The best-laid plans of mice and men sometimes go astray. When I posted the first time about my new job, it was after a pretty extensive internal process for me personally — reflecting extensively on what I had liked about previous jobs, what I was looking for in a new job — and a formal job search across multiple areas.
As I finished that search and said yes to the dress, so to speak, I went with a stakeholder relations job for disability pensions. I liked the way it was framed, there was a formal set of mechanisms in place, not building SR from the ground up, and there was a Round Table that met three times a year that would drive the work cycle.
The interview with the DG had been great, I was excited about the files, and I had touched on things that were important to me in the job search…a chance to innovate, an open management environment, good people to work with, and a solid working relationship with my management team.
On the last two points, he noted two issues that I would face in taking the job. First, there were what we would come to refer to as legacy HR issues in the team. Second, we didn’t know who the director would be as the position was empty, and he was in the process of looking for someone (there were competitions, etc., already underway). We talked about my own career aspirations and I confirmed I wasn’t looking for a promotion — I like my level, and while I’m willing to act when needed, I wasn’t looking to bump up anytime soon, if ever — so this wasn’t a “stepping stone” to something else.
I took the job
Things didn’t go quite as smoothly as I had hoped.
I’m going to start with the environment. I didn’t know anyone in the area before I started so it was hard to do much of a reference check on what it was like working there. The initial environment was borderline toxic in some ways. The directorate was undergoing a change in philosophy, albeit perhaps a needed one, and many of the long-serving members were not happy with the new direction. A reorganization had been pre-announced, i.e. “something was coming”, but for a variety of factors, the file wasn’t moving, and the staff felt they were in limbo for too long. Disengagement, resentment, even open negativity from some members. While I could reassure my team that our work direction was generally the same and that we wouldn’t see much change in our files, I was also an acting director with another team where it was going downhill. From their perspective, it felt like they had poured their life into a file only to be now told their contributions and approaches were no longer what was needed. There were also legacy HR issues. Grievances, misaligned file responsibilities, people having shifted files every six months, little stability or ownership of their own files, fear of innovation in some cases, and fear in general of what was coming.
But you know what? The issues I was seeing were not insurmountable. I’ve worked through them before, I have ways to counteract and mitigate those influences, and I knew the structural re-org was coming which would give us a great “turning point” moment to build around.
Regardless, though, put bluntly, it was not the happiest place on earth.
When it came to the management culture, the openness I sought seemed almost non-existent. The DG seemed to be saying all the right words, but generally speaking, people hardly spoke up at the meetings, and few if anyone volunteered anything beyond what we were already doing. I’m a pretty candid manager, and equally so when I’m acting director. I do NOT need for my view to win the day, but I will make sure the view is heard, and preferably in an environment where it is welcome. I also like to believe, somewhat naively, that you can create that atmosphere from below, it doesn’t have to be driven by the chair. But it wasn’t happening.
On the innovation front, I probably should have poked harder on this one in the interview. One of my strengths at Foreign Affairs, CIDA including the DM’s office, and during my time managing the planning files previously, was the ability to streamline some of the processes, to take out the brain farts and nice-to-haves and focus on getting the job done with as informal of processes as the situations allowed. There were a bunch of pedestrian examples in my time in the job, but I kept hearing the same phrase: “Just do it the same way as last time.” Sorry, that’s not a rallying cry for me when I see things that can be improved within my span of control.
On the file side, I actually liked the stakeholder files I was managing. A good round table with some potential to improve for the future, a chance to expand another two files, and to potentially grow a fourth. I had ideas, people on the team had ideas, we had some options. I wasn’t sure how fast we could get to them with some legacy plus new HR issues, but it would work itself out in time as we got the rhythm going. Or so I thought.
The final challenge was the who factor. As I mentioned above, I didn’t know the team when I started, but I got to know them and work with them, and I was upbeat for the future. I could see some ways to work with them, and I did my normal mentoring / coaching option on HR and competitive processes. Lots of candid conversations. A good basis for the future, I hoped.
Two other managers left, and I was disappointed to lose them. But with the reorg, I would get to work with a third who looked like a good partner to work with in the management realm. Call that one a draw.
The challenge in the end was the director position. As I mentioned above, the DG noted that I would be taking the job blind, since he didn’t know who the director would be. I said I wasn’t too worried about it, since in a mitigation consideration of worst-case possibilities, I had worked for some difficult people in the past and found a way to make it work.
As we got closer to the reorg announcement, there was another director position that was being eliminated and replaced at the manager level, so we would have an “extra” director and an “empty” director box. The math was easy to do for everyone in the Directorate, but when I asked the DG about it, he said no, that wasn’t the plan. Even eight days before the announcement, he reconfirmed that wasn’t the plan. Reconfirmed again a couple of days before. And then announced it was her. Maybe there’s a story in there somewhere, one I didn’t need to know or care about, but it wasn’t a very open management process. Whatever, we keep rolling, cuz that’s the job.
The new director and I never found our rhythm. We both tried, we both failed. In the end, it was clear that neither our management approaches nor communication styles mesh well.
For communications, I tried an early visioning approach, then a work planning approach, followed up with a table of contents for a policy piece, and finally started just giving her the pieces to react to at the end. None of them were what she wanted, but we couldn’t seem to agree on “what” she did want. After a particularly chaotic interchange, she sent me a strongly worded email about something not being what she wanted. Unfortunately, I found the tone completely unacceptable, and so much so that I obsessed about it all weekend. Way beyond the norm. We had a “come to Jesus” conversation on the Monday to discuss it, all very cordial and frank, and the atmosphere improved, but the comms side did not. We were both trying, but it wasn’t working. Four months in and we hadn’t found a solution.
But for me, the problem wasn’t just the miscommunication. I wasn’t comfortable with the environment or the tone either. I reached out to our Employee Assistance Program to talk through my reactions, because I couldn’t quite figure out why I had reacted so strongly. I felt anger, apathy, frustration, sure, but that wouldn’t normally be sufficient to cause me to obsess. The harshness of the feedback I was getting, combined with the organizational uncertainty and some stress, and the frustration that I wasn’t able to solve this conundrum on my own, was producing a different emotion in me. Fear.
Fear that I couldn’t fix it. Fear that the challenges were outside of my control. Fear that I was in the hands of someone else, someone who I didn’t communicate well with, and perhaps I was also fearful that I was out of practice for managing upward since I had been in a “flying solo” role for so long with people who loved my work that it had been a while since I had to sell someone on my approach or my abilities. The EAP counsellor’s advice was crystal clear — find a new job immediately. I wasn’t quite so convinced. Move on, most definitely if we couldn’t work through it, but immediately? I had some files to deliver on before that point. I figured I would work through it, maybe look for something come the summer or fall.
But then, as our comms issues became more evident, our management styles started to clash as well. Questions of accountability and even procedural fairness in our dealing with staff were starting to unravel as we got closer to some deadlines. And while I was considering the ramifications of one of them for my timeline (it was a big enough dealbreaker to accelerate my departure), the decision was accelerated for me — my boss asked me if I was the right fit for my job (I am, but I’m definitely not the right fit with her). Once your boss asks you that, there’s no saving the relationship. You just leave. So I did.
Starting my job search
Since I had drastically under-estimated the “who” factor in my previous job search, I started my job search looking almost exclusively at the people with whom I would be working. I aimed for one group in particular, and added another as I went. The first was to reach out to a DG who had offered me something the year before. I worked for him previously for four years and found him downright awesome. Since last year, he has filled out his management team with two EXs that I like and respect, and for the job in question, another co-manager with whom I’ve worked well in the past. Four bodies in the management hierarchy that I’ve worked with in the past, and it’s all positive. A pretty rich target to acquire, if something worked out.
Then, the overall Budget came down, and there was a small announcement that Treasury Board would be leading a “horizontal skills review” of government programming. It wasn’t clear initially what that would look like, but the day after the Budget, I emailed two DGs most likely to know anything about it to see if there was any sort of team being put together, who would lead internally, etc. One responded with some info, I stopped by his office to chat later that day, and got the low-down. It looked like it might be all done at TBS, but we’d see. I reached out to someone at TBS to find out some info on that side, and got some basic info and some referrals.
Fast-forward another week, and it looked like something would click with the first DG. Except then the details for the skills review were decided upon, and the DG I had chatted with informally was now the Departmental lead for it. And he would need a small team. With my name on his list of likely people. I don’t want to simply brag that I finagled that in advance by being proactive (true!), because I want to equally brag that I was a no-brainer for someone to suggest anyway (equally true!). 🙂
Based on my earlier work on similar corporate exercises, and my 9 years doing corporate stuff in the same Branch, there are only about five people with the branch-related background to do it, another five in the Department who would show up in a broader search, and maybe another 15 who would pop up in an open casting call. Call it 25 people across the department with a combination of skills, knowledge and previous experience. In my case, I have all three. Three other DGs told me when they heard the news, “Well, that makes perfect sense, it’s like the job is tailor-made for you.” And it’s one of the options I was looking for a year ago, but the timing was off by a year.
Now comes the bad part — the skills review would be a short duration project, maybe up to a year, but likely six months. No permanent job, just an assignment maybe. But I knew I wanted out of my current situation and into a permanent home. The DG with the great management team was offering me that permanent home, so I had two great options. One temporary, one permanent.
And so I did what no one should do in these situations. I tried to have my cake and eat it too. Or an extra sundae.
And it worked. My permanent home is set, they’re finalizing paperwork, and I’m moving to the division with the great management team. Like a sundae with ice cream (good files) and whipped cream (good managers).
Then the chocolate sauce was added that I asked about — they’re going to LOAN me to the skills review team for the project. Ka-ching! I get to do both!
Or as my wife pointed out, “It’s pretty impressive that you’re getting everything you asked for.”
Some pointed out I was getting Karmic rewards, but I don’t think that’s true. First, I don’t believe that is the way Karma works; second, the situation I was in wasn’t “bad”. The people weren’t horrible, no good, very bad people. We just had completely different communication and management styles. It happens. And with seven years to go to retirement, I’m not willing to stick around to try and work through that angst. Nor, apparently, was my now-previous boss.
I much prefer to have an ice cream sundae with whipping cream and chocolate drizzle. There may even be a chance at a cherry on top, but maybe I’ve pushed enough for one week.
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. This 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 errorwas 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. This meant that 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 to be 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 know. 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 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 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. A 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 it 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 that 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 take 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 the 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 a 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 a 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. It 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 combine 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.
The number one thing I’m looking for in a new job is integrity.
A few of you are likely reading that and nodding your head. It seems like a good choice. Except it doesn’t mean only what most people think it does. For me, integrity is about far more than simply the personal integrity of my bosses. In fact, that isn’t even the biggest part.
First and foremost, I need to know there’s the integrity of the mandate. I need to know there is a clear link between the actions of the Department and the outcomes they are trying to achieve. A plausible connection that they can actually achieve something. Going back to an earlier post, it’s one of my challenges when looking at a Department like Indigenous Affairs or Status of Women. Both departments have great mandates, but there is no particular vision behind either one that makes me believe they can achieve their mandate. I’m not even sure they are going in the right direction. But equally important to me, I don’t know if anyone who works at those places knows it. Without the mandate, vision and levers, it’s tilting at windmills. And while I have a lot of respect for windmill tilting, I don’t want to do it for my career.
Second, I need to know there is the integrity of the policy. A clear line from the evidence to the instruments chosen. I am not a statistician, nor do I believe a lot of the so-called “evidence” tells us what to do — I think it tells us a lot about the problem and some hints about which of several instruments may help, but there is still a lot of room for Ministerial discretion. I’m not naïve, that is a part of our government system. We’re not automatons, nor are our leaders. They even have the right to be wrong. But ultimately, I need to know that the mandate is being approached with a policy lens that actually has some rigour to it. A colleague I respect went to work at DFAIT (now Global Affairs Canada), and was surprised just how little real “policy” work they did. It didn’t surprise me, I had seen it in action. People there would take four or five initiatives, throw it together into a storyline, and call it “policy”. But at most it is policy coordination, it isn’t program policy or policy development. True policy work requires some analysis, and ultimately, some hard choices — do we go left or right, and why? It is one of the most frustrating parts of working in policy coordination or working on things like Cabinet notes. The people who do it are touching multiple files per day, with no real-time to focus on the content. They are often called “policy people”, but it is the most administrative form of policy. It’s storytelling, sure, and often strategic policy or macro policy ends up being about storytelling. But it to is not what I want to be doing with my life. I’m a good storyteller, but I actually want some meat to the story.
Third, I insist on the integrity of the process whenever I can. It is one of the reasons why I work on corporate files. Because there are a lot of people out there who want to play fast and loose with processes, just as the DG at CIDA did when doing his Treasury Board submission. The end doesn’t justify the means, but neither does means justify themselves. I’m not embracing all audit controls, or a red-tape nightmare to dot Is or cross Ts. I don’t want anymore process than is needed. But once those processes are in place, I think they should be followed or at least when they are not, it should be transparent. When I was at DFAIT, and they were playing with the contracting rules in order to keep me on the team, they were at least doing it above-board, completely transparently with documentation across the board. A bending of the process rather than a complete violation. At CIC, I wasn’t a slave to the rules that procurement processes had to be followed perfectly, but at least we could document when things were changed so we had the paperwork to justify changes.
Fourth, I try to maintain a culture of integrity, including myself, my team and even my bosses. Sometimes that is a real challenge against values and ethics. Like transparency when I’m not allowed to share certain information. Or being part of situations that are uncomfortable and not being sure what to do.
One time at DFAIT, it was after hours, my Director and a sleazy officer were having a late-night drink in the Director’s office. I was about to head out and needed to touch base with the Director after a long day of missing each other with other priorities. We were talking about some upcoming logistics for the summer, and we were wondering about who we could get because I wasn’t going to be able to cover all of it. We discussed quick pros and cons of various candidates, including a co-op student from the previous year. Young, female, attractive. And out of nowhere, the sleazeball made a very crude comment about her appearance. Trump-like, almost. Both my Director and I paused, looked at him like he had two heads, looked at each other, and said, “anyway, moving on…”. I know the director said something to him after I left, as the officer apologized later, but really? It told me all I needed to ever know about the guy. And I’d never work with him again under any circumstances.
For the DG at CIDA who played fast and loose with TB rules, he offered me a job before I knew the full story. But I knew enough to know I didn’t want to work with him. I just didn’t like the way he did business. He created a giant global initiative with another guy, worked on it with two international contacts for a few months, and “accidentally” forgot to tell anyone in the Canadian government he was doing it. Until Italy found out and reamed out our G8 rep for not telling them when they were the G8 chair and this was a major possible deliverable. And the G8 rep didn’t have a clue what they were talking about…what global initiative? Someone at CIDA? Even the CIDA minister hadn’t known about it. Later in my time at CIDA, I was in a position to review some of his materials coming through and even flagged them for a friend to keep an eye out, not in a nasty way, just to be extra vigilant. I didn’t care WHAT he was doing, that was beyond my purview, I just cared about HOW he was doing it.
Another project came to me at CIDA and I ended up with two significant integrity questions. First and foremost, we had always managed this file fairly transparently across the government. It was an annual thing, relatively low-key internally, but would get some press. One year when I was managing the file, it was NOT going to be a good news story and PCO slapped a lid on all communications. I wasn’t allowed to share drafts with ANYONE. Not even with the people at HRDC who would have to write a bunch of briefs and comms materials on very short notice when the event happened. I wasn’t supposed to tell them. Which I felt was not only stupid, it violated every professional fibre of my being for how we work in partnership. If I didn’t tell them, the relationship built over the previous ten years between the two groups would be destroyed. In the end, I shared some info and gave them heads-up so they could plan better for the event. It kept things stable, even if it wasn’t strictly within the letters of my formal orders.
On the same file, I received a call from an old contact at DFAIT. The senior executive who was now director-level approximately, the same one who told me I was a glorified file clerk and to whom I had said I wouldn’t be stupid enough to work for him again. That had been in August of the year I moved to CIDA, and I had only seen him twice since that point — once at the Summit in Vancouver, but with little interaction, and once at a Christmas party. One of those awkward conversations where you both turn around and you’re suddenly face-to-face, and you have a conversation. He sort of smirked at me, and asked how everything was going at CIDA, was I getting “more responsible” files now? I told him it was going great, and fortunately, the management at CIDA was so much better. My friend standing nearby couldn’t believe how we threw such daggers at each other before moving off. No love lost. Yet here he was calling me and asking for advice for his Ambassador and the upcoming event. He had two options — let’s call it going left or going right. Without the information I had, which I wasn’t allowed to share, he was struggling to make a decision. For me, I knew the right answer though. If he went left, it would blow up in his face, the Ambassador would be pissed, and karma would be delivered a helping hand. If he went right, the Ambassador might be a bit disappointed, but no other real downside. The question was simple — should I tell him to go right and avoid the problem or say nothing at all and let him get reamed? I so wanted to say “go left”. I did. I really did. But I told him that perhaps this year was a good time for us to “go right”, even if I wasn’t allowed to share the info with him that he was searching.
I’m confronted with these issues often, and it is part of management. I mentioned earlier that ethical questions are not the elaborate scenarios that they share with you in training classes, it’s the day-to-day stuff. And for me, I need to be able to control enough of my work and outputs to ensure that my personal integrity is intact. When the DG from a previous example was cursing and swearing at me, that was too much. I couldn’t be part of it any longer. When I saw bad HR processes, I decided not to openly challenge them, but I had to at least register my disagreement with the approach.
I need to see it in myself, of course, but also reflected in the actions of my bosses. I need to know that they aren’t doing fast and loose things just to get something done. Or if they are, that they are at least transparent about it. And I try to make sure the same “culture” exists in my team.
In my personal life, it’s a huge precept for me. Not only have I chosen to do the right thing, I actually have in some cases only done it if it was for the right reasons. Something that might have been good for me, but for the wrong reasons, I chose not to do. In some cases, things that most people wouldn’t even think about avoiding.
For work, my approach to HR is a bit like that. I am perfectly fine telling people they should apply for lots of jobs, try to make pools, etc. But for myself, I will only compete for a job that I actually want. The federal system actively encourages you to compete just to make a pool and then get pulled for another job, but I won’t do it for myself. The right thing for the wrong reasons, so I won’t do it. I’m fine if others do it. Just not right for me.
Last but not least, I need to know there is integrity in delivery. It’s all well in good to have the right stuff upfront, but if it is going to hell in a handbasket on the delivery side, what’s the point?
And it is why it is my highest point. And really, if I wanted, I could group almost every other element under this heading.
#01. Integrity – Integrity of mandate, integrity of policy, integrity of process, integrity in delivery and a culture of integrity.
Most people who have read my top ten list so far have probably wondered, “What the ??? Where is the substance?”. Well, that comes now. More by type of substance than individual file area.
As a digression, I am not super worried about the file content — I could work in just about any department, and feel like I was contributing and enjoying my work. There are a couple where I would probably hesitate. Indigenous Affairs is one I would avoid…I honestly don’t think anyone has any clue how to move the files forward, and we pour billions per year into a system that produces almost nothing. Thankfully we have a reconciliation committee to make us feel good about our current partnership, even when that partnership threatens to consign another generation to poverty-stricken, subsistence living. Put more neutrally, working there would be well beyond pushing string.
I have similar views about the Canadian Human Rights Committee that lost its way a long time ago, the Status of Women which needs to be either strengthened and given teeth or abolished and probably half of the Fisheries Department. Which half I have no idea, but some of it is said to be working by those in the know. Which isn’t to say there aren’t good people working in those departments, or that some of the programs aren’t useful — more that they face large-scale structural issues that I think limit their potential to ever achieve their mandates.
Beyond them, I’d probably work anywhere. I don’t have a big desire to do TBS or PCO — partly by workloads, partly by formality, etc. Which is odd — because if I want to do “special projects”, TBS is definitely the place to do it. Almost half their department is working on new initiatives at any one time, it seems.
As such, I’m pretty open-minded to having a conversation with anyone about any area. Which sounds odd until you read the next part.
Starting at the top of the “policy chain”, there is research. Most research, at least policy research outside of some parts of the Canadian Space Agency, NRCan, Environment Canada or Health Canada / Public Health, is pretty high-level. Trends, issues, statistical models. Most of it not very useful to anyone until someone takes it and finds a way to turn it into policy-relevant language. There was a job recently in the Chief Public Health Officer’s office working on an annual report — which would take some of that general research and give it a good policy spin, which is a great way to use it. But most policy research elsewhere is often done by researchers who have no idea how to write a policy issue or formulate a recommendation. They just do the research and share it. Which doesn’t interest me at all.
Moving a step down the chain, we come to strategic policy. This is the part where policy analysts take a lot of that dry research, marry it to various policy initiatives of the government, and come up with broad diagnostics, mainly at the macro level, of what is going on in various domains or sectors. I mentioned earlier that I didn’t want to be the sector specialist, and this is the type of area where they tend to hang out. However, within the Strategic Policy area, there are also some other functions. Corporate planning for one, which I would do. But I don’t want to do departmental coordination at a large department like ESDC — we have 25K employees, 50+ programs, etc. Most of what they can do at any one time is the coordination of the input — there’s little opportunity to change the direction, to tell a different story than the individual branches want to do, there’s literally no capacity or time to do it. Other areas tend to be policy coordination shops, and again, in huge departments, they are brutal. That’s where I wasted 18 months trying to do an IPF nobody wanted, and I won’t go back there. It is also where there is a LOT of work going on to do spin around mandate trackers, ministerial commitments, etc. Lots of spin, very little time for actual substance. And again, a LOT of coordination. None of it excites me, even though I have someone in my advisory camp who thinks I should do it because a lot of people aren’t good at it, she thinks I am (and she has very high standards), and I can write fast as well.
A small digression about a skill I have, one that freaks out my current team quite often. We do notes for the ADMs attending Executive Committees, and like most departments, the documents frequently arrive the day before, if we’re lucky. Sometimes late the day before. So, from time to time, we have received all the docs at 4:00 and the meeting is the next morning at 9:00. Perhaps 5 or 6 presentations or reports, all for discussion and approval, and we have perhaps an hour to craft a note. For me, that’s no problem. I am a very fast reader, I have a huge spectrum of knowledge on a lot of different areas in the Branch and Department, and I can pull out the important parts from the decks very quickly. So, from time to time, when the docs are late, I pitch in and send the lead officer my notes/summaries of a few key decks. Sometimes I can read and write the input for the note faster than the lead person can format and put them in the final note, so I’m opening, reading, writing and sending, and they’re copying, pasting and formatting…5 decks in 30 minutes, note ready to go.
Back when I was in strategic policy, we often got asked to “pitch-in” on Cabinet notes…basically they were Cabinet memos, perhaps 20 or 30 pages, that were going to Cabinet the next day or so, and we had to have a short note to the Minister to say “Here’s what the memo is about, here’s what we care about, etc.” Many of them are not particularly relevant to our department, but the Minister still sits on the committees and needs a summary note. For me, a thick memo probably took me about an hour to have a proper note done. Which I would then send to the Manager in charge, she would review, make no changes, pass to the Director, who would also rarely make changes, and the note would make its way onward to the Minister’s office. No muss, no fuss. Give it to Paul, he’ll give us back something camera-ready or pretty close to it.
It’s a good skill to have, and I can do lots of things like that on the policy side. Quick policy coordination to draft up a reasonable memo, get it ready to go, consult, etc. I write fast, and I have decent content on the first go. Which is why my advisor thinks I should do it because I’m “really good at it.” There’s only one problem.
I hate it.
Okay, hate is probably a bit strong, but I’m bored doing it. I just don’t enjoy it. And while there is a huge pool of people who WANT to do that type of work, and accepting her argument that there are very few who are actually good at it, there are still people available. On the corporate system’s front, the pool willing to do that type of work is pretty small. And ones who are actually really good at it are probably about the same ratio as what she thinks for policy. So, while most don’t think the stakes are as high, I think they’re even higher on the corporate side. Because badly done corporate stuff gets in the way of even the best policy work.
So while I’m really good at the notes, and the policy coordination function, I don’t want it as my day job. I’ll do it as part of my job, but not the whole job. I met with someone last week, great looking job. Three main files, as the Director described it, with one file that had strong links to some work I did at DFAIT and CIDA. Good work, I enjoy it, but often highly responsive and cyclical. The second is an emerging area, could be quite interesting. Yet no meat on the bones yet, and won’t be for another six months at least. Which leaves the third file, which includes notes for the Minister for THREE separate Cabinet committees. I know what that looks like. Combined with mandate trackers, broad-based government Charters, etc.? It’s a nightmare job with almost full-time responsive coordination. I might be wrong, but I’ll ask the Director for clarification if I’m offered the job. There’s an easy out for it though, so I might just gently pass.
Once you move past “strategic policy”, you move into program policy. To me, this is where it gets interesting. At this point, the sectoral specialists are tied much tighter to actual program design and instrument choice. THAT I don’t mind digging into more. It’s one of the reasons even on the corporate side that I was willing to do it — I get to see the interplay between policy and programs, the perfect level for me. Within my own branch, there are approximately 19 programs, depending on how you count them. Of the 19, 1 would be interested in 1 out of 3 benefit programs, 0 out of 4 P/T transfers, 1 out of 3 operating programs, and probably only 2 out of 9 G&Cs programs. Call it 4 in total. The 2 Gs&Cs are out because my wife works on one, and the other has too much annual churn. The 1 operating program could be interesting, but if I’m avoiding churn, that is NOT the place to go. At least, not on the policy side. Which leaves 1 benefit program. I had ruled it out for some time, but I’m pursuing some new conversations. Might not lead anywhere, but worth a conversation.
In the rest of the Branch, there are multiple horizontal files. One area, already mentioned, that I would have taken in a heartbeat — HR, IT, accommodations…doesn’t sound very exciting, does it? But I wanted to try and fully integrate it with the planning and finance function. Now THAT would have been awesome. But it was not to be. Another is the program policy function across the Branch, where my advisor works. And I think I would rather poke my eye out with hot firesticks than do that type of job for any length of time. She finds ways to cram substance into the short periods of time she gets to touch a file, but that’s not me. And a lot of those shops frequently get saddled with the horizontal policy coordination function that I mentioned earlier. Lots of requests, lots of spin, very little time. Very intense, and she loves it. I, however, do not. It’s just not a buzz for me.
Which leaves FPT relations, which in a different world, I would say no to (such as in Strategic Policy). But in a program branch? It has some interesting elements, not unlike the institutional relations work I did at CIDA that I quite enjoyed. Unfortunately, like the departments I don’t like that I listed above, I’m not sure I would be equally interested in all provinces. Some, quite frankly, I would have little interest in. Like my interest at CIDA in specific types of countries, i.e. small island developing states who were vulnerable, I think some provinces can manage their own affairs so the conversation isn’t very productive, vs. a few others who really need help and want to collaborate.
Once you move past program policy, and into service delivery, there are two sub-areas in my view … operations policy and actual service delivery i.e. transactions. I have already said in previous posts that I have virtually NO interest in transactional work. I just don’t. It’s good work, lots of people like it, but I kind of view it like policy — there are people who want to do that who are better than me, but not as many who want to do the type of work I like to do who would be better than me.
Which leaves the operations policy — moving from policy and program design, and instrument choice, into the actual operations work that guides the delivery people. I don’t want to do the actual delivery, but working on training, manuals, etc.? That’s doable. A value-added service. I don’t know if I would want to do it forever, but the right environment could be good. Which I had thought I had found a while ago with someone I work really well with, but the offer proved a lot softer than I was expecting. I actually don’t even know where it stands at this point.
Beyond the delivery arm, there are of course audits and evaluations (the feedback mechanism), but I have little interest in doing those as a non-auditor and non-evaluator. Good work, but it is almost all coordination. All substance is provided by others. Which leaves enabling services.
For HR, there is a fear that familiarity may breed contempt, and doing something that I feel passionately about might just be enough to kill me when I see what they have to settle for in terms of operations. I took a stab at one area, but as I mentioned earlier, they were covered. Another area was offered to me three years ago, but the timing was terrible, and I said no. While I don’t regret the answer, as it was the right one for the time, I regret I don’t have the same offer now.
I reached out to some of my contacts in the Finance Branch, but while I do work with a lot of them on big projects, and we work well together, the sad reality is that most of their really good work is done by FI officers i.e. those with accounting and finance degrees. That’s how they’re staffed. Not unlike HR being staffed with PEs. I tried hitting up their branch services unit, i.e. the people who coordinate them for input into reports and things. Kind of the same job I’m doing now but didn’t get any take-up.
I have a meeting coming up with someone on the IT side. Like HR, I have views, but I might be able to sublimate some of them. There’s one big project, in particular, that is coming, and I’d love to work on it, but I have no idea yet how it is resourced, if at all. If done right, it could have a huge impact on the department; if done wrong, it could bog us down back to the dark ages. I speak enough tech to work with them, but more importantly, I speak policy, program, delivery, and corporate too. Like the HR one though, I have a feeling they’re already staffed up. But I’ll have the conversation anyway, maybe that or something else will shake loose. I at least know the DG likes me somewhat.
There is another area in the department, and I was a bit excited about the possibility, and I reached out to the person I knew there. No response. She’s hinted at me coming to work there before, but to be honest, she isn’t the only one who has pursued me in the past only to now be playing hard to get or seeming uninterested.
I’m branching out to other Departments, and I’m open to conversations even if they don’t lead to anything. Partly as I’m feeling a bit vulnerable and insecure about my abilities at the moment. I’ll talk more about this in a subsequent post, but there has been little take-up on my interest and availability so far.
What does this all mean? It means that I have a hierarchy of types of work that I would do, and I would like to be as progressively higher on that chain as possible.
#02. Progressive alignment — Tier one over tiers two through five, noting that I’m in Tier Three currently (*).
Branch management (enabling services) Program policy (benefits) IT policy and projects
Up until now, the top ten list has likely seemed rather generic. Fuzzy features around jobs, not elements you could “target” or “search” for in a formal job board for example. The next two though are pretty clear.
I want to be a manager.
You might be thinking, “Wait, isn’t he already a manager?” Yes, I am, and I want to remain one. I like managing people. I am comfortable in expanding my “reach” through delegation. Obviously, sure, I can get more done if I have minions. 🙂 But I also really like two other aspects.
First and foremost, the management layer helps me to ensure that I stay “strategic” (item #07 on my list). Managing lets me exercise the judgement function that I like, combined with ensuring a broad direction and vision for my team. I always want my team to know where we’re going, why we’re going there, and some of the place markers on the road to get there. They can plan the route in some cases, and the mode of transport, so to speak, but we all know the destination and general approach to the journey.
Second, I like seeing employees develop. I like helping them too, and I’m supportive, but I really like giving them opportunities and seeing them flourish. I also like spotting talent, recruiting it, and letting it gallop off in a good direction for the team. Harnessing them in a way, without trying to constrain them too much. It is part of the reason that I am so supportive of co-op positions, even though I haven’t had any lately (just too light on suitable workplan options). I’ve invested time and energy in post-secondary recruitment, I helped organize an event on recruitment and retention. I even like doing PAs to see what they have done in the past year and where they want to go in the next. I can’t talk about specific examples, that info is under HR privilege, but I love hearing what they’re doing now and where they’re going.
I have mentioned one example previously, so I’ll expand a bit on it. One of my co-op students raved about me to her future mother-in-law, and as much as that raving benefited me, it was also gratifying to see. That during her time with me, a single semester, she learned a lot, saw a future in the public service, developed some skills, and wanted to come back. Which she attributed to working with me. In short, a “good” experience. And lots of people have said they want to work for me, particularly if I become an EX.
Which I’m agnostic about. While I like management, I also like getting my hands dirty sometimes in the files. Right now, I report to a DG, and some see that as the worst scenario — all the responsibilities of being a director without any of the perks. However, for me, it is all the benefits of flying solo without any of the costs of being a director. I am not doing an EX job, I know that, even if some other people think I am. And it’s inspiring to see that some people at multiple levels think I should be an EX or that I’m EX-ready now.
Yet there is another thread in government. Many experienced executives say the best two jobs in government are either EX-2/3 (i.e. a Director-General) or EX minus 1 (pre-executive, i.e. my current level). One huge disadvantage of being an EX-01 is that you are accountable for a lot — the workhorses of the EX cadre. And with lots of non-EX reports to manage. If you are an EC-07, like me, you usually have a Director above you — someone who is accountable for all the work of the division. Sure, you have responsibilities too, but ultimately, it’s on them, not you.
So many EXs say that unless you are planning to go to EX 2 or 3 level, there is no point in becoming an EX as the pay increase above an EC-07 isn’t significant enough to warrant the extra headaches. There certainly are a lot of EX-01s around that put in a lot more hours than I am as an EC-07 and who run into work/life balance challenges pretty fast. There is also a popular refrain that “You can’t choose your first EX-01” and that is a huge problem for me.
Because I’m not about the level. I don’t care if I ever get promoted again. I am all about the work. I want to manage people, but I don’t need to be an EX to do that. I feel like I’m adopting the William Lyon Mackenzie King approach to career management — “Not necessarily promotion but promotion if necessary”.
I am not blocking myself from an EX job, but it has to be about the job. I won’t take an EX job just to take an EX, I have to want the job. I’m also opposed to people applying for jobs just to make a pool, even though they don’t want the job itself. I think that just mucks up the HR system and bogs it down. I encourage others to do it, of course, but I am against it in principle and thus rarely apply because I don’t see jobs I actually want.
Which I confess recently burned me. There is a job I really wanted, and I missed it for two reasons. First, my french was expired, despite a year of pushing to get the refresh training I needed. Second, it was an EX job and I wasn’t in any EX pols. They went with someone else who wants their EX and who was fully bilingual. An easier fit, too, for them than for me. I would have made the same decision if I was the DG. It still means that the specific job I wanted, in that case, was an EX. If I want something like that in the future, I’ll have to make a pool.
Yet when I say management, I don’t mean I have to be a director. I just have to have some staff to help develop.
#03. Management — Not about level of position, but scope and seeing employees develop.