Each year, the Association of Professional Executives of the Public Service of Canada (APEX) puts on the premier learning event for federal government executives. The theme of this year’s APEX Symposium is Transformational Leadership: Challenge, Creativity and Vision. Yaprak Baltacioglu of the Treasury Board and Serge Dupont of Natural Resources Canada agreed to be the symposium’s deputy minister leaders. Editor-in-Chief Toby Fyfe began by asking them why they felt it was important to give up their time.
Yaprak Baltacioglu: For me, it’s a personal choice because I truly believe that the EX category in the government can make the government a better place. It can also manage not to make it a great place. So any opportunity to reach out to a broad group of our managers and do it in a way that’s structured, with an opportunity to learn, is a wonderful thing. And in that context, for me, it’s also important for the participants to know that the senior leadership, the deputy ministers, do care about these events and that they are willing to take two days out of a pretty busy life. It shows that we support this event, and that we support the development of our managers.
Serge Dupont: These are opportunities for you to essentially make a corporate contribution. We ask that of our people all the time, so it’s only reasonable that when we’re asked, tapped on the shoulder, we agree wholeheartedly. Another reason is to learn. Every time you give some of yourself, you get something back. This is the leadership of the public service and we have a responsibility not only to collectively develop it, but to listen to it as well.
The title of the conference is “Transformational Leadership.” What does the term mean to you?
Dupont: Recently, we had a very interesting presentation from a former colleague who went out to the private sector. What he learned about transformation is, first and foremost, that it is about leadership. It is not something that just happens; it really has to be led from the top. Leadership means being able to engage the organization fully in a transformation enterprise.
If leadership is transformational, is the need in the public service greater because of the pressures on the institution?
Baltacioglu: I think that the need for transformation applies to the whole country. It applies to the country because the world is evolving so fast. Government as an organization is a huge player, because it determines the direction of the country through elected officials. The public service gives the advice and we have to be able to ask, can we do things better? Can we do things more effectively? Can we be innovative? Can we be more open and connect with Canadians, connect with the world? These are all things that force us toward more change. But I wouldn’t say we’re here now, static, and now we have to change – it’s just part of the evolution.
What you’re arguing is that change is an on-going process.
Baltacioglu: I’ve been working in the public service for many years. I don’t think I ever had complete stability and no change. I cannot imagine any point in my whole career where things were static. We talk about change as if it’s just some novel thing that’s going to happen and then it’s going to end and then everything is just going to be back to normal. I think that’s an unrealistic and self-limiting expectation for an organization.
I think the issue around change saturation comes from how we implement the changes or how quickly or fast they come in, and whether we actually manage that change properly. I think managing change has to be ingrained in the public service, because never will it be stable and stagnant. That would make an ineffective and inefficient and, in some ways, non-innovative organization, and I think Canadians deserve better.
Do you think the leaders in your organization would say they face change saturation?
Dupont: I think it’s a conversation we need to continue to have. The reality is, we’re managing change every day, and everything we do is going to end with change. People look at their environment, they want to change their iPhone every six months, they’re always looking for the latest in terms of technology and so forth. They cannot go back to the office and expect that from year to year their technology platforms, their office space, their priorities, their accountabilities aren’t going to change as well. Our organizations are dynamic entities in a very fluid, dynamic environment.
The APEX health and well-being studies refer to the stress that leaders are facing. Do you see the symposium as helping leaders respond better and maintain their own health?
Baltacioglu: I think the health and well-being of our workforce is absolutely important. It’s something we all have to work on, and the organization has to make really cautious decisions around that. I think that the APEX Symposium will offer tools, and the better equipped we are, the better we’re able to deal with the stress that comes with any work environment. I don’t think that we are unique. In every large organization there can be strains, either because of your work or your life, but if you’re equipped with strategies, they will help you. I think that APEX looked at recent surveys and thought it was a workshop subject and I’m hoping that people will benefit from that.
The format has changed, adding workshops for example. Is this part of helping to provide the tools and strategies?
Dupont: The workshops achieve two different things. They allow individuals, based on their circumstances, to drill down a bit in areas that are more of interest to them and to speak out. It also allows them to see what others are saying and feeling.
Going back to this issue of stress, it’s always nice to know that you’re not alone. When you have these discussions, you see colleagues from very different parts of the public service facing the same kind of circumstances. And that helps put things into perspective and get a better grasp of the reality, get a better understanding of the vision, get a better sense of what some of the tools may be. All of that is better achieved in a room with 30 or 40 people than one with 500.
What do you ask your executives to bring to the conference and what do you hope they would take away from it?
Baltacioglu: I think they should bring to the conference what I expect from them in their everyday lives at work. Basically, as an EX, just by the location of your position, because you’re part of management, you cannot be one of those people who just spots all of the problems in an organization. As a manager, you’re expected to be part of the solution. And it’s very easy to forget that sometimes. And the second thing is, never be cynical, because cynical people always miss the opportunities of changing an organization, miss the opportunity to serve Canadians well.
Dupont: Go there with a good understanding of your own experience and your own circumstances right now. Reflect a bit upon them but then use the opportunity of the conference to put them into a broader context. Don’t come back with 10 pages of scribbled notes. You’ll put them somewhere and never really go back to them. Ask yourself: what are the one or two things I can take away? They may actually stay with you for quite a long time.
For more information or to register for the APEX Symposium, June 3-4 at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, visit www.apex.gc.ca.