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EXecuTALK: A Leadership Strategy for a Successful Transformation (video)

Description: Stéphane Cousineau, Senior Assistant Deputy Minister, will teach you the rudiments of becoming a transformational leader, so you can have higher levels of performance and satisfaction.

Date: February 24, 2020

Duration: 00:30:44

Resolution: 1080


Transcript

[This EXecuTALK aired Monday, February 24, 2020]

[Host Manon Fillion interviews Stéphane Cousineau, Senior Assistant Deputy Minister at Shared Services Canada.]

[Manon Fillion] Hello and welcome to our February EXecuTALK session. My name is Manon Fillion and I will be your host today. Our topic today is very interesting. We will be talking about transformation, a theme that has been around for some time and affects us all in some way or other.  I have the pleasure today to have a very candid conversation with my friend Stéphane Cousineau, Senior Assistant Deputy Minister at Shared Services Canada. And we will have a, a great conversation. Stéphane welcome.

[Stéphane Cousineau ] Thank you. 

[Manon Fillion] For you participants, we would like to have questions from you. We would like to have a conversation including you. So, you can send us your question with Slido, hashtag 8242, or just using the webcam application at the top of the screen, with the little hands. So, you can just type your question, and we will try to get as many questions as possible during this session.

So, Stéphane, welcome. Thank you for being here. I'm very pleased—

[Stéphane Cousineau] Hello.

[Manon Fillion] Today we're going to talk about transformation. We've known about transformation for over a decade. In government too, everyone is affected by transformation. Where do you think we're at today in terms of transformation?

[Stéphane Cousineau] Well, transformation, Manon, we're talking about the last decade, but honestly, I think I've spent my career doing transformation. People often refer to transformation as technology projects, but to me, transformation is much broader than that. There can be organizational transformations. There can indeed be technological transformations. But there are all kinds of transformations, which can be affected by various factors in departments. What I find interesting about transformation over the years is that there haven't been that many changes with respect to the challenges. When we think about the challenges—

So when we talk about challenges, there's three that keep coming back. First of all, the tools, right. What gets measured, gets done. Do you have the right tools? and things like that. The process. Is it an administrative burden, or actually do you have efficient and agile processes? And the most important, the people. right? When we talk about people, we're talking about stakeholders' engagement. We're talking about leadership. We're talking about empowerment. We're targeting to make sure that people understand the direction, the vision, and the priorities an organization has as they're transforming. So that's the people concept. To me, all these three elements have been part of transformation since the get go, and they're still being a challenge in our departments and in any transformation initiatives that we do. So the question is, what do we do about it?

[Manon Fillion] That's the question. So, what are we doing to ensure that the processes are in place, that we have the right tools and that the employees or the partners and users are engaged to make sure our projects or transformations meet the business needs?

[Stéphane Cousineau] I will give an example. I was CIO at Elections Canada at the time, and then I joined an organization that was undergoing a transformation. There were a lot of IT initiatives, but beyond the IT initiatives, it was the way the organization was managing the transformation, those initiatives, etc. When I talk about tools first, well, we looked at how they reported on progress of the initiatives. There was nothing standard, Manon. There were all sorts of ways of reporting. No one considered the interdependencies. So that was the first thing we looked at. Let's make sure that the interdependence is clear, that the tools are standard and that everybody uses the same thing. Then we realized that the business sector had the impression that the transformation was an IT problem. It was something technology does. But as you know, we need the business sector. The relationship, I have to admit, was so-so. There was room for improvement, you know, in collaboration, commitment. I'll always remember, my partner at the time was—he was the Assistant Deputy Minister of Election Operations. He was running his operations, but it was really the CIO and the person responsible, the CFO, who were handling the transformation with the governance.

And I'll always remember that I went to, Randy was his name, and I went to him I said, "Randy, how about you come and join us at the table of the governance that's actually managing this transformation, and how about you co-chair it with me?"  And he was very open to it, obviously. So I asked the CFO to kind of like stay at the table. I brought the ADM of operations with me. That did two things. One, it starts from the top, right? So I had Randy with myself, ADM of Operations, CIO and IT hand in hand working together, collaborating together. And two, it was opening communication channel. They saw through that "lead by example" that we needed to work together to make things work. So that was kind of the first step. But then, let's talk about the people that are a part of that transformation.

So how do you empower them? How do you make them part of the solution, right? So quite often, people will hear—and the people who are listening online—they'll hear about the green light symptom, right? Where people come to the governance and they're kind of afraid to talk about their initiative that contributes to the transformation, right? So, the issue there was that people were kind of afraid to put like, the issues and challenges they were having with their initiative, mostly because they didn't know what to do with it, mostly because they didn't have mitigation. So what we did is we actually created another layer of governance where we actually empowered our executives at the first level, EX-01, and some managers to look at all the initiatives that we had and to try to look in a crystal ball and see, okay, what are the issues that might be happening with these initiatives? And think about the mitigation proactively.

So what that did is, one—again, like the business was talking with IT, they were looking for solution. Each time they would come to the table where the ADM of Operations and myself were co-chairing, they would actually be ready to share either their good news, and if it was kind of a quasi-good news or challenge, at least they could actually offer mitigation and things like that. So that's about empowerment. That's about giving the right governance. And, in all this clarity around decision making, who ultimately does the decision. That was a challenge. All this to say that this governance that we had put in place, Manon, after two years and a half, where we actually had to align all our priorities and initiatives so they matched and we had to give clear direction and the employees felt that they were part of the solution, we were able to deliver—I think in that transformation there were roughly 12 projects—all on time, on budget, no joke. And, it was mostly around this aspect that turns around or goes around people.

So how do you empower them? How do you make them part of the solution, right? So quite often, people will hear—and the people who are listening online—they'll hear about the green light symptom, right? Where people come to the governance and they're kind of afraid to talk about their initiative that contributes to the transformation, right? So, the issue there was that people were kind of afraid to put like, the issues and challenges they were having with their initiative, mostly because they didn't know what to do with it, mostly because they didn't have mitigation. So what we did is we actually created another layer of governance where we actually empowered our executives at the first level, EX-01, and some managers to look at all the initiatives that we had and to try to look in a crystal ball and see, okay, what are the issues that might be happening with these initiatives? And think about the mitigation proactively.

So what that did is, one—again, like the business was talking with IT, they were looking for solution. Each time they would come to the table where the ADM of Operations and myself were co-chairing, they would actually be ready to share either their good news, and if it was kind of a quasi-good news or challenge, at least they could actually offer mitigation and things like that. So that's about empowerment. That's about giving the right governance. And, in all this clarity around decision making, who ultimately does the decision. That was a challenge. All this to say that this governance that we had put in place, Manon, after two years and a half, where we actually had to align all our priorities and initiatives so they matched and we had to give clear direction and the employees felt that they were part of the solution, we were able to deliver—I think in that transformation there were roughly 12 projects—all on time, on budget, no joke. And, it was mostly around this aspect that turns around or goes around people.

So it's the people. We can put in place the best tools and the best processes. But it's really the people who make transformation a success.

[Manon Fillion] I find your example interesting because I've been very involved in transformation as well. We call this transformation or major projects, initiatives. We kind of followed your model and your recommendation to put people, a project manager, with the program, the business, to make sure that the solution or initiative that was developed met the needs of the business. The comment I often got—and I'd be interested in knowing how you handled it—was, listen Manon, the business sector is already very busy. We already have—day-to-day work that we have to support. How can we have people dedicated and be available for the project manager, or to be able to, to make sure that they are involved and they have the right times and devote the right resources to do that? I'd like to hear from you what you did and how you resolved that.

[Stéphane Cousineau] It certainly is a challenge, Manon. What I would say, frankly, is that people sometimes feel that to contribute to transformation, they have to be part of a committee. They have spend time in a working group. They have to provide input in documenting the transformation. What I suggest, and I have often spoken to my employees, is that the formal side of a transformation has an informal side. This informal side, Manon, is when I am sitting in the cafeteria with my employees or when I'm engaged in conversations outside of the governance, it's surprising just how much the ideas can contribute to and even accelerate that transformation. I'll give you a brief example. When I was at Passport Canada and I was having dinner—I'll just call this "the napkin" story—there was an employee. We were working on a transformation project to repatriate passports that were produced internationally, but in Canada.

That employee came over to see me because we were planning to set up a system on an international scale and to replicate the infrastructure we had in Canada. The employee sat down next to me and, in a matter of two minutes, started drawing on a little napkin to show me what we could do to connect our two systems so that people at the Department of Foreign Affairs, at the missions, could still use the
same system, but the information would come to our infrastructure for printing in Canada. It took two minutes, and it saved us millions of dollars and time—
look, we must have cut time for getting this transformation project into production by 50 percent. So my message here is that, yes, we do have operations to run, etc., but we must never forget that in terms of the approach, the suggestion of ideas, the pitching of proposals, etc., the informal side works too. And that was an example.

[Manon Fillion] That's great and congratulations. It's interesting. My goodness, to think that a meeting over a napkin could have such an impact. I find it interesting because we often have an impact without really knowing it, sometimes just by having a conversation. So I find it really interesting. We have a question from the audience that I'll read to you— How important is risk management to transformation and what do you need to do better in this area?

[Stéphane Cousineau] Risk management. So that's a very good question because I think that one of the challenges that we have is sometimes, the culture around risk management is, how can we eliminate risk? Like risk management, is that zero risk? No, that's not risk management. Like, how can we be smart about the risks that we're taking? Right? How can we establish proactiveness around that risk management? Remember, I was talking about this little committee that we had created. That's exactly what we were trying to address. Because risk is all around probability and impact, right? And if you're well equipped with all sorts of mitigation measures before it happens, suddenly you are kind of like, be not only proactive but, you're addressing the risk, you're managing your risk, right? And that's smart risk taking. This is where the employees, the managers or the director can actually contribute to "yes, there are risks and there's going to be something that's going to happen. There's no doubt, right? But we're ready for it." And I think that's how I see risk management. It's how you manage risk. But risk, it's not zero risk, right? It's smart risk taking.

[Manon Fillion] You're absolutely right. And I cannot agree more about, we have to recognize risk, and we should never pretend that there's no risk when we do projects or transformation. And I guess, even based on my experience, sometimes—and I'm looping back with your green symptom, when we brief and we go to the governance committee where we have the feeling that it has to be green because we're a little bit afraid that, you know, if it's yellow and it's red, that they don't want to hear about it.  And it's all about knowing, and making sure that senior management knows, about the expectations and what kinds of risks we agree to take as an organization. So I think it's very important, and just to put the emphasis again on. I think we have to be clear and demonstrate that we did the analysis and have some options, but that it could happen.

[Manon Fillion] I agree with you. We've talked about things in terms of employee engagement. This morning in preparation for our discussion, I was thinking about how we can be more engaging. I came across a quote that kind of upset me that said just because the decision is made, doesn't mean that employees or people accept the change. Just because we've implemented the change doesn't mean that, hooray, we've transitioned. How do you approach this?

[Stéphane Cousineau] The people who know me are aware that I'm a bit particular when it comes to selling messages about transformation, whether it's a vision statement or a priority. The first thing I learned in my career as an executive is that the way we communicate in our leadership style is important. How many times have we been to presentations where there are strategic goals and priorities, and everything is supported by all kinds of initiatives, etc., and there's a formality to it that's a little, pardon the English expression, "dry."

My style is very different. I like having fun with people. First, they spend most of their time with us, and we're always looking for fun ways to sell our priorities, our vision, our direction. "So let's make it fun."  

For example, I've been in situations where we put on costumes. I have one example from when we were all at the Department of Foreign Affairs. We dressed up as superheroes because we were the heroes who were going to transform the organization. I won't deny it, [Manon Fillion], I was disguised as Superman. I took the stage in front of my employees, and people talked about it for a year. The goal is that people remember not only what we're going to do, but how we're going to do it. And it stays with them because we created a special moment. So I think it's important how we deliver the message.

Lead by example, you see. The sole question about lead by example is be present, right. Be absolutely present when you transform. Right? I'll give you another example of being present. Like when I was at Passport Canada, we went through a crisis. We had to transform our organization. that's roughly around 2007. The demand for passports after the US had introduced new legislation where people needed a passport—our numbers went through the roof, and we were like getting backlog and things like that. And,I will always remember that day when my ADM at the time, Gerald Cossette, came down, sat down with people in front of a computer and started to do data entry. It's pushing the limit, but it shows that he was part of us. He was there too. So I think that the "lead by example," the presence, is really key.

And the last thing I would add, Manon, is probably the recognition of their contribution, right? How key that is, right? They want, it's not that you have to tap on their back every single day, but employees want to feel that they're contributing to something. So what better than actually doing recognition. And sometime, I hear some colleagues saying, "Oh well, you know, recognition takes time. You've got to organize these events," and things like that. To that I respond, "No, absolutely not." You'd be surprised how you can do recognition.

I'll give you an example of how I show recognition. In Corporate Services at Shared Services Canada, we introduced a mascot, and it's very simple how it works. Everyone contributes to the success of the organization, and contributes in their own way. I want employees to recognize each other. So once a month, one employee sends an email to another employee to tell them that they are being recognized. They get the mascot, which is a little wolf, and then the employee explains why they are being recognized etc. All employees in the branch get the email—there are nearly a thousand of us—and I see it and always make sure that I respond as leader and make a comment. The approach is easy as pie, but it's this kind of recognition that motivates people. They know you're present, as I mentioned earlier, and it's also a way to acknowledge their contributions. I think that's key if we want to succeed in transformation.

[Manon Fillion] I think that's really interesting because the tips you're sharing with us right now—we're talking about transformation. Transformation isn't something that happens overnight. You're in a one state when you go to bed, and the next morning you turn on the light and you're suddenly transformed. It's a long road, and it's often the little things, as you just mentioned, that make it possible to transform a culture. We can transform our services. We can transform our approach and permit certain employees to be innovative. So this resonates with me a lot.  If there are other questions from the audience, we could take other questions. That was a good question about risk. I hope we answered it well.  We've talked about the positive side of transformation. In your view, what are the barriers to innovation or transformation? What prevents employees and organizations from moving as quickly as they would like to in terms of transformation?

[Stéphane Cousineau] On that subject, I'd say it's often what we inflict on ourselves. We do that a lot. We look at the scope of a project and, in the beginning, we're going to accomplish a lot, so we're not incremental. That creates a challenge. By the time we go into production, regardless of the transformation, we realize, oops, that's not exactly what the scope of the project is. The second thing is that we're human. Our employees and we as leaders are motivated to make a transformation, but we're comfortable with what we know. So when new technology arrives etc., I've often seen us put this new and superior technology on old processes because that's what we are familiar with. So, we have to get out of these processes and, I would say— how to leverage technology the most that we can do.  I think that's another challenge. The other thing that gets me even more—

It's not about what you do. It's not about how you do it with your staff, your colleagues. It's most importantly who you are as you do that transformation, right. And I think one of the key things that can be challenging in transformation is, because of all the challenges being created by transformation for all the reasons that we know, we create a lot of pressure on us. So stress comes in. Work-life balance is a bit of a challenge at the executive level, as you know. So my message there would be to take care of your project, your transformation. Take care of your employees because they are going to be the success of that transformation. But don't forget to take care of yourself. I try as much as I can. Like sometimes I get my stress level going up. But what I can tell you, [Manon Fillion], is every morning I wake up, I have this hour for me where I go to the gym. I do my exercise, and this time is for me. So you have to think about yourself and manage that stress because, yes, sometimes it can be stressful, and the question is all about what do you do with it, right.

[Manon Fillion] That's a good tip, but you're super disciplined to go to the gym every morning. I don't think—

[Stéphane Cousineau] [Chuckle]

[Manon Fillion] I don't think we are saying that everyone listening should go to the gym every morning. If you don't like the gym, you don't have to go. You can do yoga or meditate.

[Stéphane Cousineau] It's about finding the time to think about ourselves.

[Manon Fillion] It's actually good advice.

[Stéphane Cousineau] That's right, that's right.

[Manon Fillion] I find it interesting because we're talking about technology and innovation. We're trying to recruit young people to use this new technology. I would like your point of view—we're talking about transformation. We're talking about work-life balance, working from home, the new telework policy, the new office model that PSPC is putting in place.

How do you see that having an impact on transformation, and how do you think that the government as a whole or organizations as a whole are reacting and adapting to that new technology, that new models of doing business?

[Stéphane Cousineau] That's a good question. What I would say in this regard is that I think we have always collaborated, but the way we collaborate is radically changing. Whether it's our new work environment where we have a lot of flexibility for collaboration or the tools we're given to work from home or elsewhere even, because a lot of work is happening on this front, it opens up new possibilities. It allows us to collaborate, but in a different and, I think, more dynamic, more interactive way. You know, [Manon Fillion], I'll mention another example from DFAIT, where we did, in fact, have these tools. At that time, I remember, we wanted to implement mobility for our people who were working all over the world, and they needed the tools. At that time, tablets were starting to come out, iPads and Surface, so there were various kinds of technology. Normally, what we would have done to develop a solution was to make what we call "a business case."

So to solve this issue, we would have done a business case, we would have actually documented the business case. It would have taken a couple of months. That's not what we did. We actually leveraged the tools that we had. We actually leveraged the space that we had. And I did what I call a crowdsourcing exercise. So I brought people around a table, and they kind of looked at me in a strange way, right? Saying, "What are you doing?" And my goal was—I had a white sheet in front of me, and I said, "Listen, here's my problem." I remember seeing myself pull out my coat, tap on the table, look at my people. There were about 40 people, managers at different levels. And I said, "Here's the situation that I have. How do we tackle this mobility that we want to implement (in DFAIT at the time)." While I have the iPad technology, Surface technology, this challenge and things like, what would you do?

And, at first you get the reaction from the staff, "Well, that's not usually how the leaders want to get the information. They want a business case and things like that." But somebody raised their hand and said, "Well, listen sir, if I were you, I would do X, Y, Z, right?" And then somebody else started to jump in and say, "Yeah, like I agree with that." And then he was putting a caveat to it. Well, [Manon Fillion], in 45 minutes we had a mobile strategy. No kidding. It was like obviously on that white sheet where we had a bit of a plan. So when you talk about like, how do we engage in that transformation, that's a good example. Think out of the box. Think about it another way. These stories about creating like, long and big project charters and business cases. Yes, you need to be clear on where you're going, but there's so many ways where you can engage and empower those solutions to come, right? So that's definitely a way I would tackle it.

[Manon Fillion] That was very good. Very good example. And I'm so pleased that you are at SSC because you probably have a lot of things that you want to solve and find solutions for.

[Stéphane Cousineau] Oh, we have a great team.

[Manon Fillion] In a quick turnaround.  We have a question from the audience.

[Stéphane Cousineau] Yes.

[Manon Fillion] Are you ready?

[Stéphane Cousineau] Yes.

[Manon Fillion] What mindsets do we need to improve in ourselves or in our team to support better outcomes for transformation?

[Stéphane Cousineau] I think that the first thing I would say there is we see transformation as a big challenge and we see failure as a big problem. I think that what we need to learn is it's clear that there are going to be failures. It's clear there are going to be challenges. The trick, and that's the mindset that kicks in, is the minute that we see that failure happening is to take action. Like fail fast and restart, right? But we are human, right? We want the good things to happen. We want to fix this. We want to make it work. I've seen the situation, without naming the department, where they worked on a system for two years. Unfortunately, the business wasn't part of it and the governance wasn't there, and they kept working on the product.

[Stéphane Cousineau] And then when we did a bit of research, we realized that the product was just not sustainable. If they would have actually failed right from the beginning, maybe they would have actually stopped and restarted, and they would have become successful. But it's human nature, right. We don't like failure. We want to succeed, and that's normal. So I think it's to be open that there are going to be challenges and there are going to be failures. It's just a matter of failing fast and restarting. And be sure and no matter what level you are, whether you're an EX or an employee, you're always under that impression that if you fail or if you bring up bad news that it's going to look bad on you. That's not the case. What they want to know, what we want to know at the top, obviously and above us, is they don't want any surprises. They know there are going to be challenges and they expect there could be some failures, so let's be open and transparent about what's going on and illustrate and show that we're taking action on it, right?

[Manon Fillion] Time flies when we have fun. 

[Stéphane Cousineau] Absolutely.

[Manon Fillion] We have time for one last question.  And it's a very great question, I would say. And very interesting. I don't know if we're going to have time to cover the full aspect of it, but let's try.

Any tips on transformation when there are long approval processes and every briefing is required? Any tips?

[Stéphane Cousineau] Yeah. So I'll use my Elections Canada [experience]. Quite often when we see a process that's long and things like that, we tend to actually tackle that initiative and see how we can accelerate the process and the administrative burden. When I came to Elections Canada, I didn't look at a specific transformation. I looked at how was the culture of transformation, right? And then we didn't tackle an initiative because that would be seen as if we're attacking that initiative. We looked at how can we manage transformation, and then propose solutions. Don't come saying that this process is too long. Propose different ways that it can be done, remembering about the risk management aspect, right? Like how do you introduce it? And that's what we did at Elections Canada. We came up with a new process and new governance, which was empowering people and things like that. We never talked about the initiatives themselves. It was about how together we're going to govern this moving forward. And that's what I would do. That's what I would do again.

[Manon Fillion] That's a good tip. So we're almost done. I mean, I cannot believe that we've been speaking for 28 minutes now. I would continue forever to have that great conversation, but maybe over a glass of wine. But anyway.

[Stéphane Cousineau] Certainly.

[Manon Fillion] I encourage you to do the same. What would be the takeaway or what is the last thing you would like us to remember about this conversation? And when I say us, it's me and all of the other executives that are listening to us.

[Stéphane Cousineau] What I would say, and I'd go back to how I opened my little presentation here or my speech here. Tools, people and processes, right. Work on your tools, improve your processes, but remember, it's people that make things work. Think about all these elements that I've talked in that category of people. The leadership, the empowerment, the engagement of all the stakeholders early in the process, whether it's internal services like us and others. But all these elements that are under people are probably the ones that are going to make you successful. That would be my takeaway.

[Manon Fillion] Wow, Thank you very much.

[Stéphane Cousineau] It's my pleasure.

[Manon Fillion] That's great advice.
[Manon Fillion] It's really very good. So, we are coming to the end of our session.  I would like you to use Slido to provide us some ideas for the next items you would like to discuss at Executalk.
And we could prepare for these sessions to answer your questions on the topics you are interested.  Once again, thank you very much for joining us. I hope you enjoyed our little talk. Thank you.

[Stéphane Cousineau] Thank you, thank you, Manon.

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