What I learned from my previous jobs – Part 13
As I finished my previous post, I was finishing up what I had thought was going to be my best job ever — a senior policy advisor position in the Deputy Minister’s Office at CIDA. Instead, I was pushing too much paper. I also had another problem with my career — I was under-classified. While I was routinely offered, accepting and performing at ES-05, ES-06, PM-06 and even sometimes EX-01 levels, I was still an ES-04. I was in a competition back in Policy Branch to “regularize” my level with an ES-05 job, but I had my eye on a higher prize…the newly-created Social Development Canada ran a competition for their Manager of International Affairs position.
s. Manager, International Relations, SDC — HRDC had been through a big scandal at the end of the 1990s, most of which turned out to be more smoke than substance. But a new government direction was set in 2004/05, and the huge department split into two — Human Resources and Skills Development Canada and Social Development Canada. SDC was headed by Minister Ken Dryden. Yes, that Ken Dryden. The Ken Dryden of hockey fame, who had stopped playing hockey early on and finished a law degree and then went back to hockey for a while. Now a Liberal Minister.
And as the Department had separated, some of the horizontal files, like International, that had been done by a single division in the old merged department were now split into two departments, with some personnel staying in HRSDC and a smaller number going to SDC. As such, SDC was staffing up in some key areas. International Relations was one of them.
I don’t really remember a written test, but I’m sure there probably was one. I do remember the interview. There were three people on the board…a director of Horizontal Initiatives and International Relations, named Bob, and a director of International Agreements (a related area, but not actually hiring), plus the HR person. I was pretty knowledgeable about competitions and how they worked at this point, so the application, written exam, and interview were not particularly challenging. I knew what they were looking for with each question, and I felt afterwards like I only really messed up one question. A “role-play”, so to speak.
During the interview, candidates were told that there were 7 questions (I think), of which we had seen all but one for 30 minutes in advance of the interview. This was a relatively new practice at the time, now standard for all government interviews. You get a 30 minute prep time with the questions so that you come in and give your answer instead of stalling for time with “spontaneous” questions and saying, “umm, uhh”, “that’s a really good question, thank you for asking”, etc. One of the questions was if the Minister was meeting with his or her provincial counterpart in B.C., what advice would you give her about what to say? It’s a standard question for an ES position, even a senior position, yet a bit odd in my view for an international position — why ask us an FPT question instead of meeting with an international counterpart? But I digress.
The question we didn’t see in advance was at the end of the interview, it was a short timed question, and we were to rely on the answer we had previously given about advice to the Minister. Except in this case, we were to assume that we were getting on the elevator with the Minister, they were on their way to a surprise meeting with their provincial counterpart, and I had I think two minutes or ninety seconds to brief them. Go.
I really like the type of question, really well done. Except I blew the format. When you get a question like this, it is easy to do (as I did) the obvious and think it is a “real” question, where of course you’re focused on substance. How much substance can you cram into a 90-second conversation? How much wood could a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood? Most people hit this and they go into overdrive, talking quickly, trying to get their previous 7-minute answer into the 90-second window.
Except that the question isn’t marking you on substance. That’s not what that type of question is for. No, it is marking you on ORAL COMMUNICATIONS. Which means what I should have done was taken a beat. Started off gently, slowly, calmly with the Minister. “Minister, your counterpart is mostly going to be looking to get an update from you on some of the key issues like x, y, and z. You’re already briefed on those topics, so let me talk a bit about some pressure points for them like a, b, and c. They are a good partner for us, and while they will always press us for more money to be spent in their province, this is really a chance for you to ask questions and listen to what they see as the priorities for their province. Do you have any areas that you would like me to elaborate on?” Nice, calm, simply structured, high-level, not too detailed, appropriate to the audience.
Not turning into Mr. Motormouth.
It didn’t matter in the end, I ranked first overall. Beating a friend of mine (Hi Cori!) by two points. I didn’t even know she was applying until I saw the final list of rankings. She has never let me forget those TWO POINTS. Because it made a huge difference.
Bob, our new Director, staffed the international side of the shop first and gave me the first offer. Which I accepted. Making me the Manager, International Relations. She took the second job, Manager, Horizontal Initiatives. Or as we came to describe it, the bits of everything else aka “Bits”, thus making me “Kibble”. Kibble and bits.
My job was awesome. I felt like I could literally do no wrong. Take for example the day I met my new ADM. I didn’t know her, hadn’t met her, had no idea even who it was. Bob told me to come with him to a briefing with her, and I tagged along. Bob went to introduce me to Deborah, and Deborah says, “Oh, I know all about Paul. I’ve been hearing about him for years. My daughter-in-law brags about him all the time.”
Umm, okay. I had no idea who her daughter-in-law was. Her name was apparently Meg. Right. Meg. I only knew one Meg. She had been my co-op student back in the day one summer when I was in Multilateral Branch. Meg W. Wait she got married. She was now Meg T. Right. Deborah T, Meg T, ah-hah! Literally, those were the jumps my brain made in about 2 seconds. But it was that LINEAR. Ah-hah, I knew who she was now. Which meant I also knew her husband, a contractor that I had worked with her husband at a previous job, and they knew my old DG really well. Small world. Except it wasn’t, not exactly. Turned out Deborah knew a lot of people from my previous life. Deborah was also an extremely warm person, the type of boss who would bake cookies for her staff meetings regularly. There was something comforting just being around her.
As we were leaving, Bob said to me kind of in a low voice, “Nice going. Not a bad way to meet the ADM.” Not bad, indeed.
I also found our approach to international affairs rather open-ended. I had ideas, I had initiatives to try, and it seemed like everything I threw at the wall seemed to stick. We staffed up, I did some poaching, including helping steal someone that I had worked with previously at CIDA and another person with an international background who was doing corporate planning work and looking for a change. Later, Bob would tell me he thought those two hires were the two best hires of his entire career. Great…hey, wait a minute! What was I, chopped liver? 🙂
And I got to work with a guy I had interacted with when I was at Policy Branch at CIDA and he was in the HRDC world. Tim was awesome to work with, a regular highlight of my day.
We started developing an international policy framework, a way to organize and represent what we were doing abroad so we could move beyond just what our calendar brought us in the way of international meetings. We started gearing up differently for the Six Countries meeting, a collaboration of the six English-speaking members of the OECD (Australia, New Zealand, England, Ireland, Canada, and the US), exchanging information at the senior official level every 18 months or so. It felt a lot like the Ministerial meeting we had held in NB back at CIDA, just different topics.
The Minister had led a delegation to Israel and Palestine, and we had a technical cooperation project with the Palestinian Authority. They needed some basic governance help, and we hired the same type of consultants that we would use to help our Ministry with governance questions. Some of it was basic, some of it was quite advanced, but mostly aimed at improved social delivery capacity. Everyone loved it. Even CIDA and DFAIT were wondering how we got this going, looking somewhat developmental in nature, but not exactly development (since it was Palestine). We started to wonder if there was something else we could do on this front with other countries. Not the high-end social development projects that CIDA was doing with LDCs, but perhaps some social governance capacity projects with social ministries in middle-income countries. It was an avenue to explore.
Tim and I started dreaming big. We wondered if maybe there could be a growth out of the six-country initiative to have some sort of “training” conference where we would not only bring senior officials to meet to talk about priorities, but perhaps we could do some cross-training at a lower level. Perhaps even charge for other countries to attend. And use that money to pay to bring developing countries to the same training. Maybe, just maybe, we could even build almost a whole training institute that would have sessions 3 or 4 times a year.
I had big plans for all the files. Bilateral, multilateral, technical, domestic. My team and I started calling the big vision my “five-year plan for world domination”. We weren’t entirely kidding…it was WAY beyond ambitious. I didn’t even show our management people…I could show my team, but Bob got to see the 18 month to two-year version, and higher than that only saw our first year. I had no mandate to go as big as I was thinking, and while I had no real illusions we could get there, I could at least push the envelope. Even if we came up with social training materials and put them online with the OECD, that could be something worthwhile.
I went to the UN to help negotiate the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. DFAIT, SDC, Justice, a few people around town, some NGOs. We had a decent delegation. PT consultations too. I wasn’t a big player in the negotiations, but I made a decent contribution on some wording here and there. I had a hectic two weeks, and I learned more about that type of file than I had ever covered in my time in the UN division at CIDA. I was comfortable in New York, at the UN buildings, etc., but there was no buzz for me. I felt like I had done this before, and honestly, I didn’t really want to be doing it again. I liked managing, I didn’t mind sending delegations here, but did I want to be there? Not really.
I’ll digress for a moment to do a First World Problem dance. When I was at DFAIT, I went to the Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Beijing, as well as saw a good percentage of Canadian capitals. At CIDA, I added New York, Rome, Paris, Geneva, Venice (side trip), Amsterdam, Washington, Barbados, St. Lucia, Guyana and Jamaica. Sounds awesome, right? I do like to travel.
But here’s the thing. I don’t like business travel. First, I’m usually really busy right up until I have to go to the conference or meeting, so I can’t go a couple of days early. I generally arrive the day before the meeting, get settled, go to bed, and then it’s time for the meetings. Second, hotel conference rooms all look alike, you grab some dinner, call your family, unwind somehow or not, and crash. Next day, same thing. Then the conference is over, and you’re free. Third, maybe you can add a day or two to the end, but often, I just want to go home. I don’t particularly enjoy exploring new cities on my own. I’ve been there, done that, saw interesting things, and had no one to share it with at the time.
For some people, that time in NYC with the other delegations is the highlight of international work. Negotiating, interacting, networking, socializing, it’s all part of the experience. But I had done that already. I did it at the start of my career with APEC. Now I had a girlfriend, and most of the time, all I could think was “Would I rather be here wondering around Central Park by myself or just hanging out in Ottawa with her?”. That’s not a tough question to answer. I had become more domestic in my leanings. So I was happy to send my staff to Palestine, I didn’t need to go. My team member had a blast, and it was a really good development opportunity for her. Tim was always willing to travel, although I don’t remember him getting to do anything exciting at the time.
CIDA was calling me. I remember being in NYC, at the UN, and spending a full hour on a conference call with the associate DM at CIDA who was interviewing me for a potential return gig. Great job, some acting potential, but it wasn’t what I wanted. I would have been crazy to say yes knowing what I knew about the job, and the paper-pushing that went with it, but I was beyond flattered with the call.
I was also starting to build a new network. It was weird, I hadn’t really thought about it, but moving to a new Department meant that I didn’t know all the corporate players anymore. I got to meet them, and they were all experiencing a lot of what I was on the international front. Appetite from above for more, more, more. They were doing great things on the policy front.
And then we weren’t.
An election happened, and we had a change in government. To one that had VERY different views of the relative importance of a social development ministry. Ken Dryden, on his last day, came round to say goodbye to the entire building. He looked shell-shocked that Canada had not only voted the Liberals out but that they had also voted the new government in. And that he wouldn’t get to finish his files.
The Government folded SDC back into HRSDC, and for me, it was a complete disaster. All of the stuff we had been doing came to a screeching halt. We even got a new DG, and well, I feel confident in my assessment that she was completely useless.
Early on, we had a meeting with her. She said she wanted an international policy framework, and we showed her what we had. Nope, that wasn’t a framework. She told us she had done frameworks before, but that wasn’t it. I pushed for more clarity, some sort of starting point, and she had nothing. Literally, there was nothing there. No substance at all. I finally got her to tell me at least SOMEWHERE that she had done one she liked, and she told me Environment Canada. Great, a starting point.
I called some friends who worked there, and they had been around when she was there. I told them I was looking for whatever international policy framework she had moved forward when she was there, so I could see what she liked. Dead silence. The only thing that she had done there was regular approval of a calendar of upcoming international events. There had been no policy behind it, and certainly nothing like a framework. I checked her bio, coincided the dates with people I knew who worked at the same place at the same time, and started doing a reference check on her, for lack of a better phrase. Most people barely remembered her. Certainly nothing noteworthy, except her treatment of others and staff, none of which was positive. Oh great.
I finally found a link to a friend that I knew well back at CIDA. Gave him a call, told him my situation, and got him to speak candidly. I said, “Honestly. Is it possible she is secretly brilliant and strategic and that she has it cleverly disguised as incompetence?”. The answer was a resounding no, no disguise, what you saw was what she was. However, she did apparently have a good ability to “read” upper management and translate that into a working vision for her area.
Oh, well that was actually something we could use in the new regime. Maybe I could work with that, I thought.
Fast-forward two months, and relations with the other international team were strained at best. Everything we did, they thought we were plotting some coup. My boss was away and I had a note due to the DMO and Minister’s Office by end of day Friday to support a meeting with a Chinese delegation that was coming to Ottawa on Monday. They were meeting with three different Ministers, and they had given three topics to discuss, one for each Minister. I was REALLY struggling to get it through the system, or even to get an answer as to why it wasn’t moving. My DG was away travelling with our DM for Thursday and Friday, and in her absence, she appointed someone acting. I followed up with her, got the file moving again, and thought it was all handled.
Friday afternoon at 3:45, I received a new request from DMO. This was the SAME request I had already answered, but because the docket hadn’t made it upstairs in time, a new request was sent out with someone now asking for info on ALL three areas, not just the one that we were responsible for…I tried to follow-up, and they basically shrugged upstairs. Well, crap. I knew NOTHING about the other two topics.
No problem. I picked up the phone, phoned around town, tracked down my counterparts in the other two Ministries, told them the situation, they emailed me some background material, I combined it with my stuff, and one hour later, I had a brand new package almost ready to go. I was pretty dang proud of myself, to be honest.
Then my phone rang. It was my DG. She was back in town, just got off the plane, and wanted to know what was happening with the file. I was pretty cheerful, told her the good news, we had everything, it was ready to go. She wasn’t having any of it. She had a bug up her butt about something, and she vented at me. She was cursing, she was swearing, etc. I put up with it at first and then tried to steer it back to the substance. It was almost five, and the DM’s policy advisor (an EX-01) had given me his home number and email address so that I could send him the docket over the weekend, and he would get it to the Minister. Could I send it? More venting. Including saying the other team had problems with my approach to the meeting. Wait a minute…why the hell was the other team even LOOKING at the note? It had nothing to do with them. I started to object to say there were too many cooks in the kitchen on this, but it was done, and she lost it. I finally stopped her and said, “I’m sorry, I have no intention of listening to any more of your abuse. It stops now. What do you want me to do with this file?”
She kept trying to talk about other stuff, and I kept saying, “No, we are only talking about this file. The rest of the stuff is irrelevant right now. I am leaving in less than fifteen minutes, this docket is done, the DM’s office wants it. What do you want me to do?”. She finally answered my question, more like a petulant child, and told me she would have to review it, I was to send it to her, and she would deal with it. She started off again on another rant, and I stopped her. “No, that’s not an option here. Are you going to send it to the DM’s advisor? He is expecting it.” She finally spit out her “yes” at me, and I hung up on her.
I then packaged the file, gave her all the info on the DM’s coordinates, kept it entirely professional, and gave my home contact info if she needed me to look at it or make changes before Monday. I was truly and utterly pissed off, but I could keep it professional.
I thought about it all weekend. Eccentric I could deal with. Useless I could deal with. Bad interpersonal skills I could tolerate. But combined with outright cursing and swearing? No frakkin’ chance.
My boss was back on Monday morning, and he knew before I got there that there had been a problem. Some of it came from her, some of it came from her replacement. Two other senior people in the Directorate had announced the previous week that they were leaving. Both for lateral moves to get away from her, not promotions. Bob thought I was venting, but I looked at him and said, “Nope, I’m done. This is my two weeks notice. I’ll be moving on, or going on holidays until I do. I will not work for her anymore. Her behaviour was unacceptable.”
While I was talking to Bob, my phone rang. It was the DM’s advisor. He had received NOTHING! The meeting was in 90 minutes and he had no note or anything. I told him that I had sent it to the DG on Friday afternoon at 5:00 p.m. and that she KNEW it was to go to him over the weekend. I had made that explicit to her and she had confirmed she understood. He wanted me to send him a copy, and I balked. I told him that I wanted to, but I quickly confirmed with my Director and he agreed, that she had had the material and if she hadn’t forwarded it along, presumably it was because she hadn’t approved it. I didn’t know what to do, honestly. I wanted to help but I felt like my hands were tied. The DM’s advisor confirmed with me that she had it at 5:00 p.m. in an email from me. I said yes. He said he would look after it.
Apparently, he went down to her office, got the Admin to open up her email, printed the email with his info and directions on what she had to do with it, along with the note, and went back upstairs. He then gave the note to the Minister’s Office as is, and gave the email to the Deputy to show what had happened, and who had clearly dropped the ball. He was playing hardball, and I wasn’t the racket or the ball. Whew.
Two weeks later, I was done. There were lots of discussions flying around about me. What did he mean he wouldn’t work for her anymore? What does he mean he’s going on leave? I was clear…I wouldn’t work for her any longer, and if I had to, I’d work my way through a very nasty grievance. Instead, another DG offered me a temporary job while I was looking for something new — some research they needed done on a childcare file. Kind of a different type of job for me, and it was fun for the month I did it.
By then I had five job offers, and honestly, I was torn. I couldn’t figure out which one I wanted to take. I know, I know, life was terrible. My brother and girlfriend suggested I rank each of the jobs in terms of “points”, and I couldn’t figure out why I hadn’t done it already. After all, I advised others to do the same thing. Including my girlfriend when she was looking at similar moves.
I did the rankings and figured out why I was torn. Across a spectrum of 19 different factors (okay, so I’m anal! And well-versed in considering what factors were important to me!), the five jobs had a potential score ranging from minus 95 to plus 95. The problem? They were all in the positive realm, and only about three or four points separating them. Of course I couldn’t make a decision…they were all, in fact, relatively equal. I adjusted the weighting factors, went for what I was looking for, and two jobs jumped up while two others dropped out. Bye-bye return to CIDA, hello move within the Policy Branch of HRSDC. One was working with a great director I had worked with at CIDA (remember the one who made me acting Director in Policy Branch?), one was a great DG handling corporate planning. Since I could maybe do the corporate planning later in my career, I went with the Director I knew.
My plan was set.
And then the unexpected happened.
No, seriously, I’m not exaggerating here. Something unprecedented in the history of my career, and unprecedented as far as I knew in any department.
The two ADMs fired the horrible DG.
No, not because of me, although the story of my experience with her and refusal to work with her was well-travelled. Remember too that one of those ADMs was the ADM who thought I was great because her daughter-in-law raved about me before I even started, and had loved everything I had given her since. That’s not nothing.
This DG who apparently was good at reading “higher officials” asked for a meeting with the DM. That happens, no biggie. Except she presented a plan to completely revamp her Directorate, including asking for resources. Apparently the DM reminded her, professionally, that the DG had a boss, and it wasn’t her. Plus there was a committee that dealt with new resource requests, and she didn’t chair it. So, dear DG, why was she there to see the DM? Then when the DG left, the two ADMs got an earful.
This was Tuesday. An emergency meeting was scheduled for Thursday morning between the two ADMs and the DG. 11:00. At 11:45, the DG left the meeting in a storm, swearing a blue streak. At 11:50, the ADMs had a meeting with a senior director from another Directorate. At 11:55, an announcement came out that the DG was on leave, and the other Director would be acting DG moving forward. Ten minutes after she left the meeting, her replacement was announced. That wasn’t a coincidence, I’m sure.
The DG was gone. DFAIT would have called it “gardening leave”, i.e. there was no job for you, you went home until they either found something new for you, you retired, or you were terminated. Most of the time, someone would take them eventually. In this case, she was just done. She was terminated. Wow. A shock to many, and while for the right reasons, it’s not unlike seeing an act of violence. You can’t help but be affected by it, even if you thought it was deserved.
But enough about her…what about ME? I was about to leave my job, and start a new one. I was about to say “yes” to an offer. And yet suddenly my reason for leaving was gone. I demurred on the offer for a day or two and met with the new DG. I asked for her advice. She said she couldn’t promise things would improve on the substantive files, and she couldn’t even see far enough forward to say I would even want to stay. She said she would be happy for me to stay, but she candidly admitted she had no promises to offer me that would make everything better.
I’ve often joked that the PM screwed up my life. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t experience the trauma that others went through of having poured their lifeblood into substantive domestic files that were now being roasted over bonfires (childcare policy, anyone? the environment?). But I had had a near-perfect job.
Great boss. Best boss of my entire career to that point.
Great files, and I could do no wrong. My world domination plan was taking shape. 🙂
Good team. Gen, Cori, Jen, Tim, Martha, others. I loved going to work with them.
Then the election happened, the department was merged, and the whole operating environment changed. Drastically. Most of the team managed to hang on much longer than me, but they also weren’t dealing directly with the bad DG. I have no idea how my boss was handling it. He was one of the most quiet, soft-spoken, nicest guys I ever worked with, and I only saw him frustrated to the point of irritation once, not quite angry, but close, and it was because of that same DG. He had no fun dealing with her with regard to me, I’m sure. She knew I was leaving, and that it was purely because of her. Her advice to my boss? Tell me to get over it. Nice.
I accepted the job with my old Director, and the good job that had turned into a dream job beyond expectations was officially done.