Finding Leadership Confidence

6 mins read

Guest blog written by Crystal Nowlan

When I was first invited by my municipality’s Mayor and CAO to register for the ‘Implementing Public Policy’ (IPP) course, I was incredibly honoured for the learning opportunity.  I also felt the responsibility to ensure the learning would have a return on investment for our organization and taxpayers. But my next though was, how would this course assist me? I am an accountant by trade, and I am not trained in policy like most of my course peers. I only switched from private industry to the public sector a short seven years ago. Since 2016 I have been leading a product management team in our municipality’s transformation into asset management practices: The practice of managing assets to minimize the total cost of owning and operating them while delivering the desired service levels.

The asset management program (EAM) team had completed implementing five technology applications and rolled out the overall EAM business system with significant changes which require new competencies and frankly, a new culture overall.  A corporate Asset Management Policy remains to be approved by senior leadership, the Chief Administrative Officer, and Regional Council to reinforce and provide the agreement between these parties on how infrastructure-related decisions will be made consistently and aligned to agreed-upon strategies.  The policy will then provide the authority to activate the remaining roadmap plans over the next ten-plus years.

My hope was that the Implementing Public Policy (IPP) course would provide me with insight and new skills on how to navigate the political forum and how to be held in esteem with senior leaders to advance my initiative among the over one hundred other corporate priorities currently in-flight.

When I arrived in Cambridge, I knew the planets had aligned to bring me this opportunity when I saw the front cover of the notebook we were given. It couldn’t be any closer to the leader’s stake (how am I motivated as a leader?) I had formulated in an in-depth peer leadership course I just finished in 2018.

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What an overwhelming amount of learning came from that week on campus!  I have never in my life been so captivated without getting distracted or weary from listening to a speaker. I was surprised to see a few key PDIA elements similar to training I have received from other courses in my career. In particular, the cause and effect, or fishbone diagram approach to brainstorming true root causes of an issue, which I had learned almost 20 years ago in my Six Sigma Green Belt training.

With a primarily private sector career background, I finally learned from Matt Andrews the true nuances of why one couldn’t expect to apply the same approaches in the public sector with the same results. I have struggled with this concept since 2012 when I joined municipal government and thought that the elected officials’ aspect was the main difference in governance. Thanks to Matt’s teaching I now recognize that I have been wrong to criticize some previous methodologies or perceived inactivity throughout the organization. Both empathy and humility are key in government leadership, as Matt taught us; I must remember the humility.

Further, have “legitimacy and functionality relationships” explained has been my guiding reminder in daily application of work effort. I have begun to watch my superiors to see how some focus on just building one of the two, and their resulting failures because of it; I have plans to manage up in these cases to better support and facilitate their intended outcomes. Experience must be tailored to the uniqueness of the current environment.

I was incredibly proud to reflect on our EAM project to recognize that our project management team applied the learn-and-adapt approach successfully. Our incremental experience resulted in reassessing plans every two months over an eighteen-month term based on what we observed, learned, and re-evaluated so that our desired outcomes were met and not just the originally planned deliverables. An incredible validation, and I am still so pleased when I think about it because it felt so satisfying and rewarding to adapt new learnings into the plans. I talk about “recalibrating to true north” with staff regularly now.

The best learning from the IPP course for me has been the validation of my personal leadership style being effective and powerful. I am a highly empathetic person by nature and have strongly valued and found strength in one-on-one relationships throughout my career. I have witnessed the power of trust from this investment as I never have had a lack of willing assistance or support from peers or subordinates. I find satisfaction from coaching and helping others succeed; the learnings are constant. However, throughout my career I have been recognized for my successes but always with a caveat, stating that my focus on relationships is regarded as a weakness and I would need to build a tougher skin if I wanted to progress through the ranks. My affirmed confidence will not be doubted or denied again.

How to manage multiple authorizers, the power of negotiating with questions to find the source of interest, and the ladder of inference are all concepts I will be going back to several times to build my skillset. I have realized during this journey that the politics, or perhaps mixture of ego and fear, at the senior leadership level can be more powerful and distracting that the politics of the elected leaders.

Our asset management policy has been sitting in draft stage without interest to advance it to the broader guiding coalition for review since December 2017. This has been demotivating for the team and yet there has not been any pause in the high expectations to transform the organization in less than half the projected time; we remain a team of influence without authority.

My fishbone work highlighted that governance was a repeating cause in almost every vein I explored surrounding the problem of unsustainable infrastructure planning. After returning to Halifax and spending time discussing this revelation further with peers from various roles and business streams, I recognized that I had been originally focused on gaining authority to advance the tactical actions and approvals for the transition projects that could be handled by plan and control or agile approaches.

However, my overarching barrier to gaining policy authorization and making significant business change lies in the lack of a corporate-wide designed governance structure.  Our administration has historically made infrastructure decisions completely based on personalities, media attention, and short-term reactions.  I have not been successful in obtaining the policy approval because there is fear of a formalized system based on evidence.

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I know that the time I have spent building relationships across middle management and front-line staff is strong and I have their trust and commitment to work through these hard transitions because they now share my vision for what asset management practices can deliver to improve their work efforts, and to the citizens who will receive the benefits through better quality services and sustainable tax levels.

I also know that the four sessions I did in July and September this year with the Mayor and Councillors to educate them on asset management principles was successful.  My approach for these four “summer school” sessions was to break out the key elements from our draft asset management policy and request direction on each element.  This way, an imposing policy affecting large and complex investment decisions is less intimidating.  As well, as opposed to other previous policy recommendations which were overwhelming for council to approve quickly – some policies have taken years of many debate sessions to finally get approved – I took the approach to inform council that my recommendation for direction was only a starting point.  Staff would implement their direction into our process immediately, return in a year with an update on its effectiveness and learnings, and provide Council with an opportunity to adjust their direction, if desired, based on the results.  These two design features in my approach resulted in approval of three out of the four recommendations and within less than two hours debate for each.

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My remaining area of challenge is the senior leadership team.  Although I have the support of my authorizer to advance the overall initiative, I need to navigate the small “p” politics of the senior leadership team to move them beyond support by words alone, but to be active and visible leaders in this initiative.

I have drawn so much learning and respect from my IPP peers in addition to the IPP staff and program support team over these last six months!  In particular, one of the ‘IPP Quote of the Day’ circulated by Anisha Poobalan from Upamanyu Basu struck me to the core.  “I have realized that unless there is passion beyond comfort, carrying out any task effectively is not possible”. Having passion to overcome the challenge at hand is what I will keep as my driving motivation through these next steps until I can successfully have my policy approved. It helps remind me that I have been entrusted as a leader by so many across our organization who work so hard every day to serve our community as best they can. I want to be successful to help them and make the quality of life in Halifax that much better.

This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Implementing Public Policy Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. Participants successfully completed this 7-month blended learning course in December 2019. These are their learning journey stories.

To learn more about Implementing Public Policy (IPP) watch the course and testimonial video, listen to the podcast, and visit the course website.

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