In this month’s blog, I’m featuring Linda Beltrano, Executive Director of Oil and Strategic Initiatives, who I had the pleasure of working with when I first joined the public service over a decade ago. Linda led our tourism policy initiatives within the branch team while I worked on sector development. I have to admit that I was a little intimidated by Linda when we were first introduced. Her reputation precedes her not only as a brilliant strategic policy designer and scholar of research methodology and evaluation, but also as an incredibly talented painter and jewellery designer.
Linda’s mantra has always been “let’s get the job done right.” She is a master of institutional entrepreneurship who has successfully moved big initiatives through government by staying laser focused on tackling the problem she is asked to solve. This has led to her being assigned complex files in government to lead as well as some incredible accomplishments.
In addition to having a great mind for policy development, Linda is also a thoughtful, caring and invaluable mentor. She concerns herself with the people around her and is always there when they need her – ready to offer a listening ear and honest advice.
With her over 30 years of experience in the public service, I was honoured to have Linda share her principles, practices and lessons from the field on how to get things done in government. She truly demonstrates what passionate commitment and intrapreneurial thinking can look like when put into action.
Here is a snapshot of Linda’s experience and accomplishments: Currently, Linda is the Executive Director of the Oil and Strategic Initiatives Division in the Ministry of Natural Gas Development. She is responsible for assisting in the development of recommendations related to energy exports and the opening of new export markets.
Linda has held the following positions since 1981:
- Executive Director of Geoscience and Strategic Initiatives
- Director of Program Planning, Policy and Strategic Initiatives for Act Now BC
- Director of Policy and Strategic Initiatives for Ministry of Tourism Sport and Arts
- Director of Corporate Relations and New Forest Opportunities – Linda was a member of the executive team that established and developed, New Forest Opportunities, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Forest Renewal BC, which included the construction of an office on Reserve – a first for BC
- Senior Advisor, Aboriginal Initiatives, Ministry of Small Business, Tourism and Culture
- Development of Small Business Program for Aboriginal Women
- Regional Development Officer and Director Rural Development Branch for Ministry of Economic Development, Small Business and Trade
- Senior Development Officer for the Northern Alberta Development Council, Province of Alberta
- Winner of Green Ideas Shine Award for British Columbia Public Sector Employees
- Nominated by industry for Women in Natural Resources Minerva Award.
I first asked Linda about her approach to problem-solving. This is how she answered…
“You have to dive into the opportunity and look at all the sides of the perceived problem. There are always pros and cons connected to each course of action. You have to first figure out where government wants to move on the problem, and then you need to work within the confines of the system to start moving a particular approach forward.
You also need to know the vision of where you want to go and ask yourself ‘does this opportunity match up with the vision and the mandate I have been given?’ If it doesn’t match up, your approach is not likely to work.”
One of the projects that Linda most enjoyed leading was the BC Resort Task Force. She explained that government recognized the exciting investment opportunities that were available, but didn’t know how to best capitalize on them. Government wanted to examine how long it would take to get resorts approved so they could fully understand the process from start to finish. Prior to this, no one had fully described the entire sequence and timeline. Linda explained…
“To figure this out, our group took this approach:
- We sat down and created a team;
- We identified our needs and what supporting documents we needed to fully understand the process;
- We documented the entire process;
- We laid out a vision of how we could reduce the overburden on resort developers where possible; and
- We identified all the players – we knew we needed all the stakeholders to be a part of achieving this vision and we worked closely with other levels of government, First Nations, and industry developers.”
Linda stressed the point that it’s critical to bring all of the key people into the dialogue about the future at the very beginning of an initiative. Failing to do so can often risk the success of the project.
Instead of focusing on who is part of a particular problem, Linda likes to stay focused on who is part of the opportunity, and she believes that reframing a problem as an opportunity will attract the interest of most people. Linda continued…
“We always tend to look at challenges as problems. Why? If you start talking about these problems as opportunities the light goes on for people. They start to see the benefits and want to be part of the process.”
Linda pointed out that they were also really fortunate to have an enthusiastic Minister of State, who wanted to reduce the burden for all the major stakeholders. She believes that this was key for the team to meet their mandate.
Here is where Linda shared some of the opportunities facing the public service today…
“I am seeing the need more and more for clear information so people can make good decisions about whether or not they want to pursue projects. Today, we have a lot of misinformation and biased opinions floating in the media. Technology has opened up some very powerful and exciting informational doors, but more often than not, there is bias being built in. The role of the public service is to give people accurate and factual information.”
In Linda Beltrano’s words, her approach to building a guiding coalition to help move big opportunities through government involves the following…
- “Start with identifying the right players;
- Seek out and define the opportunity;
- Determine the benefits and how to distribute them to everyone;
- Work with the most accurate information possible – always present the pros and cons (this often involves speaking truth to power);
- Do your research – understand the world you’re trying to change, think through where the resistance might lie, and understand why it might exist;
- Develop a Project Charter and the start to finish Critical Path. This way, if you have to collapse the process, you know where you can do it;
- Understand who you work for and how the bureaucracy works – the various roles of the Assistant Deputy Minister, the Deputy Minister, and the Minister are important to grasp. They can help you reach your goal;
- You need to know the decision-making tree – how government functions;
- Writing is vital – you have to be able to convey your message eloquently. I think this is a problem in today’s public service – we are missing good, effective writers; and
- Diversity in the workplace is key – there are many advantages to maintaining a multi-generational workforce – everyone brings something to the table in terms of experience and problem solving ability.
These approaches are not new, but they are very important because they force you to think through the twists and turns of the change you’re trying to bring into effect. They will prepare you for the constantly changing circumstances in government. They also help you build resiliency into your change efforts so when you meet resistance or come up against barriers; you know how to maneuver through them. This is also where you build out your different scenarios, your plan A, B and C, and helps you avoid getting spooked by surprises.
You never know what lies ahead. We are living in changing times and you need to be able to constantly adapt.”
Here are Linda’s thoughts when it comes to “defining the problem” – she believes that “if you can define the problem …then you don’t have a problem…”
She explains that most problems stem from an inability to effectively articulate what the issue actually is. By clearly defining the problem, you can get to the root cause which is what needs to change.
Linda’s problem defining process starts off by asking these basic questions:
- What is the problem?
- Is that really it?
- If we do x, y and z, will that fix it?
Linda sees the process very much like an infinity loop that you have to keep going back through because if you stop going back to the basic questions, it is very easy to get sidetracked and lose focus.
When asked about how she has dealt with major resistance to a new idea or approach, she had these words of advice…
“Really explore what is causing the resistance. Sometimes resistance is not bad, it can be important because it causes you to go back and ask the important question of ‘is this the right course of action.’ If you are doing something big, then of course there will be resistance. Expect that and be ready for it. Have your different scenarios well-planned for how you are going to shift and move forward.
Some days, I don’t think we are as strategic as we should be. We don’t always look at the depth of the project. I like to look at a problem like it is a rubik’s cube – you have to see the interconnections and all the sides before you determine your best course of action.”
One of Linda’s former Deputies told her that there is always a push-and-pull tension in government when you’re bringing new policy through… and that is okay. It is healthy. This is when you go back through the loop to reflect on the mandate for change.
Linda shared lessons learned throughout her career…
- “Stay calm and carry on;
- You need to believe that in the end something always works out;
- Keeping people informed along your thinking path is critical – have your plan, communicate it well with your Deputy, so in turn they can communicate it well with your Minister;
- Keep an eye on budget and staffing – always!
- Surround yourself with multi-skilled, multi-talented people – never see yourself as the smartest person in the room;
- Always have an open door policy and invite your team to talk about different ways of doing things. Your team needs to be able to give you all the information and feel comfortable and free to bring whatever info they come across. Your job is to analyze all the data and prepare to present the pros and cons;
- Trust your intuition and trust your team;
- Identify actions when making recommendations – this keeps everyone action-focused; and
- The Golden Rule – always remember that people are your most valuable resource.”
I probed Linda about working under the radar when trying to build a new opportunity for government because many of the change agents I work with feel that they have to keep their ideas and approaches under the radar until the timing is right and a window of opportunity appears. She had this to say:
“You need to know when to stay under the radar and when to come up. This can be hard to do in a political environment. It can sometimes come down to a combination of knowing when it’s the right time to bring something forward and being told to come forward with a new, bold idea.
If you’re communicating well, usually the time to come up becomes obvious. If you have done your critical path, you also have a pretty good idea. Sometimes we wait too long to showcase a project and we lose the opportunity. This is why timing is very important.”
When asked about the next generation of public service, Linda’s eyes lit up as she described what it might look like:
“The skill sets are definitely different. Expectations are very high with people coming into the public service today. I think the future is going to be a very exciting time. Some of the minds are incredibly sharp, and people can use technology in so many fascinating ways.
As the next generation of public servants continues to learn and understand how to get things done in government, they are going to become exceptional leaders. The decision-making will be much better because these up-and-coming leaders have a much broader understanding of the triple bottom-line, which inspires me. These are very respectful people who care and are engaged.
The future skills of government will include socially-minded techies, business development experts, economists, and writers. In the future, it will be evermore critical to effectively tell the story around key opportunities.”
Finally, when asked what her legacy will be after a lifetime in the public service, Linda told me this:
“My proudest moments have been when the projects I’ve worked on have taken hold. I have always loved trying to tackle complex problems and figuring out what the core bases of these problems were. I’m grateful for all the diverse files I’ve been able to work on and lead in the public service, and the amazing people I’ve had a chance to work with.
Working in the public service is not about going to work every day and sitting in front of a screen. It’s about doing something and achieving something of value. If you’re not making a real contribution you’re not fulfilling your potential.”
Colleen McCormick is Director of Strategic Issues with the Ministry of Jobs, Tourism, and Skills Training and former Director, Innovative Partnerships where she managed the social innovation file in the Ministry of Social Development. Colleen is also the founder of Social Innovators Network Foundation. Previously, she was a TEDxMileZero organizer and National Chair of the New Professionals for the Institute of Public Administration of Canada. She has an MBA from RRU and a Graduate Diploma in Social Innovation from the University of Waterloo. You can contact her on Twitter @SInnovatorsNet.