As the face of the Association of Professional Executives of the Public Service of Canada (APEX), Michel G. Vermette’s role is to be the spokesperson in advocating on behalf of the community and in engaging executives, to ensure that there is an open discussion about the needs of the community.
Since its creation in 1984, APEX has represented the executives of the public sector in Canada, a group that is comprised of just over 6,000 today. The association focusses on developing a strong community of practice, promoting the physical and mental health of executives, and supporting executive leadership excellence.
The association achieves this through different activities during the year, like its annual Symposium, the single largest learning event for federal executives. Recent guest speakers at their different events included the Chief Commissioner from the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the Auditor General. “The theme is simple – what does the executive community need to know about the speakers,” Vermette said. “It’s not a training session, it is a conversation between speakers and the executive community so that they understand their roles and their journeys in bringing them to where they are.”
A third of the senior public sector executives in Canada are active members of APEX but the services provided by the association is not limited to its membership. Vermette said that APEX interacts with the community as a whole and that non-members also have an interest in what they do. One of the things that has been very useful for executives is the APEX advisory service. Questions relating to terms of employment, direction on career, retirement, how to manage performance agreement or getting some advice about something as complex as being under investigation under the Integrity Act, are all handled by the association in a confidential manner. For the past few years, there have been about 300 such confidential cases each year.
The association is managed by a small team of about a dozen people which is comprised of employees of the association and others on inter-change from within the public sector, like Vermette, who was the Deputy Commissioner, Vessel Procurement in the Canadian Coast Guard, Department of Fisheries and Oceans before being appointed to his current post as the CEO of APEX. Due to the limited size of the team, APEX tries to crowd source answers from its members about certain issues by asking questions that they don’t have the experience or resources to handle. Furthermore, APEX maintains a close interaction with the Office of the Chief Human Resources Officer, the Treasury Board, and with executives within human resources groups across the public service so as to serve its community.
“Public service executives are prevented from unionizing. Under the Public Service Staff Relation Act, executives are excluded from collective bargaining so they don’t have an organization that they can turn to that can represent them like a union would,” Vermette said. “We cannot represent them as a union would but we simply try to provide advice to them based on our collective community.” But as is the case quite often, not everyone is comfortable about posing questions about their particular situation, consequently, APEX has created factsheets based on questions collected from executives that are distributed within the entire community.
Vermette’s role as CEO is to steer the ship of APEX in ensuring the three key priorities of the organization are on course in meeting its strategic plans. One such priority is to promote the physical and mental health of executives. This is done primarily through its health surveys. Every five years since 1997, APEX has been conducting surveys on the health and wellbeing of executives to bring to the forefront the issues that are being faced in the workplace in order to engage in improving individual health outcomes and maximizing organizational performance.
Vermette said that one of the things that they wanted to do is to contribute positively to the conversation about how to create a respectful workplace. A discussion paper issued a few years ago by APEX on civility, is an example of how the organization is working to arrive at this outcome.
Since that time, the paper has gathered a great deal of traction in the public service by providing guidance and building the business case for a civil workplace through simple ideas such as just sitting down with team members and having a conversation about how to treat each other in the workplace. Even though it is not an elaborate concept it has made some inroads in initiating the conversation about creating that respectful climate within the public service. “What we’ve done over the years is to take the data from our health surveys and turned it into concrete actions,” Vermette said. “That’s the conversation we are looking forward to in the fall when we will have the findings of our fifth survey.”
The second priority is to provide executives with opportunities to develop a strong community of practice. In this area, the organization helps executives to better understand how to manage expectations, how to become better professionals, making commitments on what you can deliver and what they need to focus on in growing in that small community. In this area, Vermette pointed out that the association engages the membership from the perspective of what they can do for them to make them stronger as a community and the key, according to him is to have “leverage communication tools” including social media to advance this engagement. For example, social media and other online tools are being used as a crowd source tool like in the case at its last Symposium “to get questions from participants rather than to have someone coming up to a microphone.” This approach to gather people’s views on things, allows others to vote on questions for discussion, creating a more democratic participation in sessions.”
The third strategic priority for APEX is to support of executive leadership excellence. This is done through a number of means like using communication tools to engage the community and deputy ministers and then bringing that discussion to the community. Areas of focus have included workload, professional development, talent management, and career aspirations of individuals.
To ensure that the association is relevant, remains a part of the conversation, understands the views of the community and being at the leading edge of what people are thinking, are some of the challenges that Vermette and his team face. But to mitigate these issues, “it’s about staying ahead of things and getting our views known. As with any association, it’s about being attuned to the needs of the membership,” Vermette said. He cited their workshops and annual Symposium which require a great deal of work to produce and manage however a key challenge is getting executives out of their offices to meet with others. All of this helps to build stronger relationships within the community.
APEX held its 2017 Symposium on June 7 and 8 in Ottawa – Celebrating leadership, innovation and diversity. A special component of this event each year is the APEX Awards of Excellence program which highlights management excellence and leadership of federal public service executives. This awards program is open to all current executives in the public service.
This year, APEX received a “record number of nominations. Applications are reviewed by a committee that includes members of Board of Directors of APEX, scored and then the selection is made as per the category. The winners are then celebrated in front of their deputy ministers and community of executives at the annual Symposium each year.
“It’s not about winning a million dollars or a new car, it’s about receiving peer recognition of the Executive community,” Vermette said. “This recognition is huge, having a community of equals come together and say you are the best.”