Remarks by Michael Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council, at the Canada School of Public Service’s Executive Leadership Development Program


October 18, 2018
Michael Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council

Check against Delivery

Hello everyone. I first want to congratulate all of you. It is a special opportunity that you have to go through this program. I know the school works very hard on feedback from previous cohorts and it just gets better as it goes on.

Everything I hear from previous graduates about the experience is very positive. Therefore, my first message to you is, do not waste this opportunity. Commit yourself to it and fully engage in it. Do not be that person who says, when they get home, “Oh, I wish I had raised this point,” or “I wish I had challenged my colleague.” This is a safe space and a safe environment. You should use it.

“Go all in.” You should also put some pressure on yourself. As you know, you work for the finest public service on the planet. This was confirmed recently in another government ranking in which Canada actually moved up in the global government index, to the 98th percentile, in terms of the quality of its public sector.

I was worried that the ranking was going to go down on my watch, but so far so good. We are a good public service, and one of the reasons for it is that we get plenty of feedback loops from Officers of Parliaments, parliamentary committee appearances, stakeholders, ministers, the media and from all the people telling you, “You would have, could have or should have done things better.” We have become very good with all these feedback loops and with all kinds of things—policy, service, regulation, cybersecurity, etc.

This is so because of never being satisfied, feeling both the external and internal pressure, and having that sense of never being complacent. There are always opportunities to do things a bit better and for relentless incremental improvement, or for big changes when you get the opportunities. This is a legacy from previous generations—a shout out to the elders and mentors who are here today. You have a tremendous group of people with great experience that you can draw on.

I think you already have heard from some of them, so another piece of advice would be to use the fellows. They can pass on so much information to you. Make the best use of this time together by talking and asking questions.

We spend a lot of time on talent management and development. This is a combination of trying to think through what the competencies and behaviours we are looking for, or trying to deter. We also undertake selection processes where we select and promote individuals.  Although you may feel that these processes may be complicated, we do a good job at aligning those things.  However, there is always work to be done and Taki (Sarantakis, President, Canada School of Public Service) has to constantly rethink what the learning infrastructure and the needs will be going forward. We have to all continually think about talent management, performance management and selection processes.

I was talking to an Australian yesterday who has come here as part of a review of their public service. Their Prime Minister asked him to look at their capabilities and how to be better. Of course, the first place they headed to was Canada and we had a very interesting exchange. They are quite envious of a number of things we do, including the school and the way that we take talent management very seriously in our senior and middle executive cadres.

What are we looking for? I probably could put this in a bit more articulate kind of way, but part of it is just the basics of organizing your work, getting things done and taking decisions. You are now in positions of responsibility where you have more latitude, more influence and more zone than you realize to take those decisions.

Deputy Ministers appreciate it when you occupy space and figure out the right kind of relationship of when and how often you need to check in. In your role, you have a lot of autonomy and a real ability to drive things, particularly on personnel decisions. This is, again, very obvious, but it is about finding the best people you can attract and giving them lots of space, growing them, giving them latitude, and letting go.

You do not have to do all the talking at meetings or presentations. Deputies are smart and ministers are smart about knowing that one of your jobs is to grow the capacity in the team around you. There are many techniques to do so. You will be measured in large part on whether you left a stronger team than you inherited or whether you are one of those people that graduates many future leaders. There is a healthy competition among deputies as to how many of their people are promoted and move up in the system. I think that I am winning.

Taki Sarantakis: You have an unfair advantage.

Michael Wernick:  I do have an unfair advantage. Even before, it was between me, Wayne (Wouters, former Clerk of the Privy Council), Richard (Dicerni (ISED)) and Yaprak (Baltacioglu, former Treasury Board Secretary) as to who was generating the most deputies from our management team. However, I digress. Taking decisions—decisiveness—is a matter of judgment. You really may overthink things or you may need more information and more time.

Sometimes it is this that I think we have to do, and the people that work for you or around you will really crave that decisiveness—that sense of “Okay, I know what we are going to do.” It is somewhat simple. Use calendars, lists and reverse engineering. For example, “I am going to need this thing in February.” We are going to organize ourselves and then let people figure out how to solve problems with the confidence that it is going to be done.

You will build confidence and you will figure out who on your team is reliable and who is not, who needs more attention and who does not, who talks a good game but does not actually deliver, and so on. Those are basic things. I would say in that subset, it is about being decisive on the people issues. If you have poor performers, conflict issues, harassment and behaviour issues, you have to deal with them very quickly and assertively.

Most people will tell you they regret letting things go too long, or letting them fester or percolate. Deputies do not appreciate it if you let a personnel or workplace issue get worse and then suddenly it becomes a departmental problem. Dealing decisively with poor performers and toxic issues in the workplace is something you just have to do. It is not a pleasant part of the job but it is one that senior leaders have to take on.

We are having many of these conversations about where the public service is headed or where it needs to go beyond 2020. We really have zeroed in now on culture, mindset and behaviours. We know what we have to do, and what we have done, on things like tools, equipment, technology and buildings. We are also having conversations about the learning and talent management part of it.

I am quite confident that we can make progress and solve many issues. The thing that seems to be the most difficult to get at is organizations. As I said to the Auditor General, commenting on the public service as a whole may be a generalization. However, we have organizations, or pockets within organizations, where the culture is unhealthy and changing it is tough.

There is this whole nexus of risk and innovation, and taking a chance. We are struggling to find the right language on that. The point is that you have a lot more autonomy than you think you have to take risks, or take chances, or push the envelop.

I would like to go back to the subject of personnel. If you promote somebody to an EX job, you have made about a $3 million investment decision for the people of Canada. Take that very seriously and mindfully. I would encourage you to not play it safe. Your organization may have a risk-averse set point, hiring for credentials and prior experience and wanting somebody who is going to be job ready the first week. Who is job ready the first week?

I know I was not. You have to start looking for potential, energy and values, which are harder to measure. We are working on how we can do that more rigorously. Take at least one risky hiring decision every year by making a bet on future talent. If you all do that, just think of the pay-it-forward multiplier effect you can have. You need some disruptors in your organization. You need change agents.

You need people who will calm things down and be consolidators. However, the higher up you go in the organization, the more people issues dominate what you worry about. I was recently asked about what keeps me awake at night. I spend half my time on personnel, some weeks more than that.  That said, the things I ruminate on at 3 a.m. are personnel choices, not policy files. Policy will get done. I constantly ask myself if this is the right person for that job. How am I going to help this person out of their conflict with their minister? Those things keep me up at night. I am sure that is true at the ADM level too.

The tone you set is crucial. I know you have heard this before. I am also sure that colleagues have said that you have to find safe places to vent your frustrations and irritations (especially if they are with PCO). Your workforce is watching you. You may not even know it, but they pick up the signaling of tone and mood. If you project the slightest bit of cynicism and war weariness, in four months that will be your organization.

It is uncanny how chameleon-like the public service is. As frustrated as you might be about something from the minister’s office, or what Treasury Board has done, or no matter how hard things are or a colleague is, you need that kind of game face and a persona that is relentless, resilient, happy warrior-like. Then you have to find ways to deal with the stresses and attend to your own personal resilience.

I could go on indefinitely but this is where I will end my remarks to you. You really have to look after your own health. Nobody else can do it for you. Get a Fitbit, or get a partner who will tell you. These are hard jobs. There is more to do than you can do. You are rationing your time and energy and leaving stuff undone, unread, unmet.

Your time management choices are important. They can grind you down and I have seen, as we have all seen, talented ADMs burn out. It is tough to recover from that. It can be done. People have recovered. We deal with those issues by reassigning people and giving them a road back. However, you have to be very mindful—to use the phrase these days—and you have to pay real attention to your own physical and mental well-being.

Thank you.

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