Monday, November 17, 2008

In Hindsight: A Conscious Choice with Moral Overtones

"Your management is perfectly designed to produce the results that you’re currently experiencing."
- Mike Chitty

In lieu of a conclusion to the conclusion, here's a story that could well have been used as a prologue to "An Inconvenient Renewal". It is my story, and I hope it will help you: 1) put the paper in context; 2) understand why I feel so strongly about these ideas, and; 3) realize that the ideas are more down-to-earth than what many would like to believe.

I was a manager in the private sector for a few years before joining the public service. It was during some very exciting but challenging times (i.e. the Internet bubble). On my very first project, I had 20 staff, a 3 million dollars budget, cutting-edge technology, and insane deadlines to meet. In my first six months on the job, I probably made all the mistakes a manager could possibly make in an entire career, but I learned tremendously and soon developed a good reputation as a manager. I joined the public service expecting to follow a similar path (i.e. steep learning curve, quick career progression, more challenge than I could ever dream of, etc.), but unfortunately I ended up in what looked more like a cul-de-sac!

My first two years in the public service were characterized by great relationships with my supervisors and terrific colleagues, but there was one small problem: I wasn't used at half of my potential. Actually, if scientists claim we use 10% of our brain, I can probably say that I was using 10% of my talent. I felt I was being held back by the organizational culture. It seemed that in order to "fit in", I had to suppress so much of who I was and what I could become. The pressure to conform with the implicit norms of the organization (i.e. the culture) was beginning to have a toxic effect on my health. I was miserable because I couldn't be true to myself. I knew I had to escape the situation so I was actively looking for work outside the public service.

It was therefore with a “nothing to lose” attitude that I responded to one of the strangest job poster I had ever seen. It was extremely short and it said: “I’m looking for my alter ego" (I'm not making this up, this was the actual quote from the job poster!). I met with the manager and accepted the job based solely on a gut feeling I had about her. As it turned out, she did things very differently than any other manager I had ever encountered.

On my first day on the job, she told me: “At the present time I have no specific work for you, no projects, no files. In fact, for the first three months of your assignment, I don’t expect you to do any work. But I will drag you to all of my meetings, and you will follow all my direct reports to all of their meetings, and in three months from now, you will know pretty much everything there is to know about this unit and what we do. Along the way will come a project. I don’t know what that will be yet, but I will expect you to take it and deliver on it. In the meantime, sit back and learn as much as you can.” For the next three months almost all I did was attend meetings and read my manager's emails. Sure enough, a project eventually landed on my desk. Although I was by far the most junior person on the team and had no credentials in my résumé to do this project, my manager put her trust in me and I was confident I could do it. And I did.

One morning I asked her for feedback about my performance and how I could improve. She explained: “Etienne, you are in a development program, and therefore you are expected to develop. You have a job to do and a project to deliver, and that's fine. But you need more. When your regular work is done, I expect you to use the remainder of your 7,5 hours day to explore what’s out there, learn about the public service and what it has to offer, discover something that interest you and immerse yourself in it. It can be anything. But I expect you to do that, and I am willing to help you if you need it.”

I therefore became actively involved in communities of practice (managers’ network at the departmental, regional and national level) and young public servants networks. I even developed some sort of "expertise" on the topic and I seized all the opportunities I could to show some leadership. I was “in the zone” and it showed through my performance. I was more focused than ever in my “regular” job, because I knew that around three or four o’clock, I would get to work on the pet projects that fueled me. I totally poured my soul into this assignment.

I eventually discovered that for a large portion of her career, my manager had made a point of surrounding herself with people in development programs and people who came in her unit on assignments. In an institution that struggles to retain talent, this manager did just the opposite with her unit: she would give herself one year to bring the new employee up to the next level and get him or her ready to leave for the next assignment, the next promotion, the next job. What she did for me, she probably did for dozens of people before.

But what she did with me can't be overstated. I was just about to become a statistic: I was so disengaged, so fed up with my career progression in the public service, that I was ready to leave. Fast-forward a year later, and I was the most committed public servant you could come across. Working for this manager was a transforming experience, a turning point in my career (and by extension, in my personal life too). She got me back on the hook just before it was too late. More importantly, she tapped in my potential, pushed me to make the best use of my talent. She gave me a taste of what it was like to be unleashed rather than held back. Ultimately, she proved to me that I was right to think I could make a difference.

The whole episode taught me what being a good manager was all about. And the best thing of all: this living example came from a public service manager!

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