Transcript: How to Survive as an Executive, Season 2, Episode 1: Learning from your Mistakes, with Caroline Xavier
Caroline Xavier: This is not me promoting, it's ok to make mistakes. It's just realizing that mistakes will happen, because the world is what it is and the decisions we make are what they are, and you learn so much from them.
Annie Therriault: We may be leaders and executives, but first and foremost, we are human. Despite our best efforts, we're bound to make mistakes along the way. So when that happens, how can we make the best of it? Can all mistakes be forgiven? If not, what kind of impact can they have on our career? I'll be discussing these questions and more in a conversation with Caroline Xavier, Associate Deputy Minister at the Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. Come listen to Ms. Xavier, who has generously shared her experience on how we can learn from our mistakes and in turn, better survive as an executive. Hello, I'm Annie Therriault, welcome to How to Survive as an Executive. Please note that this episode was recorded in a bilingual format.
Annie Therriault: Caroline Xavier, thank you for being with us today to speak about mistakes and how we can learn from our mistakes. My eight years as an executive, I certainly made a lot of mistakes, so this is a topic I'm familiar with.
Caroline Xavier: So Annie, really happy to be here and you're absolutely right, you know, that's ultimately the point here. This is not me promoting, it's ok to make mistakes. It's just realizing that mistakes will happen, because the world is what it is and the decisions we make are what they are, and you learn so much from them.
Annie Therriault: I can tell you, you're definitely a huge inspiration for many women out there. And you probably know that. I hope you do. Does that add a little bit more pressure sometimes, though, to know that and do you feel it?
Caroline Xavier: I feel the pressure sometimes, but I feel it more, I have to tell you, honestly, being the first Black deputy minister. You're carrying a community with you and you don't want to let them down. And I know that a lot of people of colour really understand what it feels like to feel that pressure at times. And with that, I just want us to be far more forgiving of ourselves. So this is why I think it's important that people recognize that taking risks, making mistakes, it's part of the growing up process. Our employees don't expect us to have all the answers. On the contrary, they expect you to own up to the fact that you've made mistakes or own up to the fact that you don't know everything. And they will appreciate you even more, especially in the times we're in now.
Annie Therriault: Yes, true. But Ms. Xavier, what if it's a big mistake? I mean, sometimes it's okay, it's the cost of learning and we can forgive ourselves easily or easier let's say, if not easily. But are all mistakes forgivable?
Caroline Xavier: Well, that's a good question. I don't know that all mistakes are forgivable. Lawbreaking ones, you know, come with consequences, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't still own up to the mistake. And, you know, when we think of the Phoenix project, for example, we saw audits come out about it and so on. Those are major mistakes and so ultimately, these are the lessons we learn and we need to be able to learn from them for future projects in order not to repeat them. I don't know that people that are feeling the pain of their pay are feeling that's forgivable. So, you know, they're not all created equal, you're right, but I think that this is why we have to kind of take our time as we're maneuvering through transitions and periods of transition. Documenting is so critically important when we're doing major initiatives or major program change. But we have to analyze the risks. Risks that are part of the everyday things that we do when we're making decisions. If it was so risk free, we'd be pretty boring, I'd say, and we wouldn't be as innovative as we want to be.
Annie Therriault: Exactly. We'll come back to risk in a minute. So we did have an example of a situation where a mistake can have a huge impact on employees and even sometimes on citizens, but what if it has a big impact on our own career as executives. In your opinion, does that make a big difference? How can we recuperate from that type of mistake?
Caroline Xavier: So to recuperate from a mistake of your own career. I think that can take a lot of time, actually. I mean, because if you've made a mistake, that could be, as they call it 'career limiting'. There are a couple of options one might consider. One is, consider changing department, changing position, but the one thing that's the main principle that has to remain consistent is what did you learn? Because if you've learned nothing, then why did it happen? Was it worth it? And you've got to really start to think, is this the right career for you? Is it the right job for you? Is this the right moment for you to be able to continue working in this environment? This goes back a bit to the point you made earlier, but are some mistakes unforgivable? Perhaps they are. But I guess what I'm worried about in giving this advice or in talking about this, I wouldn't want people to think that there isn't a way to make your way back. It may take time. It may take many years. It may take many months, and you have to constantly prove yourself. I mean, as people know who have had trust broken, it takes time and it takes time to rebuild relationships and so one has to be cognizant of that and then ask themselves, is it worth the rebuild if it's that damaged?
Annie Therriault: The other thing that also reminds me of it is that, really, we always try to be there to support our bosses, our assistant deputy ministers, etc. These situations can even have a significant impact on the trusting relationship we have with them. So, how do we restore that trust? If the relationship has ever been damaged, how do you get that relationship back? How can you restore it?
Caroline Xavier: The first thing is to admit that you made the mistake, because a boss is not going to like someone who comes back into the environment without ever admitting their mistake. It's going to be important to demonstrate to the boss what are the lessons learned from the mistake that occurred. What are you going to do differently next time to mitigate the risk, to make sure the mistake doesn't happen again? You have to be honest with your superiors and with yourself. Again, this is a display of vulnerability and I'll tell you, being vulnerable isn't a bad thing. This is really important because, first, someone can see that you are being honest in admitting the mistake. Also, your employee will understand and will see that you are vulnerable, that you are humble, that you have learned something and in a sense, they are going to be there to support you.
Annie Therriault: Exactly. You've touched a little bit earlier on risk-taking and I'd like to come back to this one, because it's really something all executives have to deal with in their everyday jobs. We've heard a lot lately about smart risk-taking and how this has been encouraged by senior executives. And as much as we have this message, it's still hard to actually act on that, because our culture is still very risk-averse. So how can we maneuver in that context?
Caroline Xavier: COVID has shown us that we can't hang on, for example, to the old business models. Things have to evolve. We've put out applications in rapid speed, you know, to help serve Canadians. Well, that took smart risk-taking. That took having a risk tolerance culture. The thing that we have to work towards now is hanging on to those behaviours, so that we can replicate them in everyday decisions, in everything we do. It is forcing us to reflect on how we deliver our business for Canadians and within our respective departments. I know that in the dialogues that I'm having with fellow deputies, we are very much talking about how can we continue to instill some of the lessons learned from COVID, that we continue to be agile in adapting and flexible in the way in which we're managing things. Because we really have to come to this experimental aspect of things and how taking chances and experimenting is something worth doing, because that's how we will eventually get to the better outcomes.
Annie Therriault: Exactly. But this was all in the context of an emergency. In your opinion, have we learned that lesson strong enough to find in ourselves the will to keep those behaviours going, removing hierarchy, not as much bureaucracy, departments collaborating together to make all the new programs happen very quickly. So in your opinion, do you think we will be able to maintain that momentum and keep those behaviours in place?
Caroline Xavier: This is the fear, exactly what you're saying. The fear that as we get back to what will be the next normal, that we're because we're not going to feel the crisis or the pressure.
Annie Therriault: Exactly, yes.
Caroline Xavier: That exactly - that we may go back to original behaviours and I think that this is on us, especially as executives, to be able to create those environments. Not that you want to create pressure, because that's not fun either to have constant crisis mode, but to be able to create the conditions that allow for people to continue to be innovative or to have the ability to work horizontally. That is what deputies want. Deputies want people to consult, to engage, to work horizontally across the board. I really do think we're going to work really hard as a community. That's my intention. And I know that this is very much what the Clerk is driving us to do. I don't have a straight answer. It's not going to be easy. It's just that we can't give up just because it's too easy to snap back.
Annie Therriault: Exactly. So there's still a lot of areas where every executive does have control, influence and can make a concrete step for this to continue to happen.
Ms. Xavier, without being intrusive, is there any other learning that you have been able to do that you could not have done without making a few mistakes like that? Or are there things maybe you learned from those mistakes that you think were worth it?
Caroline Xavier: Absolutely. Listen, for sure we are in an environment that prefers no surprises. So that's a lesson that I learned quite early on and that I have retained in my other positions. You really have to trust yourself and listen to your little voice. Carefully read the details of some documents. For example, when we think about briefing notes, sometimes we are very busy. Then we sign without having examined all the details. Of course, you can do this occasionally and for certain documents, but you have to pay attention to the types of documents. Where is it going? Who will be the last people to read it? Is it for your department? Are these issues of life or death? Of course, not everything is equal. And then, we have to manage our busy schedule. But I would be worried if we weren't paying enough attention to the details. And then these are lessons that I have personally learned. Again, I didn't listen to my voice when she told me to pay attention to this briefing note. Then I let it go and it came back to me. Fortunately, someone has made up for it elsewhere, but it is not okay to trust others. I'm probably the last person to work on this document before it gets to the next level.
Annie Therriault: Ms. Xavier, in closing, do you sometimes say to yourself that you would have liked to know such and such a thing at the start of your executive career, because it would have made your life so much simpler or easier, that it would have help you so much? Is there anything that comes to your mind when I ask you this question?
Caroline Xavier: Of course, when you start as a new executive, you can't wait, you're excited. We think we can do anything, we have a lot of energy. And that's good. We don't want to waste this energy. But I can tell you that sometimes, because of that confidence, you don't think you have things to learn. So I would say one piece of advice that I learned early on, especially as an executive, is to be open to constructive feedback. Be open to the fact that you don't know all the answers, and that your coworkers, customers, employees or supervisors can teach you things. Because when you are open to hearing feedback, firstly it helps you get to know yourself better, know your strengths and weaknesses, but also it helps you better understand the environment, your own strengths. And also to better understand the environment in which you work in order to reduce the number of mistakes you will make. And maybe also giving yourself the confidence to try things that are difficult. At the start of my career, yes, I was confident in what I was doing, but sure enough I didn't know everything. But I thought I knew it all, or I thought I knew more. To admit from the start when you make a mistake, it matures.
Annie Therriault: Excellent. So know yourself well, be open to learning about yourself, the diversity of our mistakes, be transparent. That's really the message I got from our conversation today.
Caroline Xavier: Thank you very much, Annie, it was a great pleasure to be here with you.
Annie Therriault: We hope that our conversation with Ms. Xavier has inspired you and that you now feel better prepared for the next steps in your career, although it may include a few missteps along the way. We invite you to continue the conversation by sharing this podcast with your network. Do you know an executive that has a great story to share? Better yet, do you want to participate? Do not hesitate to contact us. And remember that you will always make mistakes, but only by learning from them will you grow and advance in your career. Thank you for your attention.