Transcript: How to Survive as an Executive, Season 2, Episode 3: Speaking Truth to Power, with Michel Doiron
Michel Doiron: You will get the information very straight from me. I won't do it in front of 200 people—I'm going to be very respectful; I'll choose my time—but you can be sure that I will give you the good, the bad and the ugly.
Annie Therriault: An important aspect of our job as EXs is to brief senior management and support them with their decision making. However, it's not always easy to speak truth to power. So how can we ensure that the truth is based on facts and that our briefings give the full picture? How can we share difficult news when we're concerned about the possible impact on us or on our career? Can we master this skill? Hello, I'm Annie Therriault. Welcome to "How to Survive as an Executive." Today, we're talking to Michel Doiron, who has held multiple roles as a senior executive, notably that of Assistant Deputy Minister at Veterans Affairs Canada. I had the chance to work alongside Michel during his career in Atlantic Canada. He has taken a short break from his retirement to share with us some tips and tricks with regard to speaking truth to power. Come listen to what he has to offer to help us survive as an executive.
Annie Therriault: Hello, Michel Doiron. It's so nice to see you again, to have you talk to us today about speaking truth to power. So welcome back!
Michel Doiron: It's a great pleasure for me to be here today, to have a chance to talk about this very important subject. Thank you very much.
Annie Therriault: Yeah, I know this is a topic dear to your heart, Michel, but it's not the easiest thing to do all the time. And so, how can we find the courage to do it, to tell the facts as they are, sometimes...when they aren't nice to hear? How do we actually go about that, and why is it important to do it, even if it's uncomfortable?
Michel Doiron: I find that young executives seem to have this concern about giving bad news to their boss, and they shouldn't. Good, bad or ugly, give the facts. And often...people...they're afraid for their career. They're afraid of the ramifications of giving bad news, and either they'll sweep it under the rug—, not share it or give it—or they're so hesitant that it doesn't come out the right way. And once it does, once they do, then we're into major issues that could have been resolved earlier. So I've always encouraged my direct reports and people reporting to me to give me all the facts, because for me to be able to make a good, sound decision, I need to know the information. And I don't want to read about it in the Globe and Mail tomorrow morning or the Telegraph Journal or... wherever you live, right? It's a skill set that executives should work on, because it comes down to honesty; it comes down to "here's an area I'm concerned about, and boss, you should also be concerned about it."
Annie Therriault: Michel, I've been in a situation just...similar to what you're describing, where I was at an event hearing my DM speak and I was thinking, "Oh, my God, she's missing a big piece of information. She needs to know this." And then the person organizing the event was looking at me...you can't talk to her. And, you know...so there was a lot of resistance from her entourage. So how do we go around those obstacles? Because sometimes, they're very well surrounded. How do we make sure they actually get that message the way we want the message to be heard?
Michel Doiron: Absolutely. And that's a great question. It's like when I used to read a briefing note. I knew it had been sanitized, like about five times, before I got it, right?
Annie Therriault: Exactly [laughing].
Michel Doiron: So for me, I always made it my duty to know who works in the entourage with my supervisor and to get to know them, not just to be able to pick up a phone and have the hard conversations, but to actually understand them and where they are coming from. Now, you know, some people have their own boss, have their own agendas, and they'll do what they need to do or think they need to do. And some are just trying to protect the boss. But if I knew that these were the people that would put up the barriers—which is a little different than your situation that you were mentioning, but it's in the same vein—then what I would do is...at my bilat, I would say, "well, as I discussed with your chief of staff or your strategic advisor, I'm preoccupied by...," right? Blah, blah, blah. The other thing I always did is...when I got a new boss, because I worked in eight departments, and I forget how many deputy ministers and associate deputy ministers I've reported to...but very early, I would have a conversation with them saying, "Ok, this is who I am. You will get the information very straight from me. I won't do it in front of 200 people. I'm going to be very respectful; I'll choose my time. But, you can be sure that I will give you the good, the bad and the ugly," as I said earlier. So then, there was no surprise. As one of my previous bosses used to say, "surprises for the enemy, not for your friends." Now, for an EX-01 to be dealing with a deputy minister and do that, that may be a little bit more difficult. In my operations, all throughout my career, though, I used to love going and walking on the floors and talking to staff—which would drive all my executives crazy—because that's where I'm going to get the real information. And the first time, they won't talk much, because they're intimidated a bit, right? But you know what? After a couple of times, it's surprising what staff will actually tell you.
Annie Therriault: Mmhm.
Michel Doiron: Now, with your example, that's not easy. But sometimes, you just need to do it. And I've been there, and I have the scars to prove it. You just have to do it. Then...what I did, I think, in all cases...after I would go and say, "Are we OK? I apologize for putting you on the spot, but it had to be done." And some people will take it and some people won't. And you know what? Life is short.
Annie Therriault: Yes, and is there, like, sort of an environmental context or maybe a set of values that makes it easier to speak truth to power? And you've been on both sides. You've spoken truth to the power you reported to, but you were also the power sometimes. So how do you make it easier for people to actually accomplish that?
Michel Doiron: Well, I always held my executives accountable. It's the value of honesty, OK? It is the core of the public service. We are apolitical. Our job is to give honest advice and then...you know...to implement honourably...you know...the programs.
Annie Therriault: Mmhm.
Michel Doiron: And in my organizations throughout my career, I made sure that everybody reporting to me took it seriously, because I can't be successful if you're not successful, but if you're not going to tell me all the right information, none of us are going to be successful. So we need to work together, but you need to build that rapport.
Annie Therriault: So was there a moment in time where you were at it and thinking, "oh, this is a major learning moment for me" or where you thought, "oh, if I were to do it again, I'd do it very differently"? What can you tell us about that, so we can learn from that, too?
Michel Doiron: Yeah, I...over my career, I've learned how to live with the consequences of my decisions, and hopefully, I get more right than I get wrong. So, I don't dwell on the decisions much. But yes, there are some decisions that I would make differently. And one that comes to mind is...when I was at Transport Canada...about a certain program, and I'd been quite forceful about it. And at the end of the day, the deputy minister at the time got a little bit upset with me, and we had a conversation. And throughout my career, you know, I've always analyzed the questions "how did we get to where we are?"—like, "how did we start talking about this?"—and finished with that conversation. Sometimes, that analysis is quite easy; it's straightforward. Sometimes it's not. This was one of those cases where I just could not figure out how we had landed where we landed. And I thought it was a bad decision. Well, the joys of travelling in those days from Ottawa to Moncton...by the time I got back to the office the next day, it had dawned on me that I was basing my decision on my perception of the facts, not all the facts. And my decision would have been wrong. As much as I hate saying my decision would've been wrong, it would have been wrong. And I came to realize that sometimes, maybe, it's better to think a bit more before I really get into this exchange and try to listen more to the other person's point of view. And when it's not clear to me, I'd say something like, "I don't understand how you're getting to where you are. Can you explain it to me a different way?" And in most cases...now, I didn't do it that time, but over the years I learned by doing that. Often I realize I missed something important in the conversation because of my own paradigms or my own perceptions of what was going on, or my own understanding. Maybe because I wasn't fully briefed or...sometimes I realized, no, that person was not given all the facts or was given wrong facts. And then we're going to have that dialogue based on facts. Now, sometimes they won't be happy with you, and say you have 25 minutes, you have half an hour to make a decision on this.... But usually they would understand. Now you can't do that every day, by the way...like you need to know your stuff and then make a decision or then give your advice. And sometimes I would say it anyway and get in trouble anyway, but....
Annie Therriault: [Laughing] That's also part of being who you are, right?
Michel Doiron: Yes, yes.
Annie Therriault: Well, that was very nice of you Michel, to share your big knowledge and very vast experience with us. You've been around for the longest time, so we're always happy to hear from you and to be able to learn the tips and tricks. What I will remember is the importance of a good briefing based on facts and knowing the players and the entourage. We have to build a rapport with people and also to know everybody else's point of view. But as you said, honesty remains key...honesty and transparency...in the work we do, and that's how we will survive in speaking truth to power. So thanks again for being with us today. It was great to see you again.
Michel Doiron: Thank you so much for having me. Any time. It was a true pleasure.
Annie Therriault: Thank you for listening. We hope that this conversation with Michel Doiron inspired you and that you take away some useful ideas to help you speak truth to power. We invite you to continue this conversation by sharing this podcast with your network. Do you know an executive who has a great story to share? Better yet, would you like to participate? If so, please contact us. So enjoy. And we wish you luck in providing well-prepared briefings that will also be well received.