Monday, September 26, 2011

Everything’s Gone Green

Three days in Vancouver.  Three days to sprint from meeting to meeting, with such an array of people.  Mayors, city administrators, port authorities, immigrant settlement organizations.  We visited the Insite supervised injection site in the Downtown East side.  It affected me on so many levels, I am still trying to make sense of it.

What struck me most about this visit?  First, the language of green is everywhere.  It was a key element of almost every organization we encountered.  Vancouver has a goal to be the greenest city on earth by 2020.  When even the Port Authority has it as a major element of their strategic plan, you know that something is happening. 

Second, there really does seem to be an emerging consensus that the most effective way to deal with homelessness is to provide housing.  Sounds obvious, yet when I think back to our visit in January to Calgary, there was quite a debate going on.  Do we increase funding and support to shelters, or do we invest in supportive housing?  Certainly, in BC the view appears to be that housing is the way to go.  Virtually everyone we met with spoke with passion and conviction about this, and there are ambitious plans in place to provide the housing needed.  Surrey has already gone quite far in this area, and Victoria is moving quickly.  And there is a very ambitious plan to provide many more units in the downtown east side of Vancouver.
This leg of our journey truly highlighted for me the richness and diversity of leadership types.  From directive, take-charge types, to others who were typical of the “leading from behind” school, to others who favoured a collaborative, team-based approach.  Different styles for different circumstances.   There was a constant, though.  They were completely present.  They were passionate and determined.  They were committed.  So, dare I say it?  I wonder whether we grow those kinds of leaders in the public service.  We are pretty risk-averse, and we do not reward people who deviate too far from our public service norm.  I know that we have lots of talented people, but are we as great as we could be?  When we hire someone, do we ask ourselves, “is this someone who wants to make Canada better?” What would happen if everyone did that?

It makes me wonder what kind of leader I am, and what do I need to do to be a better one?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

If this is Tueday....where am I?

Finally have arrived in Vancouver, where we have the luxury of three nights in the same hotel!  Since Sunday, it has been a hullabaloo of activity, with very little sleep and a bewildering array of meetings.

We arrived late Sunday at our hotel in Victoria, and had to check out the next morning, because we had to go straight from our last meeting to the airport for a flight to Kelowna.  We met with the Chief Constable for Victoria, who talked about the importance of being rooted in the community, and the positive difference that the police can make.  We then had a couple of meetings with some amazingly impressive deputy ministers from the province....incidentally, both women.  They were each very different from the other, but clearly impressive leaders.  And they are driving a major change initiative through the province....really focused on two things:  driving greater efficiency and focus in the public service, and re-orienting programs and service delivery to be about citizen service and open government.  It took my breath away.  And I was  bit envious, since their entire public service is 21,000 people, and as they pointed out, that is a good size to undertake the kind of change they seek.  Much much harder to do in a huge, decentralized organization such as ours.

We also met with the mayor....and it brought back fond memories of my time working on the cities file.  Mayors are fascinating people.  They work so closely with their citizens, and I have never met a mayor who was not passionate about their work.  He was quite candid in saying that  he thinks he has the best job in the world. He is a pragmatic idealist, who clearly loves his city (and really, what's not to love about Victoria?  it is a gorgeous city with an excellent quality of life).

Our flight to Kelowna required a layover at Vancouver's airport, and with the incredible delay in getting our luggage, we did not arrive at the hotel till 9 pm....only to find that my "accessible" room had not been readied for me.  I was still on Ottawa time, and had had about 5 hours sleep the previous night, and by the time my room was ready it was 11, and we had a 4 a.m. wake up call.  Oh, I do love to sleep, and really need at least 6 hours to feel human.  I lose a lot of brain cells without a good sleep.  

That being said, we had a series of meetings in Kelowna that were superb....from the Chief of the extremely successful Osoyoos band, who told us about his formula....which is quite simple: focus on economic development and achieving full employment on the reserve, and many of the other problems can be fixed.  It was frustrating to not have time to visit a bit longer on the reserve, because I felt there was so much to learn there.

Our afternoon took us back to Kelowna for meetings with people involved in building the high tech sector....such a refreshing set of visits with people full of ideas, and the infrastructure to make things happen.  

Okay....can we talk weather and location?  It is GORGEOUS! Mountains, vineyards, orchards, the's no wonder people flock here to retire.  But the focus now is to attract young entrepreneurs, to diversify the economy, and take advantage of the fantastic location.

Stay tuned for more....Vancouver is proving to be a very rich and rewarding visit!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

so I forgot my toothbrush and we got fogged in.....

It was obviously my fault.  Despite warnings that Cape Dorset gets a lot of fog, and there is always a risk that planes can't land, I went with the weather forecast....sunny, with a 30% chance of fog.  A calculated risk.  When we got to the Iqaluit airport we were warned that our outbound plane might not be able to land, but at the last minute we got the green light and off we went to this tiny hamlet, and mecca for Inuit art.  It has the highest number of artists per capita in canada.  
We were so graciously received. I want to give a shout out to Olayuk Akesuk, former MLA and Cabinet Minister for the Territory, who is now the CAO for the hamlet....and an amazing man.  Deeply rooted in his culture, but very savvy about the Southern world and its ways.  He organized a wonderful day for us, with meetings with the Deputy Mayor, members of the local RCMP detachment. And he arranged for the one accessible van, used to transport disabled school kids and elders around the community, to be available to take me around.  We had a brief driving tour of the community, which is beautifully situated among spectacular rocky hills, and the water.  Very picturesque....except for the very large and very visible dump just on the outskirts of the community.

The highlight for me was the lunch at the community centre.  Understand that this is a very remote community and food is not easy to ship in.  But we were treated to a lovely lunch of arctic char soup and bannock.  And then two young girls from the local high school treated us to a throat singing performance, and it was so good it may the hair stand up on the back of my neck.  It is an intricate art form and quite mesmerizing.

We had a crash course in the community....formed some 60 years ago when the nomadic peoples of the region were "relocated" to this hamlet, to make it easier for government officials to manage them, and the fur trade. The arrival of alcohol has had a tremendous effect on the community.  According to the RCMP, 90% of the crime can be attributed to drinking, including some rampant domestic violence.  There is also a lot of teen pregnancy, and we saw lots of young mothers carrying their babies on their backs, in their traditional coats.

But it is also a hotbed of creativity. In the 60s, James Houston arrived in town with a create a community of carvers and print makers.  Until then, carving had been for personal use and often very utilitarian.  Since then, the Dorset Artists Coop has become world famous for the quality of its work, many of which are in galleries, including the National Gallery in Ottawa, and some of which are available to rent through the Canada Council Art Bank (I know, because I have a couple of gorgeous modern sculptures in my office).  We were so excited to visit the studio, however it was bereft of both artists and art on the day of our visit.  No artists were on-site that day, and most of the art had been packed for shipment to their affiliated gallery in Toronto.  There were a few pieces left, and we descended on them like hungry art wolves.  I did pick up a lovely print, and one of my colleagues, Helena acquired a spectacular piece of sculpture.

We headed back to the airport with our loot only to hear our plane fly by overhead, and then be told that the pilot had opted not to land, given the poor visibility.  Hard to take, but easy to understand given the recent terrible First Air crash in Nunavut.  Fortunately, there was room at the "nice" hotel, and even though we had to double bunk, we were pleased to have beds!  Dinner was whatever we could find at the convenience store, which, fortunately, also stocked toothbrushes and toothpaste....hooray!

A few of us were able to get on a noon flight out the next day on a different airline that had three seats available....and we were thrilled to get to back to Iqaluit. Our colleagues spent their afternoon making more purchases of art (the hotel owner, who is a going concern and currently building two additional hotels in the community) has turned her home into a gallery where hotel guests can spend even more money (our hotel bill was $275....per person!) on some lovely pieces of art.  

Now, we are back in Iqaluit.  It is our last day, and we will have an opportunity to review what we have learned and try to understand what it means for Canada, for the public service, and for us as stay tuned!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

leadership through laughter

we spent yesterday afternoon at the elders' kammuk  - - their community centre.  It was a beautiful introduction into the special relationship that the Inuit have with their elders.  They are respected and the goal is to ensure their participation.  We discovered the Inuit love of games....many involving simple competitions that anyone can play...often using a pair of dice.  But some of the games were designed to hone skills - - such as the game with a small object suspended from the ceiling, pierced with holes.  Participants were handed sticks with sharpened points, and the goal was to successfully penetrate the small hole in the middle of object.  The game was designed to develop harpoon skills. One of our members proved particularly adept at this....and I wonder how he might capitalize on this new-found talent in his daily life as a senior public servant!

We were treated to some amazing Inuit legends told by a master storyteller from Greenland.  Inuit myths (at least the 3 we heard) are dark and disturbingly beautiful.  I heard a new version of the Sedna legend...the goddess who rules the waters and the animals of the water, with her long tangled hair, and chopped off hands.  

We had a demonstration of Inuit carving by a master carver (outside, my feet froze!) He showed us the evolution of the tools used by the Inuit, and the various types of stone used.  His work was beautiful.

But what impressed me most was the absolute inclusion of the elders.  The respect shown them, and their absolute joy in participating was such a marked contrast to our "southern" Canadian approach.  Here, the community had built a beautiful building, overlooking the bay, sun-filled and practical, and it was a place of welcome. 

Afterwards, we went to the cultural centre, for an overview of the Inuit artistic tradition, which is a rich one.  The belief is that everyone has creative talent, and that it just requires practice and an openness to learning.  And we had a brief opportunity to contribute to the local economy at their gallery gift shop.  I did my best!

a new northern journey begins

September 13, 2011

Well, it is time to start up again.  Here I am, heading north to Iqaluit, capitol of Nunavut.  It is the last chapter of our leadership adventure.  Now, I don’t want to suggest that there is no learning that happens between our travels…it is simply that being away from your day-to-day world makes you more open and sensitive to new experiences.  I find myself in constant “receive” mode.  I am so looking forward to this trip. I last visited Iqaluit in the summer of 2006, as part of consultations on infrastructure.  It was just an overnight trip, but I was eager to return.

So stay tuned….this promises to be another great adventure!

Monday, May 16, 2011

incredible india!

What can I say?  I think I am falling in love!  Yes, it is noisy.  Yes, it is crowded.  Yes, there is poverty.  But it is spectacularly beautiful.  You can smell the fragrant flowering trees in the breeze.  They are a remarkably handsome population.  They dress beautifully.  They are gracious and kind.  They are amazing entrepreneurs.
Maybe it is Bengalore that is causing me to swoon.  From our arrival (at 1:30 a.m.!) at their new, lovely international airport, to our walk to the cars in the soft night air, to our spectacular greeting at the hotel (ITC Windsor), we are having a rich experience. I was greeted with a gorgeous bouquet of flowers and when I asked for a vase in which to keep them, the charming man asked whether I would give him permission to take them away, and put them in an arrangement.  Which they did. Below is the photo. 

Our first day was supposed to be more touristy, and we had lined up a visit to an ashram about 45 minutes from our hotel.  Just before leaving, we were advised that the spiritual leader, Sri Sri Ravishankar, was present and would be available for a private audience.  What a treat!  It is a lovely location, and there were thousands of people milling about, waiting for the open-air session with the guru.  He was very charming, and spoke to us about his leadership model, which is really about facilitating others.  At the same time, he acknowledged that he had been driven from a very young age by a vision of a world without violence and without stress, and he has dedicated his life to that vision. And he now has a presence in many countries, and a separate foundation dedicated to world peace.  We started with a meditation session, which was all about stilling the loud voices and listening to oneself.  I could sense the scepticism of my colleagues, and was trying hard to suspend my own tendency to judgement.  The guru's followers seemed a very happy group of people, dedicated to their cause.  They are doing a lot of good work with the rural poor in India, and with prisoners and at-risk youth in many countries.  They have no religious affiliation...they are promoting an approach to meditation with the goal of a more harmonious world.  Who knows?

We also met a beautiful elephant named Indrani, who let me pat her trunk.

  And we visited the ayurvedic university he has set up where he had a brief tour of the facilities.  We finished up in the magical temple…a bit like a rounded wedding cake, all white and pink (for lotus blossoms) and gold, and with breathtaking views in every direction.  

And the food here in Bengalore!  Oh my.  Even trying to stick to vegetarian food here, I can feel my waist expanding. 

So looking forward to the rest of our meetings.  What a great start!

Of consensus and state capitalism

Our brief visit to Oslo was very intriguing.  It is the richest country on earth, blessed with a huge supply of oil and gas.  It also has a very industrialized past in shipping and fishing, with an excellent labour force. As one of our speakers noted, “we are about the sea…underneath it, in it, and on it”.
They are a fascinating example of a socially progressive country trying to deal with massive wealth (a sovereign wealth fund valued at 500B).  They are managing this wealth cautiously…NOT using it to lower taxes, or invest in mega infrastructure.  Rather, they are using it as a rainy day fund, investing it much as pension funds are invested…cautiously and for the longer term. 
It is a country that has been remarkably cohesive.  There is a social contract that everyone…government, business and labour…adheres to.  Their systems seem designed to keep things moving forward carefully and sustainably.  I was surprised by the consistency of messaging from the variety of people with whom we met.  Being a small country, they put enormous emphasis on the rule of law, and international frameworks.  They are also adamant about the importance of evidence-based decision-making and the importance of science.  There were concerns that advocates have supplanted hard science (this in respect to oil and gas development).

The degree of consensus was impressive.  At one point, however, I found myself asking whether it was too good to be true? 

The downside was accessibility.  Full marks to our wonderful hotel, the Continental,  however the same could not be said for every place we visited.  One ministry, housed in the former Gestapo headquarters, did not have accessible washrooms…and most of the existing ones were accessed via a flight of stairs!  And many of the shops in the downtown were completely inaccessible.  It appears that older buildings are not required to accommodate wheeled people.  That meant that I spent no money at all on purchases.  And I could not understand how a society so given to social cohesion and so unbelievably wealthy, would not have universal access.  Disappointing.

sooooo jet-lagged!

just back, and apologies for lack of posts.  Internet access was spotty, so instead I created word documents.  So there will now be a few posts all at once, outlining some impressions of some pretty amazing visits.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

my brain hurts!

And so here we are en route to Oslo, Norway, after 2.5 packed days in Brussels.  We have had meetings with representatives of the European Union and NATO…and  all of this playing out against a backdrop of the killing of Osama bin Laden and the Canadian federal election. 

I am trying to process everything we have experienced, but it is difficult.  The combination of jet lag, back-to-back meetings, and too much food makes it hard to make sense of it all. 

Let me try.  I am starting to get an idea about leadership.  That it is a combination of factors….yes, certainly, the ability to articulate a vision and strive to achieve it is one….but it is also the ability to harness the energies of others…and not in a hierarchical way, but almost in an intuitive way of reading the moment and providing the space for something new or better to emerge.  I don’t know how we cultivate this talent in our hierarchical universe.  The pressure to deliver, the imperative for short-term results  may  favour those who are more inclined to direction.  And I ask myself, do I have the ability to back away?  Do I even want to?

And then there was another dawning realisation.  Listening to the bureaucrats from the EU, I found myself thinking, “ is this what we sound like to non-bureaucrats”?  It was an awful moment…we were being bored witless by a series of safe, measured observations on the mechanics of decision-making at the EU….by someone clearly fascinated by the subject matter…but incapable of making it interesting.  As one of our other speakers mentioned later, “it is a system designed for paralysis”…in which accountability is almost impossible to establish, and in which every country has a veto, and in which there is a mania for creating new committees and structures designed to make things better, but in the end it seems as though all they really do is talk about how they ought to do things.

Perhaps I simply failed to understand, but it seemed to me bureaucracy run amok.  It reminded me a bit of my experiences with IT specialists, who sometimes can become  so enamoured of the systems, that they forget why they were created:  to support the business, to make it easier to achieve better results.

Now, I admit that I have a bias towards action, but I worry that this obsession with process is a great way to avoid having to do anything.  And perhaps it makes me reflect a bit on our own system, which certainly has its own bias to process.  Is this the price we pay to live in a comfortable country? Does inattention to process lead to chaos and ineffective public institutions?  Does anyone get the balance right?  

Oh, I pray that the fog that is clouding my brain will lift!  Perhaps I need to eat more fish....and so, off to dinner in Norway!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Next chapter

So here I am, after some absence, embarking on the next adventure. We are en route to brussels, then oslo, then onto two cities in india: bengalore and delhi. This trip fills me with anticipation...excitement at the prospect of visiting new places, and a little scared at what promises to be some interesting mobility challenges in india!
I have been doing a lot of thinking about leadership, and what it means for our public service today...and tomorrow. I hope to share my experiences honestly...and this time, with photos!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

in search of the right question

So, last week I was at a presentation by a highly respected former public servant, and he was musing about the state of leadership in our public service. And he commented that we had become a blander group of people, and in particular, that we were losing our policy "touch".  We have become homogeneous, safe, risk-averse.  He was at pains to say that this was not griping about the golden days of yore, but rather an observation based on the work he does these days with public servants.  He said that we no longer tolerate the "wacky, creative types".

And I wondered, is this true?  Who did he mean by wacky and creative?  Does this refer to the prickly, brilliant men of 20 years ago?  Was there indeed a golden age of policy? Is wacky code for someone who screams at colleagues? at subordinates?  Are we really suffering from a lack of creativity? I have mixed feelings on this one.  On the one hand, I do observe in some instances a lack of policy capacity....I fear this is particularly true in the HR area, where many good people have been trained to think of themselves as doers and implementers of rules.  On the other hand, I have been fortunate to work with people with remarkable policy minds, nimble and creative, inventive and forward-looking.  And I think that it is harder to do policy now, because everything is interconnected and, therefore, linear or cartesian thinking doesn't necessarily get you where you need to go.  Now, you need to be able to think in terms of networks, systems and connections...the image that comes to my mind is of a neural network.

And it got me to can I create an environment for my staff and my colleagues that will enable this kind of thinking?  What can I say and do?  I believe profoundly that there is room and there is a desire and there is a need in the public service for innovation and creativity.  And we need to be mindful and always on our toes to avoid the easy slip into complacency, or worse, thinking that as leaders it is up to us to have all the answers.  It is not easy. We work in a culture that expects people to come equipped with the which "i don't know" is perceived as how to balance the legitimate need to get things done in a timely fashion, with room for the reflection that leads to inspiration?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

leadership and innovation

I am musing about something;  something that concerns me about our public service. There was an article in the Economist about changes to our wireless world.  The article spoke about what various companies are up to, mentioning Verizon which is about to launch the next wireless technology, called LTE, that will make wireless connectivity so much easier.  And you can bet that Verizon is not content to focus on LTE.  Undoubtedly, they are already thinking about and planning for what comes after LTE.  It is all about a relentless quest to innovate.  Of course, driven by a desire for increased market share.

And it makes me wonder about our public service.  Where is OUR relentless drive to innovate, to make things better?  Do we even think about what happens beyond next week, next month?  We are so driven by the now.  And we are driven by our tiny preoccupations, in our respective divisions.

What if our motivation was to continuously improve our service offerings to Canadians, while driving down the costs of those offerings?

Can innovation only occur when there is a profit motive?  Are there other ways to spur creativity and innovation in the public sector?

I worry that we are too big, too bloated and too complacent.  Things are working "okay", so there is no real impetus for change.  It reminds me a bit of our conversations in Argentina.  They too have a reasonable standard of living in a beautiful country, and so they are content to muddle along.

I am going to take a look at my sector, and what we are responsible for, and I am going to put my question to my team.  How can we continuously improve what we do, for the benefit of Canadians, while driving down our costs of doing it.

Should be an interesting conversation!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

I don't want to be a shit-disturber, but really.....

So......I have been struggling with something.  I work for the Government of Canada.  We have a policy that says that we are not to book meetings or do business with places that are inaccessible.  Yet the department I work in consistently books some meetings (mostly for social reasons such as retirement or going away parties) at a nearby air force mess hall...that is completely inaccessible.  Stairs to get in, and more stairs once you get in.  I can't tell you the number of times over the years in which I have declined invitations to one event or another at this location, and explained why I cannot attend.  Recently, I learned that a colleague had booked a work-related meeting at this venue.  I thought, "I have to do, or say, something".  I know that these incidents are never intentional.  And the people booking the meetings probably never stop to think about what they are doing, and the attitudes they are reinforcing.  They probably think, if they stop to think, well no-one coming to the meeting is disabled, so it's not really an issue. And I wonder how they would react if the same venue had a sign outside that said, "blacks not welcome", or "women not allowed", or "no Jews".  Because a venue that is not accessible is saying that people like me are not welcome, that we are not valued, that we are not part of the community.

So I am going to raise this issue at our next management meeting.  And I hope that my colleagues will agree that if someone discriminates against one of us, they discriminate against all of us. And maybe, if this venue loses a regular clientele, they will do something about their lack of access.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

so NOW I get food poisoning????

How cruel is that?  I return, bleary-eyed, jet-lagged, but having survived many interesting food experiences (so what does the polite visitor do when the aboriginal hosts offer a steaming cup of coca-leaf tea? ..or mystery meat kebabs?)
I was congratulating myself for my amazing ability to keep up with my colleagues, do the late-night dinners, the excruciatingly early mornings (and remember, it takes me twice as long to do the personal grooming and getting ready stuff as the non-wheeled folk).  I was Ms. get-up-and-go-because-we-can-sleep-when-we-get-home.  Ah hubris!  Never mock the travel gods.

Arrived home in the morning.  Dear  hubby prepared a lovely dinner - - his specialty - - roast chicken-- for me.  I slept like a baby,for 10 hours.  But when I awoke the next day, the tummy was not so happy, and things went downhill from there.  And stayed that way for the next 2 days.  No fever. No aches.  No chills.  Just the sad reality of a bad case of food poisoning.

But I am better.  And I am back.  And am so delighted at the work of my team in my absence.  It really paid off to truly disconnect.  I resisted the urge to call in, and my staff rallied beautifully.  Things got done!  I love feeling dispensable.  I don't feel useless or that I have no added value, but it is very reassuring to know that you have good people and that the place will indeed survive without you!

I am observing myself in my environment, and I am so hoping that some of what I learned over the last 3 weeks will stick.  The whole point is to be a better leader.  Will I be?

So now it is my turn to ask you out there...what do you want to know more about?  How would you like me to continue this blog? Would you like more detail about the trip?  Do you have questions that you want to discuss about leadership?  Do you want to learn more about the accessibility angle?

I would love to make this more interactive, so let me know, and please, let's continue!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Of swollen ankles and lack of sleep

Another day, another aircraft.  Here I am on the tarmac of Santiago Chile.  No, this is not another stop on the program, it is a stop on our flight to Toronto.  Air Canada does not fly directly from Buenos Aires, so we had to fly first to Santiago.  Because the flight crew was changing, every passenger had to disembark…disabled folks included.  So, we were told to line up in a non-air-conditioned hallway to wait while they cleaned the plane.  I was last in a posse of 7 wheelchairs.  But I didn’t mind… it was warm and there was a spectacular sunset over the mountains that ring Santiago’s airport.  It reminded me that Chile is another country I want to visit…but Argentina keeps getting in the way!

Why is it that when I travel to Argentina, my ankles and feet swell up in a hideous way?  It never happens in Europe or Mexico.  I actually had to buy a new pair of shoes, since I had run out of options that did not pinch badly.  And buying is something you can do with great abandon and delight in Buenos Aires.  Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) our agenda was so action packed that it was difficult to carve out time to do anything else….but lord knows, I and my colleagues certainly tried!

My early impressions of this journey?  There are some themes starting to emerge…one is about passion.  The leaders who impressed me the most were those who were living their passion.  They were doing exactly what they wanted to do.  I don’t think they thought about things like work-life balance.  Their work and their life were one and the same.They had utter commitment to what they did. They radiated a sense of purpose and rightness in what they were doing.

Another thing I observed was that the good leaders were surrounded by talented people who supported their vision.  So many of them spoke of the necessity of being surrounded by good, talented people with the right values.  All stressed the importance of working as a team, and the power that comes when people start to work together.  I think back to one of the social enterprises we visited, and how it was not just an exercise in bringing natural gas to a was about helping neighbours work together to solve their own echo of what the mayor of Calgary spoke to us about....the magic of seeing other people not as clients, but as co-problem-solvers.

What else?  Beware of complacency!  It is too easy to slide into it.  If one is comfortable, and things are still relatively okay, one can tolerate a little discomfort, a little loss of freedom, of democracy.  I observed this most in Argentina, but also in the US.

Need to mull a bit more....the synthesis of what I've experienced is going to take some time.

Friday, February 4, 2011

tango in argentina

What a shock to leave snowy, soggy Washington and arrive in sultry, sunny Argentina.  Oh the joys of summer!  It is delightful to shed, coats, gloves...and expose pale northern skin to warm air.

We are on an intense learning experience, and we are soaking it up.  We have met with an amazing array of people.  Once again, it is an impressive mix of politicians, academics, social entrepreneurs, business leaders.  It gives us a composite picture of this complicated country.  What is emerging?  There is a profound distrust of institutions  (polling suggests that a strong majority feel that it is okay to not pay taxes, since there is little to show for it), and at the same time a huge pride in their country and the people.  They have a highly educated population, and for those fortunate enough to live in the cities, the quality of life is impressive.  Yet in the suburbs  surrounding Buenos Aires, people are banding together to lobby for access to natural gas...and water! 

This is a country that is innovating in areas of the environment, nuclear and satellite technology, yet that is putting huge export duties on its farmers in an attempt to manage supply within the country, forcing many to switch from their famous cattle to soya crops.

No-one knows what the true rate of inflation is, because the government sacked their chief statistician in 2006, because they did not like the high numbers being reported.  However, there are proxy numbers, because salary increases are reported regularly, and last year, salaries rose  by an average of 25%. And certainly the people are complaining about it.

I do get a sense of dynamism and optimism....pride in what they have been able to overcome (more on that in a later post on the horrors of the last military dictatorship.)  In some ways, we have much in common.....educated people, friendly, lots of natural resources, but the biggest difference is institutional.  say what you will about the Brits and common law, but it has laid the foundations for a stable system in our country.  IN Argentina, they lament their italo-hispanic institutional is not efficient, to say the least!  On the other hand, it has given them a tremendous sense of culture and identity that is impressive.

no conclusions yet, but am processing, processing everything I'm taking in.

more later.....

Thursday, January 27, 2011

up up and away....

So here I am, up in the clouds on Frontier airlines.  We are en route to Washington, and scheduled to arrive at the same time as the snowstorm…
Denver was a great learning opportunity.  Once we straightened out our travel arrangements, everything went smoothly.  We were wonderfully greeted by the consul general and his staff.  We had fascinating meetings with a former governor, a former senator, academics, pundits, the Federal Reserve, the EPA and the folks at the institute for renewable energy.  What impressed me was the calibre of the people we met.  They were thoughtful, informed, entertaining.  We heard so much passion…about their country and its potential.  And although we are in a state that produces coal and holds vast potential for shale oil, they are zooming ahead on renewable energy, green buildings and other measures to deal with climate change.   The people we met with were so generous with their time and their insight.  And they wanted to understand our perspective, to know what we think.
On our first night in Denver, we watched a documentary on Mayor (now Governor) Hickenlooper and the 10 days in which they hosted the Democratic National Convention in 2008.  He just radiated positive energy, and what really struck me was how he was consistently open to others.  He never took offence and was always willing to engage with people, even those who disagreed with or opposed him.  He did not appear to have an ounce of cynicism in him.  Remarkable.
And last night we watched the State of the Union address.  We watched the artful unveiling of what will undoubtedly be the next presidential campaign…with its focus on the future, on innovation, on education, but also on fiscal discipline.  And of course, the throwing down of the gauntlet for a more civil discourse and a spirit of cooperation. 

So, what am I learning?  Well, a lot about suspending judgement.  Also about listening actively, and asking questions to deepen my understanding.

I am blessed with wonderful colleagues, who ask great questions, and who are entertaining travel companions.

And about accessibility...I hit the jackpot at the Brown palace hotel and spa!  It seems as though the only accessible room they had was a palatial suite.  I knew something was up when we entered my marble foyer and I saw the dining room table at the end.  Yikes!  It also had a spectacular shower…and once the nice man from engineering came up to help us out, I also had a toilet that I could use. And once we changed from the party bus, we had superb transportation.  All good.

I wish we'd had a bit more time.  I know we just scratched the surface.  We saw a lot of homeless people and I want to know more about who they are.  But overall, I am really pleased with our Denver experience....what's not to love about a city where you can get terrific Mexican food (can you say "mole"?), amazing steaks, champagne by the glass, and drive around in an accessible, and free, downtown shuttle bus?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

...Get on the bus....the party bus!

Have arrived in Denver...mile high city!  it is very odd and wonderful to be in a city where you almost touch the clouds!  Interestingly, there is no snow here.  Everything is brown and yellow.  We were met at the airport by a colourful individual, driving a very colourful bus.  Although the company had told our trip organizers that the bus was fully wheelchair accessible, when I asked the driver where the ramp was, he said there wasn't, but that he had "loads of experience" getting wheelchairs on and off his bus. So backwards up the steps I went, with him pulling, and a colleague holding the front of my chair for balance.  Not surprisingly, there was no place in which to anchor an  occupied wheelchair, so I got out of the chair and into one of the this is no ordinary bus, oh no.  The seats are arranged bench-style, along the windows, facing one another.  Down the middle of the aisle is a metal table with a channel running through it, and with holes cut out for bottles or cans to rest.  At the front of the bus are a series of day-glo posters.  On the ceiling are black lights (i am not making this up!).  There were no seat belts and there was a persistent aroma of stale beer.

We are all amused and bemused by our transportation.  Thankfully, my travelling assistant is 22 and was able to enlighten us.  We were apparently travelling by way of "party bus"....something used to ferry high school and college kids to prom nights and other big events. The metal table is set up so that they can play "beer pong"...apparently a competitive sport involving ping pong balls and cups of beer.

As one of my colleagues pointed out, we were in the middle of a teachable moment.  

Today, we are off to one of the big annual events.  It is the final day of the National Western Stock Show, so I expect to see a lot of cows!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

experiential learning, or how I learned to stop worrying and surrender to the clay

Banff, Alberta.

We arrived in Calgary at 9:30 a.m. and it was minus 14 celsius.  By the time we got to Banff, it was plus 2, and it was raining sleet.  

Banff is the perfect environment in which to start a leadership adventure.  The inescapable reality of the mountains, the sky and the snow is designed to inspire.  And to be resident of a colony that was begun as one man's dream (to build a space for the arts on a mountainside, in the middle of the Great Depression) forces one to think big.

The entire two and a half days seemed designed to move us out ...way out...of our comfort zones. And it worked!  It was terrifying, and wonderful.

What did I learn? That it is very liberating to do things you are really bad not be the best, to not be in control, and to have to work and contribute nonetheless.  I was wowed by the insight and perspectives of my colleagues.  I laughed, I debated and I felt indescribably nourished.  I learned about the importance of creating a space for ideas and innovation to flourish.  I learned to harness parts of my brain that I don't use often enough.  I learned to listen to the "little voices" that too often get drowned out by the big drums. 

It truly helped to set us up for the rest of this journey.  

Now we are in Calgary, meeting with an amazing array of people. And what I learned in Banff is giving me a fresh perspective to bring to these meetings.  I see everything through a leadership filter, and I ask myself...what does this mean for Canada? for the public service?  for me? for my team?

all in all, a great beginning!

Friday, January 14, 2011

am I ready?

Here we are...two more sleeps before we depart.  So many lists and so much work trying to make sure that everything is in place.  So many levels of preparation!  First, will the hotels and travel be accessible?  It's amazing how elastic is the concept of accessibility.  You can assume nothing.  One location assured us that there would be an "accessible shuttle" to get us around the site. But when we asked for details, they clarified that the shuttle was a mini-van....minus any ramp. would someone who cannot climb stairs, and who uses a mobility scooter climb up into the seats?  Hmmmmm.  And don't get me started on toilets!  One of the things that I discovered on an intense cross-Canada swing back in 2004, not all accessible toilets are created equal.  Some are kindergarten height ---I almost missed a flight in Saskatchewan because the seat was so low, I could not get up. Some are so high you have climb up to sit on them.  Some have grab bars on either side, some have them in behind (just figure that one out!), some have none at all.  In Germany, some came equipped with a trapeze-like rope structure suspended from the ceiling...something designed by Cirque du Soleil?

So for me, advance planning is critical, and I cannot rely on what the hotel tells me.  I have learned from experience...ask for photos!  It gives me a better sense of what I'm in for, and how to prepare.  As always, being clear about your needs is is being polite and persistent.

In addition to the accessibility planning, of course there is a ton of planning for my office.  Are we clear on what needs to get done?  How are my boss's comfort levels?  She works so hard, and she is so supportive, but I don't want this to be a burden for her.  This kind of leadership program inevitably means extra work for everyone else.  You have to manage your guilt.  You have to be able to let go and permit others to take things on.  I have a great team, and great confidence in them and I know they will do just fine.  I am going to make my best efforts to disconnect from the office, so that I can really take advantage of the program, and so that my staff have the chance to take advantage of my absence and do their own leadership development.

Then there is the home front.  I grew up with a dad who was a survey pilot.  He was often away for huge chunks of time...up to 6 months.  I saw what a toll it placed on my mum.  I swore that if I got married, there would not be this kind of disruption.  So when Terry and I married, we made a deal....there would be no more than 5 nights apart at a given time.  We have managed quite well over the last 22 years....only when I went to New Zealand for work  in 2007 did I exceed our limit  (by 2 nights)...but 3 weeks?  I feel terribly guilty, and yet he encouraged me to go on the program when it was offered....which kind of adds to the guilt.  In my experience, it is always harder for the person who stays home.  (Plus, I'm worried that my plants won't survive :-) 
Thank goodness for Skype!

I am really excited....I am quivering with anticipation.  The program is very intense.  There are many many meetings with an array of people...former and current politicians, community leaders, academics, journalists, captains of industry...all have agreed to meet with us to help us gain insight into their worlds.  It is very humbling.  They are being so generous.

I hope to make the very best of it.  To learn from every thing that happens, including the inevitable hiccups along the way. There are some great people participating with me, so we will also have the chance to learn from each other.  And in the end, I hope that it will make me a better leader.