“To be an effective public servant, the most important skills to develop are to be open, to put yourself out there, and just be honest.”
– Norman Lee


This month’s blog features Norman Lee, who not only encouraged me to apply to government 10 years ago, but also became my first manager. After serving in the public service for 24 years, Norman shares his principles, practices and lessons from the field on how to get innovative things done in government and illustrates what intrapreneurial thinking looks like in the public service.

Here is a snapshot of Norman’s experience and accomplishments:

Norman Lee is an Executive Director at the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations. He has held a wide range of positions in the Economic Development and Natural Resource ministries and has worked closely with federal and municipal government staff, industry associations, non-government organizations and First Nations. Norman began his career in the provincial government after completing his Masters of Business Administration from McGill University. He passionately believes that to have a rewarding career in government, you must believe in the concept of “public service.” Outside the office, he works with a talented team of volunteers who have presented three TEDx Victoria events.

I posed several “guiding questions” to Norman that he addressed with stories, examples and lessons.

Norman’s responses: “I believe in these operating principles:

Principle 1: Fairness and transparency. First of all, let me share what I believe is the role of the public servant. It is to serve the public and, to do that effectively, you serve the people who the public elect and pursue opportunities that offer excellent public value. As for fairness and transparency, this is how I have worked throughout my career. If you are transparent every step of the way when you are leading a project, everyone knows you are being fair. And fairness isn’t about being equal; for me, it’s more about ensuring all options are considered, proper process is followed, and all relevant information is brought forward to make sound decisions.

Principle 2: Operate openly and honestly. You have to build trust with your stakeholders. This is critical in government and it surprises me how some people still don’t undertand the value of operating openly and honestly. You also have to create opportunities to connect, human to human, to find commonalities, outside of your work positions whenever possible.

For example, I was involved with negotiating a resort land-use arrangement with a Chief and we had different perspectives on aspects of the agreement. Understandably so, I was representing government’s interests and he was representing his Nation’s interests. We respected that each of us were going to do our best to hold on to our interests. During a break, I was having a conversation with a colleague about our perspectives on children in foster care based on recent personal experiences. The Chief overheard and joined our conversation because we all shared common concerns about the foster care system and the impact it was having on children. Afterwards, it was as if the environment shifted. We began to see each other as humans – people who had common ground. It made negotiating seem less intense and adversarial. Our rhetoric subsided, even though we still maintained our positions. We were able to see past our positions because of our new connection. We stepped out of work boundaries and stepped into an informal conversation, which in a way gave us permission to engage differently.

Principle 3: Relationship-building and trust. Building trust in your relationships is critical. In order for you to build trust, you need to give trust, because it is a two-way street. Oftentimes, you need to be the one who goes first to help build that trust. Once it is established, you can be open and honest about some of the challenges that may be impacting an opportunity. When this space opens up, you can work collaboratively to address any issue, which given the complexity government faces in land-use decision-making, is key.

To be an effective public servant, the most important skills to develop are to be open, to put yourself out there, and just be honest about a situation. Once you have built trust, you can be in a position to coach people on the best way to address a particular issue. Once your stakeholders, internal or external to government trust your advice, it can lead to tremendous opportunity in the long term. In our world, like it or not, you sometimes have to let a colleague or stakeholder know that, despite a great idea, the timing may not be right to introduce it.

Principle 4: Know what the leaders need. Be clear on the priorities of your Minister and your executive, and frame any change initiative around those priorities. Directly link the work you are doing to key areas of focus for government and clearly demonstrate how an innovative approach will meet government’s needs better than the current approach. Don’t just have a good idea. You better have a sound business case that will attract the interest of your leadership team.”

Norman’s critical success factors for intrapreneurs:

  • “To move a big idea through, in my experience, there has to be an external champion, a stakeholder, who is pushing for the idea, and who has the ability to not only carry it forward, but help implement it on the ground. Having an internal champion or network of champions is just as important. You need both when trying to move a big policy shift through government. Part of the role of the internal champion is to connect the idea of the champion to the key priorities of government and help align the change initiative with government’s needs.The internal champion works closely with the external champion to look for windows of opportunity to introduce and drive that idea with key decision-makers. You are like a team, coaching each other as you move through the process. This is why trust is so important.
  • You have to take your ego out. If you’re too caught up in your ego, you won’t take the necessary, thoughtful risks required to move an opportunity forward. Nothing is about you in government. It’s about the greater good and as soon as you let go of your own needs, you’re able to accomplish a lot more and build long-lasting relationships founded on truth and honesty.
  • Work on initiatives that have a reasonable timeframe – a year is a good amount of time to start with. You always have to try to get things done within the government mandate. When thinking through your change effort, understand that you will likely need one year for approval, two years to get everything implemented, and the final year to line up opportunities for your Minister to promote the success of the initiative.
  • Keep your superiors briefed on what is going on every step of the way to ensure people understand and feel a part of the larger, exciting vision. Taking a “no surprises” approach goes a long way in government. And don’t get frustrated if you get resistance, just keep working hard with your external and internal champions to sharpen the business case for change and look for those windows of opportunity when the timing seems right.”

What are you most proud of in your 24 years as a public servant?

“Attracting and nurturing good people – everything else is transitory – but if you can build good people, and they in turn build good people, your contribution to the Public Service lives on forever.”