Developing public service leaders

Ottawa’s leadership program screens out power-seekers, gives stretch assignments and cultivates peer support
By Uyen Vu
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/27/2005

Around the time that Daniel Watson found out about a federal leadership training program, he was seriously contemplating leaving his job. A number of job offers were in front of him, including one that was so compelling it left him torn about whether to stay or go.

Someone told him about the Accelerated Executive Development Program (AEXDP), run jointly by the Public Service Human Resources Management Agency of Canada and the Canada School of Public Service, the management training centre for federal civil servants formerly known as the Canadian Centre for Management Development.

As Watson went through the application process and found out more about the program, his decision became clear.

“And even before I had my (acceptance), I said, ‘You know what: I’m going to stay with the federal government. I don’t care if I get into the program. The very fact that they take executive development this seriously, that’s an organization I want to be part of,’” said Watson from Saskatoon, where he’s now assistant deputy minister at Western Economic Diversification Canada.

It’s the response hoped for when the AEXDP came into being in 1997. At the time, the federal public service was facing an impending leadership gap. Not only was the bureaucracy faced with losing a generation of leaders when the wave of baby boomers hit retirement age, but years of budget cuts would mean that the next generation has fewer job transfers and promotion opportunities to cut their teeth as leaders.

Ed DiZazzo, executive director of Senior Leaders Learning and Development Program at the Canada School of Public Service, said the original intent of the program was to “identify people who could very quickly — over the course of four or five years — get broadened to the point of being able to fit into any number of vacant positions in the future, at the assistant deputy minister level.”

The program brought together several different elements of leadership development, including stretch assignments, access to a coach and a learning advisor, group learning sessions, small action learning groups led by a trained facilitator, as well as a personalized learning plan. Since 1997, the program has had 719 applicants and 75 graduates; 61 are going through the program now.

“We scoured the world for best practices in order to create one that would work and has the most effective pieces out there. We stole from the best and invented the rest,” said DiZazzo. He added that the National School of Government in the United Kingdom has a Leadership Development Program with elements common to AEXDP.

For Watson, as for a number of people who’ve been through the program, the most valuable element is the action learning group. Comprised of about six AEXDP participants, the small group meets for a day every six to eight weeks to discuss and exchange ideas on specific challenges the individuals encounter in their assignments. Guided by a facilitator, each participant has the floor for an hour to present current difficulties, hear probing questions from peers and devise ways to handle the challenges.

“It was a place where you could be honest about your failures, your shortcomings, your successes, with people you grew to trust implicitly over time and who offered insights into you and the way you approach things,” said Watson.

“Not only did they make the trip better, they actually changed the nature of trip as it went on. That’s because in the discussions we had, they helped you see things that you wouldn’t have seen — about the situation you were in and sometimes about yourself.”

What helped ensure the program’s success for him, said Watson, was the way it drew people motivated by the desire to be better public servants.

“If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s keeners,” Watson remembered thinking at one point. “And if this is about sitting with a group of folks doing whatever motions necessary to get to a particular spot in the hierarchy, I’ve no interest in it.”

As it turned out, Watson said, the bulk of the people he worked with simply wanted to be better at what they do, “and if a promotion came their way, great. But that was not the driving force.”

The difference with this program is what Watson described as “the most involved selection process that I’ve been through.”

It included a self-report in which candidates discuss their motivation for joining the program, a thorough 360-degree reference check with about nine of the candidates’ peers, superiors and reports, a review of candidates’ two previous performance assessments, as well as interviews with a panel comprised of a deputy minister and an associate deputy minister. The process takes about nine months to complete.

“Part of the process was designed to make the candidate really think, ‘Why do you really want to do this?’ And if the answer is, ‘I want to be deputy minister,’ that gets really hollow really quickly,” said Watson. “And when they go ask 10 of your colleagues, ‘What drives this person?’ they’re going to find the ones where it’s all about them.”

At the core of the program are the stretch assignments designed to parachute learners into unfamiliar areas of the federal public service.

Responsible for the selection, the job placement and the promotion of participants is Pat Morrow, a director general at the Public Service Human Resources Management Agency of Canada. She said that every three months, she sends out a list describing the participants and their skills and background to more than 300 senior-level people.

The assignments are real classified jobs that need filling, not make-work projects. “A lot of it is about building on success. If a manager has a successful participant once, that person will call us back like a repeat client.”

To make sure participants get to “stretch,” said DiZazzo, the program organizers avoid placing participants into situations where they’ve had experience. “It’s almost the reverse of optimal staffing.”

Prior to joining the program, Richard Tobin had spent 20 years in a science-based role in Health Canada, most recently as director of the department’s medical devices bureau. He fully expected to spend the rest of his career in the science field, and even as he wrote his acceptance letter to the program, he suggested there be a science sub-group for participants with similar backgrounds.

“I didn’t really see the possibility that my world could be expanded way beyond that,” said Tobin, now assistant deputy minister in the corporate management sector of Natural Resources Canada.

Once part of the program, Tobin did a stint at the Treasury Board Secretariat where he learned about government finances. This was followed by a two-year post at the director-general level at Corrections Services Canada, where Tobin was in charge of dealing with inmates who had grievances with the system.

The latter, especially, was certainly a sink-or-swim experience. Part of the credit goes to the support of the assistant commissioner, “who just had confidence that I could do the job and encouraged me and mentored me,” said Tobin.

“And I really blossomed there in the sense of making tough decisions that affected people’s lives. I really learned a lot there about restorative justice, and dealing with difficult people and difficult situations.”

More importantly, Tobin discovered that he could succeed and deliver excellent performance in drastically diverse roles. “This program allowed me to get out into the world to see different types of work that I could do, to gain further confidence and competence in a whole lot of areas.”

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