Lots of people in the public service want to be an assistant deputy minister someday. Few are chosen, and there’s no single path to land that corner office. If you aspire to be an ADM, here are some tips we think are important, no matter which route is taken.
Should you focus your expertise in one department, or move around from one department to another? Everyone agrees it’s ideal to have a stint in a policy job, a central agency, a corporate role, and in program delivery. Ideal, but not usually practical. What is important is to get out of your comfort zone, whether that means moving from one department to another or changing roles within a department. That will broaden your perspective and help you avoid being “narrow.”
Be prepared to work hard. You have to master and stay on top of your files. ADMs generally work at least 60 hours during the week, and put in more time on weekends getting caught up. ADMs are pretty well always contactable via BlackBerry. Operating at this level requires unrelenting ambition and energy, and can exact steep prices in family time, health and personal interests. That level of commitment, and the sacrifice that goes with it, is not for everyone.
Work-life balance is important. Despite the 24/7 demands, it’s essential to have a personal life – family, friends, community, hobbies. It will keep you grounded. Besides, if you’re all work and no play, you may be viewed as one-dimensional and boring by the very people you’re trying to impress.
Related to the balance issue is the need to be strategic in your timing when planning or considering your next promotion. If you’re dealing with serious personal challenges – a child or an elderly parent needing a lot of attention or perhaps your own health issues – this is probably not the time to take on more responsibility. Don’t position yourself for failure.
Build a network of external and internal contacts – mentors, supervisors, colleagues – that can help you broaden your perspective, your network and exposure, and your skill set. Volunteer to be on teams, task forces and interdepartmental committees. Serve as departmental champion for horizontal and government-wide initiatives.
Life-long learning is essential. Put together a plan to develop your leadership skills, focusing on qualification standards such as the federal government’s ADM Key Leadership Competencies. Your plan should draw on training, reading, exposure and other developmental opportunities. The world is changing at a mind-boggling pace. As a leader, you need to keep up. For example, embrace social media or be left behind. In the words of Charles Darwin, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”
Be a good people manager and a team player. Being an ADM is not just about being smart. In government, a big part of an executive’s reputation is based on how he/she deals with people. We can all point to a few ADMs who are not good people managers or team players, but do you really want that image? Look for the best in everyone. You never know what stresses and challenges someone might be facing in his/her life outside the office, so don’t diss your supervisor, your colleagues or your staff. Focus on their strengths rather than their shortcomings. This will keep you positive, and help brand you as a leader. Find time to manage by walking around. See the organization from the eyes of all employees. As Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.”
In the federal government, fluency in both official languages is a huge asset. There are examples of ADMs not having strong bilingual skills, but all of them would admit that their weakness in the other language is a constraint. And understanding the other culture is just as important as language fluency, especially in program design and delivery.
Finally, think carefully about the image and the reputation you want for yourself and how to project and protect that. Your reputation is your most valuable asset. You need to manage it carefully. If you’re labeled “a screamer,” “incompetent,” “unethical” or “not a team player,” it can stick for a long time, no matter how hard you try to re-invent yourself. If you want to project the image of “ADM material,” you need to walk the talk.
Mary Zamparo is a management consultant and retired ADM. Marc Quesnel is president of QMR, an Ottawa-based provider of consultants and professional staff (www.qmrconsulting.com).