In our quarterly interview with a senior leader, we dig into the triumphs and pitfalls of leading teams, and delivering service to British Columbians on the daily. Join Liz Gilliland, executive director of the BCEEA and former ADM, as she journeys with her guests through their own unique kaleidoscope of responsibilities, mistakes and lessons learned as public servants.
This month, we go deep on what ministers really need, tough supervisor relationships, and things you, um, shouldn’t do when your mic is unmuted.
And yes, of course we’ve kept our interview subject’s identity private. Other than job title and purview, however, The Real Deal is unfiltered and…real.
BCEEA: What mistakes did you make early on?
Executive: Buying into the idea — the concept — that as you get more senior and take on leadership roles, you reduce your reliance on, or understanding of, the details and the data.
EXEC: It’s this concept that an associate or an ADM or a deputy needn’t be worried about the nitty-gritty. Just: “Here’s the high level. Here’s the strategic piece.” I often talk to folks who come to me for career advice or other advisement. And I consistently say it is absolutely critical that you know your file. The whole secret to my moving around to different spots has been [that] I’ve solved problems. Because I actually dig in and understand the details. And I know sometimes you get pushback: “You don’t need all that data, you ought not to be looking at Excel… you should be never opening an Excel spreadsheet. You’re a senior leader”. And I disagree with that. So the mistake, I would say, is listening to those who believe that senior exec roles don’t need to understand the facts, the details. Know your file in a very detailed way. Because it’s burned me. And I’ve seen it burning others.
BCEEA: Give me an example of how it burned you, and then what you had to do to manage it.
EXEC: You’ll eventually get caught. If the issue is complex and especially sensitive or public in any way, people… like your minister, your colleagues, the head of the public service… you always work for somebody. And they’re going to want to have that understanding. If you’re not in a position to be able to answer questions in a detailed way that demonstrates understanding of the issue, they’ll lose confidence in your ability to manage the file. All of us, at some point, have been caught flat-footed like that. But you learn that lesson once or twice. If you’re in a meeting with other executives or managing the nitty-gritty of a very public issue…if you’re responsible for managing a major high-profile file with multiple stakeholders and you can’t answer some of the data questions around what you’re seeing in terms of progress and various other metrics, the perception is that you’re not on top of it. And then people start to lose confidence. And then it’s never good.
As to how I’ve managed it, I’ve always known that I understand issues and learn in a certain way — usually through numbers and data. Others are different. Some people learn from just listening. But I will take an evening and sit down with stuff and sift through it. That’s how I understand issues. That’s how I end up knowing my files.
BCEEA: What setbacks have you had in your career?
EXEC: It’s kind of funny. The last few roles I’ve been in, it’s almost like the more senior role I take on, the bigger the catastrophe I’m stuck with. At one point I was in a position responsible for rolling out a major economic initiative. It involved a wide variety of stakeholders, within and outside government. At the point I came in, it was a mess – and fairly stuck. My job was to move it along strategically. And my first day on the job…there was a court ruling that brought it all to a standstill.
I also took on some senior responsibilities in another position immediately before Covid landed on us and it changed everything for me.
I don’t know that they’re setbacks, but they’re certainly…you know, I think they are. I mean, you go into a job and you’re tasked with delivering X, and then the worst possible thing happens in terms of your ability to do that. But you know, it becomes an opportunity. In one instance my DM said, “I wouldn’t want anyone but you here with this kind of challenge in front of us.” It morphed from something that was fairly linear to something that is extremely complex, and now we’re back at square one in a lot of ways.
How do I handle it? It comes with experience. But also, you just have to have confidence to say, “This is actually a really good opportunity to help.” You can view it as a setback in a negative way. Or you can view it as, “OK, well, a complex issue just got a hell of a lot more complex. So…how cool is that? I get to be part of solving this.” It’s been good thinking, right? And a little bit of swearing doesn’t hurt.
BCEEA: It’s a form of sacred words. Have you ever had a difficult relationship with a supervisor?
EXEC: I had a personality issue with a supervisor when I was fairly junior. Just not jiving with someone. It wasn’t like they were incompetent, or that I was. We just didn’t have similar styles at all. I kept it civil, and I had some discussions with that supervisor about how I could work better with her and vice versa. But it was kind of clear that we just had different styles and different ways of thinking. I was a mid-level manager, and this was a director. It wasn’t a huge gap in terms of org-chart hierarchy, but it just wasn’t going to work. And I knew it, and I think she did, too. So we just kept it professional and did our jobs, and I sought an exit strategy. I got out of there and moved on to something new
BCEEA: Most of the time when people don’t get along, it usually is style differences or something like that. And if you don’t manage it, it sometimes turns into something else. It’s interesting to hear that you recognized it early on.
EXEC: It could have gone a lot worse. Both of us kept it professional and left on as good of terms as possible. And actually, it did circle around where, in a different role, I needed to work with this person again, but in a position above. So thank goodness it wasn’t some mess of a relationship. I think we both just understood we didn’t quite click together. But the relationships piece is…you know, in government, it’s a small world and it’s important not to blow something up. Let’s just appreciate and recognize sometimes that there’s a bit of a disconnect and we can either work it out or we can’t, but we keep it professional.
BCEEA: When I was an ADM I had to work with a DM that I didn’t respect. I had to find a way to work with her. And she wasn’t capable of having a mutual conversation about it at all. So I had to figure out, “How can I do this? I’ve been sent here for a reason. I like the reason I was sent here. How do I deal with this DM who I really don’t have a lot of respect for?” And it took a bit of internal shifting, but it’s doable. It’s an extra layer of effort.
EXEC: Yeah, that’s the anxiety of it. And I’d just moved over there. It was within the first week. You just know. And then it’s like, “Oh shit, now I’ve got the anxiety of figuring this out.” Especially because I was at a point in my career where it was like, “I need to park myself here for a while.” It was clear that one of us had to go. And it wasn’t going to be her. So I had to get out of there. But yeah, it worked out.
BCEEA: Have you ever discovered something about your management style that you realized had a negative impact on your staff that you had to change?
EXEC: Oh, yeah. This is a good one. I think my style… I’m kind of a get-it-done, drive-it type. A complaint about me is that I don’t really… The pacing of things is not really my style. It’s more like — in a smart way and not to rush things — but “Let’s give it everything we’ve got and get this over the finish line. Let’s push, push, push.” And obviously at points in my career, I know I’ve left individuals or teams feeling kind of overworked and underappreciated. Because, as you know, there’s lots of folks in the public service who — and it’s not a laziness thing, but — they chose a certain job or a certain path to maintain work-life balance. And I sometimes am reminded of that reality.
BCEEA: Right, it’s true that people are scattered along the spectrum.
EXEC: You know what I mean? In particular, in one position, it was consultation and the vibe was: “Oh, we can’t rush this relationship” and that type of stuff. And I was like, “We’ve been talking for two years. We’re not in the relationship business. We have a job to do around making a decision on this thing.” And I’m not suggesting we ignore all of those discussions and relationships at all. But as a team, sometimes it’s just…it’s time. “Let’s dogpile this and get it done.”
That turned into me finally saying, “By this date, all of our respective roles in this are going to be concluded. And we’re going to take this for decision.” And that created a lot of pressure for people and anxiety and stress. And work. Pure work.
I’ve done that multiple times in my career, and I know it has impacted people. It’s something I recognize that I need to work on. I do recognize and am appreciative of all the work, but I’m not the cheerleader type. I’m more of a…well, I tend to assume that others also get some level of personal satisfaction from working hard and getting something done. And others really want to have a big party to celebrate, but I’m sort of on to the next thing.
EXEC: That has certainly popped up for me. I know that from feedback from others who have worked with me. I’m in the process of changing, and I think I have changed. I have improved and I’m conscious of it, but I do still do it. I do still drive stuff pretty hard. It’s not like I’m intentionally taking advantage of people. It’s just, I think I need to understand that sometimes it’s the old intent-doesn’t-equal-how-it-impacts-somebody. How personally they receive something and feel about it. So I catch myself all the time.
It’s a work in progress for me, for sure. One thing I’ve done to try and learn from it is see it as a balance of two things: I need to watch myself and be conscious of it and find other ways to express that desire to get things done. But also, in terms of building my teams, I’ve learned that you can’t turn thinkers into doers.
BCEEA: True enough.
EXEC: You’ve got to have the right mix of people supporting you. You’ve got to have your doers — your task masters, your drivers and get-er-dones. But you don’t do that at the expense of the good thinking and policy work that needs to happen. So you need to find the right mix of doers and thinkers. That’s my learning. Because with a lot these issues, you’re trying to push a group of thinkers faster than they want to move. Whereas some people have been like, “Thank god you got here and started getting this done. We’ve been working on this for two years!” Who’s supporting is important, in terms of having people who think in that action-oriented way and are driven by that. But also, I totally own that I need to be more sensitive to how people receive that kind of drive.
BCEEA: I can relate to that. I always prided myself on what a people-person I was. But then after a couple of 360s where you see people raising issues that it’s drive, drive, drive all the time you think, “Oh, OK, maybe I need to take my foot off the accelerator in some way that still works.” I get it. How do you handle staff at work who you think might be struggling emotionally?
EXEC: It’s a fine line. I don’t think there’s some blanket answer to this or some playbook for this. It depends on the person, is my perspective, and how you approach it and how you help that person. Some people will want to talk about it, and they’ll appreciate you raising your observations about their situation or closing the door and talking to them if they’ve come to you. And others are more like, “When I’m ready, I’ll raise it. Or I won’t. Or I’ll internalize it.” You’ve got to to watch that you don’t put someone on the spot, even privately, if they’re not ready.
But if they’re clearly struggling, eventually — regardless of the type of person —somehow you’ve got to communicate and open that up. That may be going out for a coffee off property, getting out of the work setting. Or maybe meeting in a more formal way. Or it may just be a note or a text. It depends on the person, is what I’ve experienced.
But overall, I think it’s about communication. This is kind of the cliché answer, but it really is about listening, right? You can apply this to marriages too! Don’t assume you can solve the problem, or that the person wants you to solve the problem for them. This is the classic…I have this go-around with my wife every once in a while. It’s like, “I was just telling you so you knew I was feeling. I didn’t want you to fix it.”
It applies equally with all relationships. And that’s what you have at work, right? You have relationships with people. At the end of the day, we’re all just human beings trying to fit together and get something done.
If it’s a work issue, it’s important to understand what an improvement would look like for that person. Even if it’s a personal issue: How can I help? But you’ve really got to be careful not to overpromise about…to the fixing piece, you know, there’s nothing worse than… If someone’s struggling with a team and connecting, for example, or having some interpersonal issues with a colleague in your shop, you’ve got to be very careful about how you manage that. You can’t say, “OK, we’ll fix this.” Because to that person, it might mean that the other person is going to be gone.
EXEC: You’ve got to be really careful and sensitive about it. There are the services available to people in terms of counseling, but as a leader, I try to just listen. And I find that sometimes that’s enough. Just to hear them out and do what you can do to help them, but without trying over-solve or fix the problem for them.
BCEEA: What is something you wish you knew earlier in your career?
EXEC: Don’t undervalue your potential. Or your contributions.
BCEEA: Oh, interesting.
EXEC: I remember early on, I was scared as hell to be briefing an ADM or a deputy. Or eventually when I was in a role where I found myself briefing ministers and cabinet, and the panic of like, “Oh my god, look what I have to do tomorrow!”
But experience has shown me that these are people who are just starving and hungry for someone who understands an issue to explain to them. So don’t take that for granted. Don’t undervalue that, because I think there’s this perception that, “Oh, I’m junior, so I ought not to be talking to that person”. And that’s certainly not how I run things. In my current position, for example, I’m reaching in to all levels, because whoever knows, knows. I don’t need filters in between. So don’t undervalue what you bring to the table because of hierarchy or some perceived status or profile issue. I wish I’d known that early. I probably would have slept better.
BCEEA: What does work-life balance mean for you in reality?
EXEC: You don’t want to publish that one. The last few years have been hard. For me, my calendar runs my life. I have adjusted to that. Literally, if you don’t carve the time out, it won’t happen. And so as many hours as I put it in, particularly over Covid, I have not missed a minute in terms of my kids and my family. I still help coaching baseball and I’m helping out with other stuff and I’m at everything that we’re allowed to attend. But it’s in my calendar.
BCEEA: So your personal stuff is in your calendar as much as your work stuff.
EXEC: Absolutely. And the calendar is bloody full every day, from seven till nine. But I do it. I put it in my calendar. I don’t know if that’s breaching some sort of policy, maybe I shouldn’t recommend that.
BCEEA: No, it isn’t.
EXEC: I carve it up. It’s in there. Sometimes it’s a five o’clock practice, so I’m leaving here at 4:15 or whatever time I need to. That’s how I maintain balance. I guess the “balance” piece is missing because it’s all about work and kids and family, there’s not a hell of a lot of time for —
EXEC: Personal or social stuff. But that’s okay. That’s a choice.
BCEEA: Yeah. And maybe it links to the question, What recharges you? When you need your batteries recharged, what is it?
EXEC: Ah. Again, it sounds cliche, but it is the family and friends thing. Just getting outside of my work hole and thinking… It’s like when you’re playing catch or you’re out shooting hoops with your kids, you’re not thinking about the Minister or whatever. That’s what really grounds me and gets my head out of my work.
BCEEA: And have you had an embarrassing fail?
EXEC: I had one that was probably worse than the old classic REPLY ALL or texting the wrong person. It was — and this comes with the new virtual age — the hot mic on a Teams meeting.
BCEEA: Ooh, brutal.
EXEC: So you’re not muted. It was embarrassing. I didn’t say anything stupid, but what I did was stupid.
BCEEA: Which was…
EXEC: In the middle of a virtual meeting, not realizing I was unmuted, my cell phone rang. It was silent, but I could see it ringing. And I picked it up because it was related to an issue that was fairly urgent. And I just started engaging in this conversation. Like I kind of stepped away from the computer, not realizing… And I’m fully immersed in this discussion. I didn’t say anything stupid. There was nothing rude or confidential or sensitive that came out. But you know, it very clearly sent a message. Again, it’s this intent versus impact thing.
I know that the person who was briefing a couple of us on this issue felt understandably demoralized by the whole thing. And she had probably prepared. And next thing you know, I’m just like: “This is so unimportant that I’m just going to stand up and take a phone call!”
So that was very embarrassing. And then it fed back to me that the person was personally hurt by that. I felt shitty about that, for sure. So I did what I could do, which was to make a call to that person and apologize profusely. And I brought the full group back together and apologized again. That was not my finest moment.
That was my embarrassing virtual fail. And you know what? The funny thing is that I have — before that and after that — witnessed the exact same things, but a lot worse. But we’re all adjusting to the virtual world, and those are the lessons you learn along the way.
BCEEA: They are indeed. I know how jammed your time is. Thank you for speaking with me.
EXEC: It’s good talking to you.