In times of change, middle managers make the difference. Sandwiched between the executive cadre and the staff, middle managers are responsible for ensuring that public sector organizations continue to function well in times of transformation. CGE asked three middle managers from across Canada about the job. Darla McFarlane is the regional manager, Learning Programs, Prairie & NWT Region in Winnipeg for the Canada School of Public Service. Ann-Margret White is the superintendent of Maritime Search and Rescue for the Canadian Coast Guard Atlantic Region. And Samuel Oboh leads a team of professional and technical experts as regional manager of the Architecture and Engineering Centre of Expertise, PWGSC Western Region.
As a middle manager in the government, what keeps you awake at night?
Darla McFarlane: Given my nature, you are more likely to find me fine-tuning a good idea than stewing over a problem. I have a lot of enthusiasm for my job and find it difficult to shut this off sometimes, especially when work is going really well.
As regional manager at the Canada School of Public Service, I am responsible for overseeing the direct delivery of the School’s learning programs and services in the Prairie and Northwest Territories Region. Client service is one of my main priorities. I learned early on that it can be difficult to stay on top of the ever-changing needs of departments and learners alike, but it is something I strive for every day. I enjoy using my creativity to continually improve our business processes and develop new products and services to ensure we meet the needs of our clients.
Ann-Margret White: I believe strongly in promoting a healthy work-life balance for members of our work unit. The work that each employee in my program performs is very demanding and requires a unique level of dedication and commitment. But this commitment needs to be balanced with one’s own personal priorities and, finding that balance takes practice. Certainly, we all need time to recharge and renew and this can present even greater challenges in a 24/7 environment like Maritime Search and Rescue.
As an organization, I believe we have hired people with the right competencies and skills; we support them with the right training and tools to do their jobs at the highest level. This provides the organization
with a greater overall confidence to deliver on our mandate for the safety of life at sea.
Our success is due, in large part, to a supportive work environment where staff is always willing to train others, lend their expertise or share their own experiences. This creates a team where on-duty means a focused team-based approach that delivers one of the best maritime search and rescue programs in the world, in some of the world’s toughest ocean conditions. To answer the question, when I am at home, I am with my family and “present.” The 24/7 operational work continues because we have highly qualified, well trained employees who are equipped to make the right decisions.
Samuel Oboh: Although I love getting a good night’s sleep, I must confess that as an architect I don’t mind staying awake to design and think about how best to implement simple but groundbreaking ideas and solutions to help our geographically dispersed and diverse team deliver high quality service in a consistent fashion to clients. Undeniably, I have a strong trepidation and zero-tolerance for mediocrity. As such, anything that does not have the semblance of a genuine quest for excellence, or doesn’t harbour the ability and passion to consistently perform our responsibilities to the highest professional standard, will definitely keep me awake.
What is the greatest challenge facing the management cadre in the government today?
White: During this period of change, it is valuable for managers in every government organization to acknowledge and recognize that each employee reacts and adapts differently to change. Of significant importance is management’s commitment to create a supportive environment where employees are afforded the flexibility to make this adjustment, without compromising overall organizational responsibilities. In support of creating an environment of change, we must also manage expectations by clearly and consistently communicating about the organizational change to employees, clients and partners. Effective communication will create an open, productive, two-way dialogue. This level of communication takes time and effort yet will not only be beneficial in a time of transition, but will help build a respectful and supportive workplace in the long-term, well past the end of the transition period.
Oboh: Despite being relatively new to the public service, it did not take a long time for me to notice the rapid pace of change occurring in our region. As a result, it is easy to deduce that a changing workforce, changing environment, depletion of the pool of experienced and skillful resources, dwindling budgets and increased expectation to do more with less are some of the challenges facing the management cadre today. While these challenges embody the contemporary realities confronting public service managers, they do not always represent the complete picture. I have come to appreciate the fact that Canada’s public service is home to some of the most resourceful and dedicated employees in the Canadian workforce. Notwithstanding this, apathy – fueled by the feeling of unpredictability in the working environment – can still rear its ugly head among all cadres of employees. Thankfully, apathy can be avoidable, but we have to be on guard against it because of the serious impacts it can have on productivity, creativity and our ability to provide best value to Canadian taxpayers.
McFarlane: To maintain operational effectiveness, middle managers must often tailor the tools and resources available to them to accomplish their work in the best way possible. In our current environment – as all departments strive to increase organizational performance while seeking efficiencies – this challenge is greater than ever.
As a regional manager, I am located at a distance from the executive management team and our corporate services such as human resources, labour relations and finance. At times, I seem to have little influence on decisions even when they impact our day-to-day operations significantly. However, I accept that making linkages with these groups is a large part of my role as a middle manager. I do my best to stay informed and to bridge the gap, real or imagined, between corporate and regional priorities. I also draw a great deal of support from the National Managers’ Community, which offers essential learning and networking opportunities, and from the wisdom and experience of my regional colleagues. When all is said and done, the rewards of being a middle manager far outweigh the challenges.
What gives you the greatest satisfaction in your job?
Oboh: Being part of a resourceful team of inspired professionals gives me the greatest satisfaction that I can ever wish for in my job. Without a doubt, I am exceedingly fortunate to be working with some of the greatest minds in the architecture and engineering profession in North America. Even more gratifying is the fact that these brilliant professionals call the Architecture and Engineering Centre of Expertise and Professional and Technical Service in PWGSC Western Region their professional home. It’s great to be part of a team that is committed to continually raising the bar of excellence, promoting the use of new and sustainable practices as well as the use of innovative tools and technology (such as BIM [Building Information Modeling] and SharePoint). It is this culture of excellence that gives me a great deal of satisfaction. I am delighted to be part of a branch with a very supportive and forward-looking executive management team like we have in PWGSC Western Region.
McFarlane: I reap an enormous amount of satisfaction from meeting the needs of our clients. I began my career as a high school teacher because I wanted to be of service to others and my community. Although I have since changed careers, I still have a similar desire to do something meaningful. As a result, I am happiest when I am challenged to provide a creative response to a client’s need and successfully lead my team to meet this challenge.
Another aspect of my role that I find particularly rewarding is leading others. I am fortunate to work with a team of learning and administrative professionals who are extremely motivated and who share my commitment to client service. As a middle manager, I consider myself very lucky to have the opportunity to contribute to the professional growth of others, and I am keenly aware of the impact that my behaviours as a manager can have on the health of my team and my workplace. I genuinely want people to enjoy coming into the office every day, and I try to use my influence to build a supportive and positive workplace for all of us.
White: My greatest satisfaction is seeing every day the power of the collective effort of a dedicated team of professionals. Beyond our own Maritime Search and Rescue team, the Canadian Coast Guard actively partners with National Defence, the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary, the RCMP, Civil Air Search and Rescue Association, ground search and rescue and numerous other agencies, both government and volunteer. To witness everyday what can be achieved with everyone committed to the same goal is very rewarding. It is a network of professionals who continuously seek ways to improve, share ideas and collectively and collaboratively deliver on the government’s priority for the safety of life at sea. It is my greatest satisfaction, and truly a privilege, to be a part of this dynamic group.