Transcript: How to Survive as an Executive, Season 1, Episode 3: Leading with Calm and Authenticity, with Valerie Gideon, Ph.D.
Julie Blais Comeau: Humility. Love. Wisdom. All of those things are important. We don't often talk about those kinds of values in the public service. But that's what builds resiliency.
Julie Blais Comeau: You love your job as an executive, but it's not always easy. You do your best to balance your personal life with your professional life.
Hello, I'm Julie Blais Comeau. Welcome to the podcast, How to Survive as an Executive.
In this podcast, I chat with Dr. Valerie Gideon, a member of the Mi'kmaq Nation of Gesgapegiag. She's the Senior Assistant Deputy Minister, First Nations and Inuit Health Branch at Indigenous Services Canada. She will share insight and knowledge to help you lead with calm and authenticity while maintaining your identity.
We're in the midst of the pandemic. The anti-racism movement is taking action globally. Plus, we are at the beginning of National Indigenous History Month. We are so grateful for your presence. Welcome.
Valerie Gideon: Thank you.
Julie Blais Comeau: What's most challenging when you become an executive in the Public Service of Canada?
Valerie Gideon: I think that there's a large, very complex number of competencies that we're expected to have: excellent strategic analysis [skills] to be able to make the linkages between what's happening across the country, right down to what's happening to our immediate teams.
There are expectations of [our] being fantastic as external and internal communicators [and] being able to dialogue with the minister's office, central agencies, provincial and territorial representatives, and of course, members of the public that we serve; union representatives and also our immediate employees. And then we also have new generations of public servants that are coming forward.
So there's a lot of expectations, while often, in the private sector or even to some degree, in non-profit [organizations], you're expected to exercise more of a specialized role. Your client base may be more narrow; you're not as close to politics. I think that the public service executives are really some of the most complex jobs in Canada.
Julie Blais Comeau: And communications, from what I'm hearing, communications and being able to adapt to different audiences is a big part of it as well.
Valerie Gideon: Absolutely. You know, your ability to listen is what really distinguishes— It was a grand chief in B.C. who taught me that the difference between a public servant and a bureaucrat is that the bureaucrat will come in with the solution to all problems: Here's my proposal. Here's my opinion. Here's the decision that we've made.
The public servant invests time to listen; does not come in with a formulated solution or so attached to their own opinion that they cannot deviate from that. It is very important to listen, to have empathy; to listen to understand, not to listen to respond.
Julie Blais Comeau: To be able to do that—Would you have a tip for a young up-and-coming executive to develop his or her listening skills and questioning abilities?
Valerie Gideon: I do mentor a number of young Indigenous employees in particular. The advice that I give them is to have patience. Take the time to exercise various roles in the particular issue or area that interests them; that they're passionate about.
But [also] work in a community setting; work in a non-profit organization. If possible, work in another level of government. When you come into the public service, work on the operational side, work on the policy side, and then you will really have a fantastic 360-degree view. You will have a lot richer experience than others.
You will also have built an excellent network of contacts on which you can rely. Your instincts will be right on. When somebody asks you something, you're not going to have to read a briefing note. You will know because you were there.
Julie Blais Comeau: Now, let's speak to a young Indigenous public servant or somebody that wishes to enter the public service. What could be some of the challenges that we can all learn from?
Valerie Gideon: One of the young women that I mentor wants to be the first Indigenous Clerk of the Privy Council and she can totally do it! But I emphasize the importance of patience. It does concern me when young public servants move up very quickly through the ranks and I see them plateauing at a level for many years because they're not able to succeed in EX-level competitions because they don't have enough diversity of experience.
Experience builds resiliency and experience builds competency in a way that training or a master's degree could never ever do. You have to put yourself in a lot of different situations as well as build your own resiliency for stress, for taking risks, for knowing how to make informed decisions and not to manage up.
Often, what I see happen, when public servants have moved too quickly forward—some of them have made it into the EX-01 level, for instance, but they're afraid to make decisions. They either will sit on dockets for a long period of time or keep sending them back down to their teams for details because they are not sure.
Julie Blais Comeau: It doesn't happen overnight. Becoming a public service executive is not something that's a very short mandate. You should have your eye on the long term; it's a mission. So how do you balance and keep in harmony with your different roles?
Valerie Gideon: Well, I mean, I hope that people will do work that they enjoy and not based on any level. I have never taken a job on the basis of level in my life. I have always remained very connected to the work itself. But I do think that regardless of the path you take, you feel passionate about it; you are connected to it with your heart.
Some of the Seven Grandfather Teachings are important. Humility. Love. Wisdom. All of those things are important. We don't often talk about those kinds of values in the public service, but that's what builds resiliency.
It's very rare to see an executive in the public service talking about how love is important to their work. But it is important, when you think about the number of hours that we spend away from our families and our friends because we are working. We're not all doing that because of a paycheque. We're doing that because we love the work that we do and the people that we work with.
Julie Blais Comeau: Yes. And so what keeps you grounded?
Valerie Gideon: In my case, listening to leaders, listening to external partners. When I had an opportunity to work more closely with Inuit leadership across Inuit Nunangat, that was an incredibly humbling experience for me because I really had had no real exposure or connection or knowledge or experience with Inuit. And [working with] Inuit is very different than working with First Nations. I think about it all the time.
I also ask for a lot of feedback. To be grounded, you do have to make sure that people know that they can give you feedback that you might not want to hear; that people will feel safe to come to you when you're doing year-end performance assessments or even mid-year.
The first question you should be asking your direct reports is, What's your feedback for me? What do I need to do to better support you? You can't ask them that afterwards because whatever feedback you are giving them will bias their ability to give you an honest answer. So you've got to start out at the beginning, but make them feel safe in the relationship so that they can do that.
Julie Blais Comeau: Now, what don't we know about you? What could some colleagues or what could a young executive be surprised to hear about you, about your dedication to Indigenous health?
Valerie Gideon: I don't think that there is a lot that people would be surprised to hear about me with respect to my professional life. I do think that I try to emphasize a lot of accessibility and I share a lot with people like a sharing circle kind of conversation.
But they might be surprised to know that I love hip hop music and rap music. And, you know, they would probably be quite surprised to see how I dress on the weekends and things like that. [laughs]
Julie Blais Comeau: So tell us more. If I saw you, if I crossed you on the street on the weekend, what would I see you wearing?
Valerie Gideon: It's the baseball cap and the sneakers. And, you know, a hoodie that makes me look like I'm 13 years old! But, professionally?
The fact that I can't answer that question is probably a good sign, because I do think that I have tried to maximize the transparency of who I am in order to be able to truly convey my commitment and my authenticity.
Julie Blais Comeau: Yes. And we can certainly hear it in your voice. I have to raise my hand to the hoodie on the weekend. So comfortable. [laughs]
Valerie Gideon, this has been most enjoyable. I'd like to know, in closing—We are just starting National Indigenous History Month; what should we remember during this month?
Valerie Gideon: The history is not really history; it's extremely recent history. So I have family members that went to day schools; I know a significant number of people that are my age whose parents went to residential schools. The child family services system and the incredible discriminatory aspect of that system for decades is very recent history and still ongoing, in particular contexts.
The instances, as you referenced at the beginning, of racism that we continue to see in our society: that's not history unless you consider something that happened yesterday, history.
I think people do need to not just learn about the past, but also confront the fact that in society there is still a tremendous amount of racism and bias against Indigenous Peoples.
People think that they get a handout from the government; that they don't want to work; that they don't want to improve the well-being of their communities; they don't want prosperity; they don't want to contribute to Canada's prosperity.
All those things are completely and utterly false. Confronting the fact that those beliefs are racist beliefs: that is what I would recommend people do.
Julie Blais Comeau: Yes, yes. We have to raise a hand. We have to stand up. We have to speak out to those racist comments.
Thank you very much for reminding us. Thank you very much for the gift of your time and for what you do for our country, including your two daughters. Thank you, Valerie Gideon.
Valerie Gideon: Thank you very much. Wela'lin.
Julie Blais Comeau: Thank you for tuning in. We hope that already you are breathing more deeply and that you have picked up a couple of tips to honour yourself while leading with calm and integrity.
We invite you to continue the conversation by sharing our podcast.
Do you know an executive who would be a good guest or better yet, would you like to participate? Please contact us.
Take the time to breathe. Step back to occasionally recharge your batteries. You deserve it.