Transcript: How to Survive as an Executive, Season 1, Episode 1: Leading Remotely in a Crisis, with Pablo Sobrino
If you're going to define the new normal—
If there's a word of hope, that word of hope is that the new normal will be about getting to the priorities; getting the job done, but maybe doing it differently.
Annie Therriault: Hello, this is Annie Therriault. Welcome to your executive podcast. Our goal is to give you the opportunity to learn and be inspired by the stories, advice and even the failures of our guests who, just like you, are executives in the Public Service of Canada.
Whether you are between two meetings, commuting, waiting for your child or sitting comfortably, I'm happy to have you join us for this episode of How to Survive As an Executive, produced by the Canada School of Public Service.
Today, I welcome Pablo Sobrino, a retired public servant who, [over his] 38 years of service, went from a navigation officer to assistant deputy minister. In conversation, we will explore together his best practices for going through a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Get ready to take notes and let's go join our guest.
Hi Pablo, how are you today?
Pablo Sobrino: I'm good, Annie. How are you?
Annie Therriault: I'm very good. It's really nice to hear your voice because, as you know, these are very unprecedented times that we're facing now.
I don't know about you, but I know I have heard lots of stories about how the public service has stepped up to serve Canadians during this difficult and, let's say, weird context that we are in now.
Pablo, you have a lot of experience and we've been through many crises in the past. What's different for leaders in the actual context? Can you share your thoughts?
Pablo Sobrino: So, Annie, it's been interesting to watch this. As you know, I'm retired at this point, so I've never gone through something as dramatic as this global pandemic and the complete shutdown of so much of the economy in the country.
I think that the first week, for a lot of people, was very much a situation where there was disorientation. You have no idea, really, what's happening. You certainly have a sense of denial, like, This will soon be over. But by the end of that first week, people started to accept that this is going to take a little longer.
As an executive, responsible generally for a much larger workforce, you have your direct reports, but then they have to connect with theirs. I would have been starting to look at the priorities and things that I had to get done and what deliverables we were responsible for. Just part of the usual kind of, Okay, whatever I have to get done.
Annie Therriault: Yeah, very true. How do you think this has affected our work schedules and day-to-day reality?
Pablo Sobrino: Your work schedule, your work-life rhythm, has to be adjusted. You've got home schooling for children, if you have children; your partner working at home or you are by yourself. A lot of the interactions that you would normally have are completely changed. And then there's the question of, When will this all end?
I think people are now questioning what the future is going to look like. What is my job going to be? Is the work still going to continue? And what is the future of my work and my life? How is it going to combine?
Annie Therriault: What would you say is different for those EXs who are working in the areas of direct response to this crisis? Would they be struggling with something different?
Pablo Sobrino: Those EXs who are at the front end, who are in the action, [would] turn to action orientation. You set your life aside and you are probably quite demanding of your staff and task focused.
I am sure that was great for the first week or two. But then the pressure of the other part of your life, your home, you start to feel that pressure. As well, people on your team that aren't necessarily directly involved start to be neglected. And so they're kind of wandering around, wondering what they have to do. And, I assume, you are getting tired.
Annie Therriault: Yeah, it's not anything easy. So, you are in isolation. You need to stay at home. You don't even know how long it's going to last. It can be pretty destabilizing and as an EX you still remain accountable.
How do you deal with this? You mentioned deliverables, Pablo. How does it affect the way we as managers should set priorities?
Pablo Sobrino: Your priorities have changed. Your priorities have changed by the mere fact that you are not in your workplace anymore. You are trying to get work done. And do the deliverables matter anymore? That is the kind of question that you are probably asking yourself.
What you need to do, really, is just sit back and look at the priorities. Reorganize them. What priorities are the important ones to deliver? How do you keep the machine running?
And you're not in this alone. As a director, you have an entire team below you and that team is there to help you through that and to determine those priorities. That way of dealing with destabilization is connection, is communication. It's getting together with your team, checking in on your team, being kind to your team.
Remember that your team is suffering, or potentially suffering, the same or even more pressures, with younger families, with spouses that may have lost their work, with concerns about parents or other people that are more vulnerable in this situation.
Annie Therriault: This is so true. Everybody is wondering, What's going to happen with me and my job in this context? For those EXs who are working in the areas of direct response to this crisis, what would they be struggling with? Anything different for them?
Pablo Sobrino: [You] have to accept that people will not necessarily be as productive nor have the [right] tools. I have a colleague, actually a neighbour, who is a director. That director works in a department which is on the front lines. He can only access his work email between 8 o'clock and 9 o'clock at night. They put everybody on shifts because there is not enough bandwidth in the system to be able to manage everybody working from home. He has to think of what he needs to download, and what he needs to upload, between eight and nine at night, every night.
I don't know anyone who is not feeling anxious in some way. They are anxious in the broadest sense of the word. Even just listening to the news causes anxiety. That anxiousness needs to be recognized.
My [recommendation] would be to stay off social media. Collect facts from reputable sites. Get information so you understand; be able to share with your team the information that you have, including what you don't know.
We do not know when this will end. You're here to define the new normal. If there's a word of hope, that word of hope is that the new normal will be about getting to the priorities; getting the job done, but maybe doing it differently.
Annie Therriault: I want to come back to something you said earlier. You mentioned we need to stay connected. But not everybody is equal across the public service. Some people are well equipped to work virtually. They have experience with this. For others, it is totally new to them. This brings up all the aspects of communication.
How do we stay connected in times of crises and specifically this one? How would you deal with such communication challenges? Any insights on that?
Pablo Sobrino: You have to come up with a way of communicating that you are able to reach everyone—and not everyone simultaneously. I'm thinking of people working in remote areas; people who are working at sea; people who are working in small towns in the North. Those people are much more difficult to get messages out to.
You have to find a channel, for lack of a better word, where you are going to actually connect with people. So it's either phone, email or a video call. As much as possible, it's actually person-to-person communication. This is not the time for group emails, especially in the initial connection.
I would want to be in touch with how people are doing, so that we can accommodate and set up a buddy system, for instance, to support those that are alone, some way of relieving pressure by re-looking at work priorities. I would tailor it. I would have to do it one on one.
It's a lot of work for me as an EX to make sure that all this happens. In fact, I do believe that as an executive, your number-one job is your people, not all the work that needs to be done. Once you've got your people, then you worry about the work.
Annie Therriault: I'm sure there'll be tons of analysis about what went well and what we can do to improve. As a leader so far, any lessons learned? What have we learned from all this?
Pablo Sobrino: We have learned. The rollout of the emergency relief benefit, the CERB [Canada Emergency Response Benefit], was done within two or three weeks, and done successfully. That shows that we as public servants can deliver what needs to be delivered to Canadians and we can get past the processes that slow us down.
I recognize that a lot of processes that we do have to do with accountability. But the question that rises in my mind is: How can we deal with accountability differently? Do we have better processes we can put in place? Am I serving Canadians the best that I can? I am going to use this "opportunity," for lack of a better word, to actually deliver my services differently.
Finally, I think that the other piece is very much around understanding. I think everybody now has a better understanding of what it means to have mental health concerns.
Annie Therriault: Thank you for this, Pablo. If we were to leave people with one thing that they could do to make sure that they survive this episode, is there one thing you, as an EX, think that we should all remember today?
Pablo Sobrino: First of all, take care of yourself. And taking care of yourself is to recognize that you're stretched. Recognize that it's difficult and recognize that you're anxious and develop some strategies for dealing with that. Whether that be exercising, meditating, just some different ways of taking care of yourself.
The other piece I would do is connect. Connect with your networks. Your professional networks are all there, they are still there. Your colleagues are still your colleagues. Reach out to them, connect and share your stories.
The last thing is make sure that if you need help to deal with how you're feeling, that you reach out and get that help from your EAP (Employee Assistance Program) or from any of the other resources we have available to us as public servants.
Annie Therriault: Well, thank you so much, Pablo. Thank you for sharing your thoughts today. Thank you for your wisdom and for your experience. I am sure we will all benefit from that. I know I will.
Certainly, remember to take care of ourselves, make sure we communicate that deliverables are important, but probably not in the same way as they were before. Most of all, to just acknowledge that we are living in a different situation now. And if we do need help, to reach out and make sure we keep our people close and safe. Thanks once again and I wish you a great day.
Pablo Sobrino: Thanks, Annie, and you take care of yourself.
Annie Therriault: Thank you for spending time with us. We invite you to continue the conversation and to share this podcast with your social media community. Would you like to participate or nominate a guest? [If so], please contact us.
Stay well. Take good care of yourself. You are important.