social Development Canada. SDC was headed by Minister Ken Dryden. Yes, that Ken Dryden. The Ken Dryden of hockey fame, who had stopped playing hockey early on and finished a law degree and then went back to hockey for a while. Now a Liberal Minister.
And as the Department had separated, some of the horizontal files, like International, that had been done by a single division in the old merged department were now split into two departments, with some personnel staying in HRSDC and a smaller number going to SDC. As such, SDC was staffing up in some key areas. International Relations was one of them.
I don’t really remember a written test, but I’m sure there probably was one. I do remember the interview. There were three people on the board…a director of Horizontal Initiatives and International Relations, named Bob, and a director of International Agreements (a related area, but not actually hiring), plus the HR person. I was pretty knowledgeable about competitions and how they worked at this point, so the application, written exam, and interview were not particularly challenging. I knew what they were looking for with each question, and I felt afterwards like I only really messed up one question. A “role-play”, so to speak.
During the interview, candidates were told that there were 7 questions (I think), of which we had seen all but one for 30 minutes in advance of the interview. This was a relatively new practice at the time, now standard for all government interviews. You get a 30 minute prep time with the questions so that you come in and give your answer instead of stalling for time with “spontaneous” questions and saying, “umm, uhh”, “that’s a really good question, thank you for asking”, etc. One of the questions was if the Minister was meeting with his or her provincial counterpart in B.C., what advice would you give her about what to say? It’s a standard question for an ES position, even a senior position, yet a bit odd in my view for an international position — why ask us an FPT question instead of meeting with an international counterpart? But I digress.
The question we didn’t see in advance was at the end of the interview, it was a short timed question, and we were to rely on the answer we had previously given about advice to the Minister. Except in this case, we were to assume that we were getting on the elevator with the Minister, they were on their way to a surprise meeting with their provincial counterpart, and I had I think two minutes or ninety seconds to brief them. Go.
I really like the type of question, really well done. Except I blew the format. When you get a question like this, it is easy to do (as I did) the obvious and think it is a “real” question, where of course you’re focused on substance. How much substance can you cram into a 90-second conversation? How much wood could a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood? Most people hit this and they go into overdrive, talking quickly, trying to get their previous 7-minute answer into the 90-second window.
Except that the question isn’t marking you on substance. That’s not what that type of question is for. No, it is marking you on ORAL COMMUNICATIONS. Which means what I should have done was taken a beat. Started off gently, slowly, calmly with the Minister. “Minister, your counterpart is mostly going to be looking to get an update from you on some of the key issues like x, y, and z. You’re already briefed on those topics, so let me talk a bit about some pressure points for them like a, b, and c. They are a good partner for us, and while they will always press us for more money to be spent in their province, this is really a chance for you to ask questions and listen to what they see as the priorities for their province. Do you have any areas that you would like me to elaborate on?” Nice, calm, simply structured, high-level, not too detailed, appropriate to the audience.
Not turning into Mr. Motormouth.
It didn’t matter in the end, I ranked first overall. Beating a friend of mine (Hi Cori!) by two points. I didn’t even know she was applying until I saw the final list of rankings. She has never let me forget those TWO POINTS. Because it made a huge difference.
Bob, our new Director, staffed the international side of the shop first and gave me the first offer. Which I accepted. Making me the Manager, International Relations. She took the second job, Manager, Horizontal Initiatives. Or as we came to describe it, the bits of everything else aka “Bits”, thus making me “Kibble”. Kibble and bits.
My job was awesome. I felt like I could literally do no wrong. Take for example the day I met my new ADM. I didn’t know her, hadn’t met her, had no idea even who it was. Bob told me to come with him to a briefing with her, and I tagged along. Bob went to introduce me to Deborah, and Deborah says, “Oh, I know all about Paul. I’ve been hearing about him for years. My daughter-in-law brags about him all the time.”
Umm, okay. I had no idea who her daughter-in-law was. Her name was apparently Meg. Right. Meg. I only knew one Meg. She had been my co-op student back in the day one summer when I was in Multilateral Branch. Meg W. Wait she got married. She was now Meg T. Right. Deborah T, Meg T, ah-hah! Literally, those were the jumps my brain made in about 2 seconds. But it was that LINEAR. Ah-hah, I knew who she was now. Which meant I also knew her husband, a contractor that I had worked with her husband at a previous job, and they knew my old DG really well. Small world. Except it wasn’t, not exactly. Turned out Deborah knew a lot of people from my previous life. Deborah was also an extremely warm person, the type of boss who would bake cookies for her staff meetings regularly. There was something comforting just being around her.
As we were leaving, Bob said to me kind of in a low voice, “Nice going. Not a bad way to meet the ADM.” Not bad, indeed.
I also found our approach to international affairs rather open-ended. I had ideas, I had initiatives to try, and it seemed like everything I threw at the wall seemed to stick. We staffed up, I did some poaching, including helping steal someone that I had worked with previously at CIDA and another person with an international background who was doing corporate planning work and looking for a change. Later, Bob would tell me he thought those two hires were the two best hires of his entire career. Great…hey, wait a minute! What was I, chopped liver? 🙂
And I got to work with a guy I had interacted with when I was at Policy Branch at CIDA and he was in the HRDC world. Tim was awesome to work with, a regular highlight of my day.
We started developing an international policy framework, a way to organize and represent what we were doing abroad so we could move beyond just what our calendar brought us in the way of international meetings. We started gearing up differently for the Six Countries meeting, a collaboration of the six English-speaking members of the OECD (Australia, New Zealand, England, Ireland, Canada, and the US), exchanging information at the senior official level every 18 months or so. It felt a lot like the Ministerial meeting we had held in NB back at CIDA, just different topics.
The Minister had led a delegation to Israel and Palestine, and we had a technical cooperation project with the Palestinian Authority. They needed some basic governance help, and we hired the same type of consultants that we would use to help our Ministry with governance questions. Some of it was basic, some of it was quite advanced, but mostly aimed at improved social delivery capacity. Everyone loved it. Even CIDA and DFAIT were wondering how we got this going, looking somewhat developmental in nature, but not exactly development (since it was Palestine). We started to wonder if there was something else we could do on this front with other countries. Not the high-end social development projects that CIDA was doing with LDCs, but perhaps some social governance capacity projects with social ministries in middle-income countries. It was an avenue to explore.
Tim and I started dreaming big. We wondered if maybe there could be a growth out of the six-country initiative to have some sort of “training” conference where we would not only bring senior officials to meet to talk about priorities, but perhaps we could do some cross-training at a lower level. Perhaps even charge for other countries to attend. And use that money to pay to bring developing countries to the same training. Maybe, just maybe, we could even build almost a whole training institute that would have sessions 3 or 4 times a year.
I had big plans for all the files. Bilateral, multilateral, technical, domestic. My team and I started calling the big vision my “five-year plan for world domination”. We weren’t entirely kidding…it was WAY beyond ambitious. I didn’t even show our management people…I could show my team, but Bob got to see the 18 month to two-year version, and higher than that only saw our first year. I had no mandate to go as big as I was thinking, and while I had no real illusions we could get there, I could at least push the envelope. Even if we came up with social training materials and put them online with the OECD, that could be something worthwhile.
I went to the UN to help negotiate the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. DFAIT, SDC, Justice, a few people around town, some NGOs. We had a decent delegation. PT consultations too. I wasn’t a big player in the negotiations, but I made a decent contribution on some wording here and there. I had a hectic two weeks, and I learned more about that type of file than I had ever covered in my time in the UN division at CIDA. I was comfortable in New York, at the UN buildings, etc., but there was no buzz for me. I felt like I had done this before, and honestly, I didn’t really want to be doing it again. I liked managing, I didn’t mind sending delegations here, but did I want to be there? Not really.
I’ll digress for a moment to do a First World Problem dance. When I was at DFAIT, I went to the Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Beijing, as well as saw a good percentage of Canadian capitals. At CIDA, I added New York, Rome, Paris, Geneva, Venice (side trip), Amsterdam, Washington, Barbados, St. Lucia, Guyana and Jamaica. Sounds awesome, right? I do like to travel.
But here’s the thing. I don’t like business travel. First, I’m usually really busy right up until I have to go to the conference or meeting, so I can’t go a couple of days early. I generally arrive the day before the meeting, get settled, go to bed, and then it’s time for the meetings. Second, hotel conference rooms all look alike, you grab some dinner, call your family, unwind somehow or not, and crash. Next day, same thing. Then the conference is over, and you’re free. Third, maybe you can add a day or two to the end, but often, I just want to go home. I don’t particularly enjoy exploring new cities on my own. I’ve been there, done that, saw interesting things, and had no one to share it with at the time.
For some people, that time in NYC with the other delegations is the highlight of international work. Negotiating, interacting, networking, socializing, it’s all part of the experience. But I had done that already. I did it at the start of my career with APEC. Now I had a girlfriend, and most of the time, all I could think was “Would I rather be here wondering around Central Park by myself or just hanging out in Ottawa with her?”. That’s not a tough question to answer. I had become more domestic in my leanings. So I was happy to send my staff to Palestine, I didn’t need to go. My team member had a blast, and it was a really good development opportunity for her. Tim was always willing to travel, although I don’t remember him getting to do anything exciting at the time.
CIDA was calling me. I remember being in NYC, at the UN, and spending a full hour on a conference call with the associate DM at CIDA who was interviewing me for a potential return gig. Great job, some acting potential, but it wasn’t what I wanted. I would have been crazy to say yes knowing what I knew about the job, and the paper-pushing that went with it, but I was beyond flattered with the call.
I was also starting to build a new network. It was weird, I hadn’t really thought about it, but moving to a new Department meant that I didn’t know all the corporate players anymore. I got to meet them, and they were all experiencing a lot of what I was on the international front. Appetite from above for more, more, more. They were doing great things on the policy front.
And then we weren’t.
An election happened, and we had a change in government. To one that had VERY different views of the relative importance of a social development ministry. Ken Dryden, on his last day, came round to say goodbye to the entire building. He looked shell-shocked that Canada had not only voted the Liberals out but that they had also voted the new government in. And that he wouldn’t get to finish his files.
The Government folded SDC back into HRSDC, and for me, it was a complete disaster. All of the stuff we had been doing came to a screeching halt. We even got a new DG, and well, I feel confident in my assessment that she was completely useless.
Early on, we had a meeting with her. She said she wanted an international policy framework, and we showed her what we had. Nope, that wasn’t a framework. She told us she had done frameworks before, but that wasn’t it. I pushed for more clarity, some sort of starting point, and she had nothing. Literally, there was nothing there. No substance at all. I finally got her to tell me at least SOMEWHERE that she had done one she liked, and she told me Environment Canada. Great, a starting point.
I called some friends who worked there, and they had been around when she was there. I told them I was looking for whatever international policy framework she had moved forward when she was there, so I could see what she liked. Dead silence. The only thing that she had done there was regular approval of a calendar of upcoming international events. There had been no policy behind it, and certainly nothing like a framework. I checked her bio, coincided the dates with people I knew who worked at the same place at the same time, and started doing a reference check on her, for lack of a better phrase. Most people barely remembered her. Certainly nothing noteworthy, except her treatment of others and staff, none of which was positive. Oh great.
I finally found a link to a friend that I knew well back at CIDA. Gave him a call, told him my situation, and got him to speak candidly. I said, “Honestly. Is it possible she is secretly brilliant and strategic and that she has it cleverly disguised as incompetence?”. The answer was a resounding no, no disguise, what you saw was what she was. However, she did apparently have a good ability to “read” upper management and translate that into a working vision for her area.
Oh, well that was actually something we could use in the new regime. Maybe I could work with that, I thought.
Fast-forward two months, and relations with the other international team were strained at best. Everything we did, they thought we were plotting some coup. My boss was away and I had a note due to the DMO and Minister’s Office by end of day Friday to support a meeting with a Chinese delegation that was coming to Ottawa on Monday. They were meeting with three different Ministers, and they had given three topics to discuss, one for each Minister. I was REALLY struggling to get it through the system, or even to get an answer as to why it wasn’t moving. My DG was away travelling with our DM for Thursday and Friday, and in her absence, she appointed someone acting. I followed up with her, got the file moving again, and thought it was all handled.
Friday afternoon at 3:45, I received a new request from DMO. This was the SAME request I had already answered, but because the docket hadn’t made it upstairs in time, a new request was sent out with someone now asking for info on ALL three areas, not just the one that we were responsible for…I tried to follow-up, and they basically shrugged upstairs. Well, crap. I knew NOTHING about the other two topics.
No problem. I picked up the phone, phoned around town, tracked down my counterparts in the other two Ministries, told them the situation, they emailed me some background material, I combined it with my stuff, and one hour later, I had a brand new package almost ready to go. I was pretty dang proud of myself, to be honest.
Then my phone rang. It was my DG. She was back in town, just got off the plane, and wanted to know what was happening with the file. I was pretty cheerful, told her the good news, we had everything, it was ready to go. She wasn’t having any of it. She had a bug up her butt about something, and she vented at me. She was cursing, she was swearing, etc. I put up with it at first and then tried to steer it back to the substance. It was almost five, and the DM’s policy advisor (an EX-01) had given me his home number and email address so that I could send him the docket over the weekend, and he would get it to the Minister. Could I send it? More venting. Including saying the other team had problems with my approach to the meeting. Wait a minute…why the hell was the other team even LOOKING at the note? It had nothing to do with them. I started to object to say there were too many cooks in the kitchen on this, but it was done, and she lost it. I finally stopped her and said, “I’m sorry, I have no intention of listening to any more of your abuse. It stops now. What do you want me to do with this file?”
She kept trying to talk about other stuff, and I kept saying, “No, we are only talking about this file. The rest of the stuff is irrelevant right now. I am leaving in less than fifteen minutes, this docket is done, the DM’s office wants it. What do you want me to do?”. She finally answered my question, more like a petulant child, and told me she would have to review it, I was to send it to her, and she would deal with it. She started off again on another rant, and I stopped her. “No, that’s not an option here. Are you going to send it to the DM’s advisor? He is expecting it.” She finally spit out her “yes” at me, and I hung up on her.
I then packaged the file, gave her all the info on the DM’s coordinates, kept it entirely professional, and gave my home contact info if she needed me to look at it or make changes before Monday. I was truly and utterly pissed off, but I could keep it professional.
I thought about it all weekend. Eccentric I could deal with. Useless I could deal with. Bad interpersonal skills I could tolerate. But combined with outright cursing and swearing? No frakkin’ chance.
My boss was back on Monday morning, and he knew before I got there that there had been a problem. Some of it came from her, some of it came from her replacement. Two other senior people in the Directorate had announced the previous week that they were leaving. Both for lateral moves to get away from her, not promotions. Bob thought I was venting, but I looked at him and said, “Nope, I’m done. This is my two weeks notice. I’ll be moving on, or going on holidays until I do. I will not work for her anymore. Her behaviour was unacceptable.”
While I was talking to Bob, my phone rang. It was the DM’s advisor. He had received NOTHING! The meeting was in 90 minutes and he had no note or anything. I told him that I had sent it to the DG on Friday afternoon at 5:00 p.m. and that she KNEW it was to go to him over the weekend. I had made that explicit to her and she had confirmed she understood. He wanted me to send him a copy, and I balked. I told him that I wanted to, but I quickly confirmed with my Director and he agreed, that she had had the material and if she hadn’t forwarded it along, presumably it was because she hadn’t approved it. I didn’t know what to do, honestly. I wanted to help but I felt like my hands were tied. The DM’s advisor confirmed with me that she had it at 5:00 p.m. in an email from me. I said yes. He said he would look after it.
Apparently, he went down to her office, got the Admin to open up her email, printed the email with his info and directions on what she had to do with it, along with the note, and went back upstairs. He then gave the note to the Minister’s Office as is, and gave the email to the Deputy to show what had happened, and who had clearly dropped the ball. He was playing hardball, and I wasn’t the racket or the ball. Whew.
Two weeks later, I was done. There were lots of discussions flying around about me. What did he mean he wouldn’t work for her anymore? What does he mean he’s going on leave? I was clear…I wouldn’t work for her any longer, and if I had to, I’d work my way through a very nasty grievance. Instead, another DG offered me a temporary job while I was looking for something new — some research they needed done on a childcare file. Kind of a different type of job for me, and it was fun for the month I did it.
By then I had five job offers, and honestly, I was torn. I couldn’t figure out which one I wanted to take. I know, I know, life was terrible. My brother and girlfriend suggested I rank each of the jobs in terms of “points”, and I couldn’t figure out why I hadn’t done it already. After all, I advised others to do the same thing. Including my girlfriend when she was looking at similar moves.
I did the rankings and figured out why I was torn. Across a spectrum of 19 different factors (okay, so I’m anal! And well-versed in considering what factors were important to me!), the five jobs had a potential score ranging from minus 95 to plus 95. The problem? They were all in the positive realm, and only about three or four points separating them. Of course I couldn’t make a decision…they were all, in fact, relatively equal. I adjusted the weighting factors, went for what I was looking for, and two jobs jumped up while two others dropped out. Bye-bye return to CIDA, hello move within the Policy Branch of HRSDC. One was working with a great director I had worked with at CIDA (remember the one who made me acting Director in Policy Branch?), one was a great DG handling corporate planning. Since I could maybe do the corporate planning later in my career, I went with the Director I knew.
My plan was set.
And then the unexpected happened.
No, seriously, I’m not exaggerating here. Something unprecedented in the history of my career, and unprecedented as far as I knew in any department.
The two ADMs fired the horrible DG.
No, not because of me, although the story of my experience with her and refusal to work with her was well-travelled. Remember too that one of those ADMs was the ADM who thought I was great because her daughter-in-law raved about me before I even started, and had loved everything I had given her since. That’s not nothing.
This DG who apparently was good at reading “higher officials” asked for a meeting with the DM. That happens, no biggie. Except she presented a plan to completely revamp her Directorate, including asking for resources. Apparently the DM reminded her, professionally, that the DG had a boss, and it wasn’t her. Plus there was a committee that dealt with new resource requests, and she didn’t chair it. So, dear DG, why was she there to see the DM? Then when the DG left, the two ADMs got an earful.
This was Tuesday. An emergency meeting was scheduled for Thursday morning between the two ADMs and the DG. 11:00. At 11:45, the DG left the meeting in a storm, swearing a blue streak. At 11:50, the ADMs had a meeting with a senior director from another Directorate. At 11:55, an announcement came out that the DG was on leave, and the other Director would be acting DG moving forward. Ten minutes after she left the meeting, her replacement was announced. That wasn’t a coincidence, I’m sure.
The DG was gone. DFAIT would have called it “gardening leave”, i.e. there was no job for you, you went home until they either found something new for you, you retired, or you were terminated. Most of the time, someone would take them eventually. In this case, she was just done. She was terminated. Wow. A shock to many, and while for the right reasons, it’s not unlike seeing an act of violence. You can’t help but be affected by it, even if you thought it was deserved.
But enough about her…what about ME? I was about to leave my job, and start a new one. I was about to say “yes” to an offer. And yet suddenly my reason for leaving was gone. I demurred on the offer for a day or two and met with the new DG. I asked for her advice. She said she couldn’t promise things would improve on the substantive files, and she couldn’t even see far enough forward to say I would even want to stay. She said she would be happy for me to stay, but she candidly admitted she had no promises to offer me that would make everything better.
I’ve often joked that the PM screwed up my life. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t experience the trauma that others went through of having poured their lifeblood into substantive domestic files that were now being roasted over bonfires (childcare policy, anyone? the environment?). But I had had a near-perfect job.
Great boss. Best boss of my entire career to that point.
Great files, and I could do no wrong. My world domination plan was taking shape. 🙂
Good team. Gen, Cori, Jen, Tim, Martha, others. I loved going to work with them.
Then the election happened, the department was merged, and the whole operating environment changed. Drastically. Most of the team managed to hang on much longer than me, but they also weren’t dealing directly with the bad DG. I have no idea how my boss was handling it. He was one of the most quiet, soft-spoken, nicest guys I ever worked with, and I only saw him frustrated to the point of irritation once, not quite angry, but close, and it was because of that same DG. He had no fun dealing with her with regard to me, I’m sure. She knew I was leaving, and that it was purely because of her. Her advice to my boss? Tell me to get over it. Nice.
I accepted the job with my old Director, and the good job that had turned into a dream job beyond expectations was officially done.