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EXecuTALK: Speaking Truth to Power: How to Survive the Responsibility (LPL1-V13)


This event recording features a discussion with Gerry Salembier, assistant deputy minister, public servant and leader, on managing difficult issues in good conscience.

Duration: 00:30:42
Published: February 8, 2022
Type: Video

Event: EXecuTALK: Speaking Truth to Power: How to Survive the Responsibility

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EXecuTALK: Speaking Truth to Power: How to Survive the Responsibility

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Transcript: EXecuTALK: Speaking Truth to Power: How to Survive the Responsibility

Danl Loewen: Welcome to EXecuTALKs, thanks to the School, thanks to the Canada School of Public Service. My name is Danl Loewen. I'm here with someone who understands how humid it is in Ottawa in the summer.

We have with us Gerry Salembier, the Assistant Deputy Minister with Western Economic Diversification. "Diversification de l'économie de l'ouest du Canada." Responsible for British Columbia. Gerry has agreed to come and share with us his insights about speaking truth to power and surviving that responsibility. Welcome Gerry. Good to have you with us.

Gerry Salembier: Thanks Danl. Glad to be here.

Danl Loewen: You have experience with Finance Canada extensively, with International Trade, Foreign Affairs and now with Western Economic Diversification. You've worked in Regions as well as the national headquarters. You have a pretty broad assessment of how things function in the senior ranks of the public service. And I'm sure you're aware that there are those who look at different, who let me say pay attention to, I had to work pay in there somehow, to the idea of wanting to be able to speak up and flag issues that might be of concern. There's often a sense among senior public servants or among executives in particular is that it's not being a team player if I challenge the direction things are going. And we are aware that it's worth having the confidence to share with respect and tactfulness to share fears, possibilities of failure.

Can you talk to us a bit about your experience in speaking truth to power and surviving the responsibility?

Gerry Salembier: All right. I will certainly try to tackle that Danl, but as you know from past associations, I don't always follow instructions really well. So we'll do this by way of examples for the most part. So if it seems like just a bunch of war stories from a guy's career that's because it will be. I have as Danl said worked both in the regions and in Ottawa. I've worked in line departments and in central agencies. I've worked in Canada obviously, and I've worked internationally. So kind of an interesting set of career experiences to bring to bear on that question of speaking truth to power in a bunch of different contexts. I should start by thanking the Canada School for having me here. And for picking a time for this presentation that allows people all across the country and all regions of the country to participate. I kind of have to say that because full disclosure, my wife is the director general for the Canada School for the regions outside of the NCR.

Danl Loewen: And it's a good point on its own merits.

Gerry Salembier: But on that speaking truth to power, I'll, as I said, speak mostly by way of examples, but probably the most important thing is that you have to be seen to be getting the job done. You will get a lot more airtime. You'll get a lot more people willing to listen to you even though you may not be, you know following the conventional wisdom if what you're trying to do is to get the job done. So often what a minister or a deputy minister really wants from you is summed up in three words. Just handle it. And if you're doing that, and even if you are speaking some uncomfortable truth to power. You're going to get a lot farther than if you're, you know, talking about your favorite project or talking about something that's really just interesting to you. You've got to be the person that is there to help solve the problem at hand.

Danl Loewen: It is such a good point that I cannot just show up at the door with a list of complaints and concerns and other things if I am not someone who can be counted on to advance government priorities.

Gerry Salembier: And if we have a reputation for it.

Danl Loewen: Yes.

Gerry Salembier: It's going to serve you very, very well in all, all the different contexts.

And so that habit of speaking truth to power and that habit of doing so in a, in a way that is about solving the problem is what's going to get you get you ahead. So, some of the examples that that I have a lot of them are drawn from my time in in finance. And one of them probably one of the most interesting ones is, you know, so often in finance, your job is to-. I'll apologize to anyone from finance is actually on the, on the line here but so often your job is to say no. The sad truth of the matter is it's very, very often, like 9 times out of 10, the answer ends up being some version of yes. So you really should feel for those people from finance. Got it. You know, just-—

Danl Loewen: We have about 200 folks watching, so there's probably some finance folks in there.

Gerry Salembier: They deserve your kind thoughts. But one of the area and one of the examples is from a time when we did actually have to say yes, and it was when we, back in the mid nineties when we slew the deficit dragon and we overshot a bit in 1997. We ended up with about $800 million to the good, and we were charged with finding a useful way that fit with the agenda of the government of the day. Something that could be usefully done in line with good stewardship of public funds with that $800 million. And we settled on something that ended up being the Canada Foundation for Innovation. But to get there, we had to put together some of the best minds on the subject of university infrastructure in the, in the country. So, one of the things we did was put together a kind of a ginger group that consisted of a couple of past university presidents, the heads of the grounding councils. Some senior, the former university presidents. I won't name them all, but a very august group of individuals and we convened them in a series of five or six meetings and arrived at the definition of what this Canada Foundation was going to be about. We also arrived at the name Canada Foundation [inaudible].That group distilling the advice from that group, was probably the one of the most effective means of speaking truth to power by lining up a group of eminent Canadians with a deep knowledge of a subject in order to provide some quick advice to, in that case, to the finance minister Paul Martin on the creation of a, of a new instrument of a new funding instrument. That was probably one of the most effective ways in that particular context of having overshot a budget to get the kind of confidence in the advice that we were putting together so that you could do something in a time when everybody else was being cut. You could actually do something in the way of an expenditure of public funds.

Danl Loewen: And if I'm going to the top, I take the point that having amassed, having consulted with key players, with people with credibility themselves and having that credibility of yourself of getting things done and focusing on the, on the big issue, focusing on, on progress. The flip side of that being, taking people with you who are going to, to strengthen that as well. Really, you've already done your homework in that example.

Gerry Salembier: Yeah. I'll use another one that speaks very much to that theme. When we went through program review, another example from t my journeys. I promise they won't all be examples [inaudible]. When we went through program review, it was an exercise that, you know, called on deputy ministers to come to the center, to the lineup, to the central agencies and propose means of achieving a 15% cut and the expenditures of their department. Most deputy ministers came to the table and said, "I can't possibly cut anything." Right. And so what happens in that instance is, okay, we're going to cut everything by 15%, which is usually not a great result from the point of view of the integrity of the programming that department. But at the time I was in finance, I was in charge of the transport files and we had in Transport Canada, both a deputy and a minister that we're really keen on using the opportunity to make a fundamental change in Transport Canada. And so the fundamental change was to move transport from being an owner and an operator of transportation assets and infrastructure to a policymaker and regulator. And, that was a massive undertaking, which involved a lot of privatizations, a lot of structural change. But you had a deputy and administer that we're keen to pursue and to take advantage of that opportunity rather than just sort of falling back on woe is me, let, let the center do to me, whatever they will and it will be their problem. Out of that came a department which was much stronger, had a, had a fundamentally different role. And actually turned in over and above that 15% target through things like privatizations. So it was a very much in line with the agenda of the government of the day and it was an approach that was a bold and it was it ended up with a much stronger result than had that same department just come in and said, okay, cut everything by 15%.

Danl Loewen: That's when, that would be when that's all before my time, the nineties. So I'm trusting your word on it, but that's when transport became more of a policymaker and a regulator.

Gerry Salembier: Very much so. Yeah. Yeah. Those that are now working at transport will tell you that that transformation is incomplete and there's still things left to be done, which would be a fair enough, but it was a, it was a massive step in that direction.

Danl Loewen: I note that you're not saying speaking truth to power and that scenario would've been effective as saying, was not effective as saying, "no, I can't possibly cut." It was saying, "listen, to get done what you want and to get done what we think is needed. Here's the, here's the blend, here's what could work."

Gerry Salembier: Yeah. And there were some difficult decisions and there were some really difficult decisions that were, that were tough to get across the line. That privatization of Canadian National, the privatization of the air navigation system. These were not easy things to do. But they were part and parcel of that conversion.

Danl Loewen: The, the analogy that comes to mind is the idea that the center, the mandate of the government might be to increase fibre in your diet. And the department may be getting requests from clients who want ice cream and we can either give them broccoli ice cream, which won't be very effective or come up with a fruit salad which provides the fibre and the sweet treat you're looking for. Finding something that brings together what you believe is necessary plus what the government is looking for.

Gerry Salembier: And I think that's, that's an example. Your, your nutritional example it's still a bit early in the morning for me. I'm still in Vancouver time, so I can't really stomach the broccoli ice cream —

Danl Loewen: Our friends in Halifax are doing fine.

Gerry Salembier: Let me give you another example though of an area where just handling it was, was pretty instrumental. So at the time back in the day when I was handling those transport files we had Minister of Finance Paul Martin who had some family interests before he came to politics that were, guess what, in the transportation sector. And he did everything necessary to, you know, park those in a blind trust and so on. Right. But there's still just the tiny chance of it, a perception of a conflict of interest. So one of the tasks that had to be handled somewhere in the Finance Department is somebody had to make sure that there was not any piece of paper involving transportation issues that was going to land on the minister's desk. So as the guy at the sort of director level who was responsible at the time could have taken a number of different approaches to that as in a well, let's let the minister's office handle that or let, let's, let's let the correspondence unit handle that or, or what have you. But I decided that in order to make the maximum amount of progress, these files, I need that to go well. And so I'm going to handle that. I'm going to be the guy that makes sure that the, none of those pieces of paper land where they shouldn't. And , I think that was an example that where the deputy and the minister's office for that matter really quite appreciated it when somebody just kind of stood up and said, "I'm going to handle that." Rather than delegating the job upward or sideways that, that approach of just handle it can get you quite a bit of a, quite a bit of credibility.

Danl Loewen: I'm struck by that Gerry. In contrast to the number of folks who are looking up for someone to make a decision. And if we're paid in the 100,000, 120, the 150,000, someone is paid to make that decision and it may very well be us rather than waiting for approval or direction.

Gerry Salembier: And that's sort of a delegating up approach not going to serve you well very few instances where that's going to serve you well. You have to at least make an effort to frame that issue and to propose a solution that they get behind that solution. It may not always be the one that ends up being adopted, but coming to that discussion with, with a solution rather than saying, "here's the problems that you folks will have to solve, cause couldn't quite get there." Right.

Danl Loewen: I had an ADM who said that every DG who reported to him had more time to look at that issue. Whatever the issue was you were bringing then he did. So if I'm reporting up, I have more time to deal with that issue, then the person I'm reporting up to, it's on me to, to propose.

Gerry Salembier: I'll give you another example. This is from the late nineties. Okay.

Danl Loewen: We're progressing.

Gerry Salembier: Yeah, we're progressing. We had in 1998, proposals for merger from four of the major Canadian banks to merge. That was a big issue at the time. It was quite controversial. It was on the front page of the paper and so forth. And it had at least three different sort of streams of advice coming into the minister of finance. It was a potential stream of advice from the office of the superintendent, financial institutions for advice from finance on the overall financial sector policy concerns. And there was advice coming from the Competition Bureau on the competition issues and the framing of relevant markets and so forth. And at the time, the Competition Bureau was, pretty much prevented by statute from explicitly sharing information that came to it by means of its like subpoena powers and legal powers that it was that they needed to do the job. But in order to bring together that, those various streams of advice for the purposes of advising the finance minister, we had to have some inkling of what was going on and what were, how the Competition Bureau was approaching its work. And so I could have just gone to the deputy minister and said, "well, there are these barriers and so we're just going to have to wait and see we won't be able to, I can't tell you anything about", so I could have taken that approach. But instead, I took an approach to sort of reach out to the relevant guy at the, sort of a DG level at the Competition Bureau and say, 'look, I understand the constraints that you're under but let's get together on an informal basis, sort of once a week.' This is a pretty intense file that's moving week by week, day by day. So 'let's get together, you know, once a week and tell me what you can without violating the constraints of the statute under which you operate.' Because you know, that would send the whole thing into the, into the crapper.  And so managed to get at least a sense of where they were going on the bigger questions like the definition of the relevant market and so forth on the and the timing concerns. When is the Bureau going to be able to come to its conclusion and what sort of interactions they were having with the, with the banks proposing on, the banks against and so on. And that sort of allowed me to at least get a jumpstart on bringing together those streams of advice, which rather than just saying, "well, you know, nothing I can do because of the statutory limitation." The other thing we did is —

Danl Loewen: In respecting the statutory limitation but not allowing that to create extra rules in your head that aren't necessary.

Gerry Salembier: Yeah. The other thing we did though was just after that as part and parcel of that merger decision, we brought forward a very large package of changes to the financial sector, financial sector legislation. 22 different acts, one of which was the Competition Act and we put in a provision that allowed for information sharing with the Minister of Finance and the Commissioner of Competition. So it actually made a little more sense. Subject to, you know, some constraints.

Danl Loewen: Sure.

Gerry Salembier: But we actually codified kind of the practice that we put in place in order to make that decision work.

Danl Loewen: I noticed you did that not to make it easier for you, not to make it easier for your successors, but rather to make sense while respecting the intent of the previous legislation. Finding a way to make that work for all parties.

Gerry Salembier: Yeah. Not respecting that legislation could have been kind of disastrous from the point of view of the integrity of the, of the decision that was brought and the advice that was being brought independently by the Commissioner of Competition to the Minister right? One of the, this is where I'm going to go a little more off topic here, Danl as well. But, one of the dimensions along which you have to kind of make up your mind as a, as a senior executive in speaking truth to power is the extent to which you want to present yourself as an expert and a subject matter. As opposed to more of a public policy generalist who surveyed the landscape. In my earlier work on international trade policy, I became an expert in something really, I'm going to insult some of the folks on the line here. If there's anybody from GAC who's working on that trade policy, but I became an expert in the really narrow area of antidumping and countervailing. So you know, there's some big policy issues around that, softwood lumber and so forth. But when you get down to negotiating the fine details, the content is as dry as toast, it makes tax law look interesting. Oh wait, I just insulted a bunch of tax people —

Danl Loewen: You just insulted Tax Revenue, Transport, Finance and Global Affairs.

Gerry Salembier: But you've got to be aware of your own sort of tendencies and biases and predilections. If being an expert in something is your thing, then by all means, you know, find yourself a niche like that and go for it. It doesn't speak to my strengths. So I get bored easily. That's the frank truth of it —

Danl Loewen: Good self-awareness.

Gerry Salembier: So I have a job now in Western diversification where on one day of the week I can be talking to a First Nations Band about their need for a freezer for their fish plant somewhere on the North coast of BC.

The next day I can be talking to the particle physicists at Triumph about their latest efforts at manufacturing medical isotopes in a dispersed fashion and so on. So I have a job right now that suits me to a T. But you've got to know yourself as to whether you're comfortable with that sort of you know, being a mile wide and an inch deep. Or whether you're really better focused on a, on a particular subject area. And if you're comfortable in your own skin in respect to that, on that dimension, generalist versus specialist knowledge you'll be better off at that job of speaking truth to power coming from a place of deep expertise or if you're coming from a place of generalized knowledge.

Danl Loewen: Interesting, you're not saying that being narrow and deep or broad and shallow in terms of the depth of knowledge. And you're not saying that either is preferable and neither is a, is a weakness in any event, but being comfortable with where you come from on there. Are you looking at this in a broad context or you're looking at this in a detailed context?

Gerry Salembier: And I mean that's a good transition to the other sort of dimensional language, which my careers travelled, which is working at the center, in Ottawa, as opposed to working in a region. Working in a region presents you as a senior executive with a very different set of interactions compared to working in Ottawa. The, I'm going to generalize here and make a sweeping generalization. Those are the best kinds of generalizations.

Danl Loewen: [laughs]

Gerry Salembier: When in a senior executive position, Danl, what you spend, you know, 90% of your time interacting with other senior executives. Working in a region, your interactions are much less intermediated.

So you're often working much more directly with Canadians who want something from their government. Right? And so you have to be in a regional context much more open to that sort of a interaction. And it doesn't necessarily, I wouldn't say necessarily it comes naturally to me. I will take you back to an earlier job where I had for some reason my name got on a list of people you should talk to if you're having trouble with your bank. And I don't know how my name got on that list, but you can imagine that the phone calls came in thick and fast. That was the first time in my career when I had to not answer my own phone and I had to have my assistant answer the phone. But I also, as a sort of a discipline, I made it. I made a point of taking about five of those calls myself every week. And they were heart bending some of them. I remember vividly a call from an elderly woman who had just realized that she'd been taken in by the Nigerian phone scam and there was very little we could actually do for her you know? Refer her to credit counseling, that kind of thing. But this was actually just somebody that wanted to talk through what had just happened to her with somebody in authority that knew a little bit about it. And it was a really an intro, it was an eye-opener that that's one of the roles you play. You play that role much more often in a regional context. You're much more often in front of you know, real life Canadians, real life stakeholders with things that they want from their government.

And you have to listen, even though in a lot of cases you're not actually going to be able to solve their problem. You're there to listen. That is one of the things that's one of the services that government provides to citizens is a, is an ear to those that have a problem. Right? And you do, I would submit an awful lot more of that, very, much more directly in a regional context than you do in the Ottawa context. One of the best descriptions of that came from one of my former colleagues in Newfoundland who described the role of a senior executive in the region as opposed to Ottawa as being a big rock on a small beach. And that is really a pretty good description of the sort of day-to-day reality of an executive in a, in a regional context.

Danl Loewen: I'm struck that you're using examples that come from a central agency like finance that deal with international issues like the anti-dumping. That deal with transport and major issues there and Western Economic Diversification. When you're talking about being from a region, some of these lessons they stand in the way of someone saying, "Oh, we made". We are different. We are not the same. We are a region like the Atlantic. Ours is a different Ministry like any other. 

And one of the things I noticed is that each department is unique just like all the others and that there are some portable lessons. Even when we think that. Given that experience you have been the person who was the power. To whom people needed to speak. And one of the questions we have is when you are, when you are the power and someone wishes to challenge your thinking, how do you receive that?

Gerry Salembier: Uh, it's interesting your point about how, you know, every department is different every region is different. I learned very soon after moving out to work in the British Columbia context to say, ah, BC is different. Uh, my other colleagues within Western Diversification, up from the other three, uh, Western provinces, I get really, really tired of hearing that BC is different. My deputy minister is also kind of tired of hearing that it's different, but it's, but it's still true. The way that I put it to him most recently is, 'well, look, you do have to concede that BC is far and away the least rectangular of the rest of the provinces. So, uh, the, uh, I guess the, the real answer to your question is you just have to, you just have to stick to your guns. You have to have some confidence. You have to develop confidence in your, in your own, uh, knowledge of the context in which you're operating. And you have to stick to your guns and do so in a, in a way that, uh, that doesn't insist that you win every argument. Um, after all, our central role as public servants is that fearless advice and faithful implementation. So, uh, the fearless advice has to be fearless. You have to actually not go in with the objective that you're gonna win every argument cause you're not.

Danl Loewen: Which isn't the job. The job is to provide the fearless advice.

Gerry Salembier: Yeah and to make sure that you know, you've provided to —

Danl Loewen: Not to win.

Gerry Salembier: To your deputy, to your minister the best advice you can possibly do. And if that means at the end of the day that you know your advice is not going to be accepted, then that's, so be it. That is not a failure of a, of executive action. It's not a values and ethics dilemma. It's sure it's what we do. We provide that advice, sometimes it's accepted, and sometimes it's not. And then you move on to the faithful implementation phase.

Danl Loewen: I've often heard that described as a, do what you think is right, keep the boss informed and changed direction when asked. And then do what you think is right, keep the boss informed and change direction when asked. So it's vital that decision makers have that Intel and have what you think is your best information. When you're on the receiving end of someone challenging you who reports to you or is elsewhere not at the same level of the hierarchy. How do you prepare yourself to accept that constructively?

Gerry Salembier: A couple of things in response to that. One phrase that I find myself using very, very often with staff, especially with more junior staff is when we're having a discussion and I'm, you know, blue-skying and coming up with a sort of a half form thought as I want to do. I, the phrase I often use with them is 'okay, tell me if I'm wrong, but' and then I stop myself and I say, by the way, I mean that your job in this conversation right here right now is to tell me if I'm wrong. That's actually, what I need from you. So speak up if you think I'm off track here in my blue-sky, speak up. So that phrase, 'tell me if I'm wrong', but you have to mean it. You have to actually mean it. And you have to make sure they understand that you mean it. That's one of the most powerful phrases in the in the vocabulary for dealing with exactly that situation. The other, the other thing I would say on that is that you actually do have to be inclusive. You do actually have to be a good listener. And one of the ways that I constantly correct myself is a, you know, I'm, I was trained as an economist. I'm a numbers guy, so I tend to collect stylized facts in my head about you know, things like you know, here's a good one. The proportion of the public service that is in the national capital region as opposed to a, as opposed to the regions.

Danl Loewen: I can hear the applause in several places —

Gerry Salembier: That number, it used to be 60% outside the NCR, 40% in the NCR. I was about to use that number a little while ago and I realized, 'wait a minute, I don't know if that's actually true anymore'. So you have to correct for those stylized facts. And by the way, it's now 55% outside the NCR and 45% last time I checked.

Danl Loewen: Wow. Yeah.

Gerry Salembier: But you have to be ready to question your own like those stylized facts. You have to be ready to question your own assumptions in a, in a conversation, particularly if you're doing policy work or you know, program policy work. If you have an idea about how a program really should work, cause it's often it's because it's worked that way in the past. You have to be really ready to question your own assumptions and to do that by listening to the people around you as a is the best way to get at that result, right?

Danl Loewen: Bravo. It means that we put forward the idea of giving people permission to speak, to reinforce that by accepting, by showing respect for people who raise ideas like that.

To be, being a good listener. I'm sure we've had plenty [of] folks who are out there doing that now. Thank you for the question that was sent into us. Being ready to question our own assumptions. One of the, one of the tools for that is the pre-mortem. Sitting down a year from today and writing why something didn't work. And encouraging my staff to do that, my direct reports. It means that as a member of the team, they're identifying what might go wrong so that we can succeed instead of feeling like they're not being a team player by identifying something. Last thoughts you want to share with folks across the country, about 200 executives listening to how to speak truth to power and survive the responsibility?

Gerry Salembier: Last thought is on the surviving part. Um, pay attention to work life balance. That expression is actually backwards. It should be life work balance. Okay, maybe that's, you know, me coming from BC, but you, you have to be a healthy, you have to be a mentally healthy individual in order to do those difficult conversations. In order to, in order to have confidence in yourself. One of the things is make time for yourself. Early on when we first brought in electronic calendars, that everybody could read at the time. I had a young kid who was, I was helping to coach a soccer team. I put in there, 'leave to coach soccer'. And rather than, you know, 'leave personal' or something like that, when people understand what it is that you need to do in order for your work life balance, um, people will tend to respect that. Um, I almost never got calls on the cell phone while I was standing on, beside the soccer field, watching a bunch of kids run around after a soccer ball. I just booked off that time, I probably wouldn't have had the same results. So be clear with people that you have a need for work life balance and that you're pursuing it. And don't be, don't be shy about it. Don't be ashamed about it. It's something that every one of us needs to do in order to, in order to be the, you know, the strongest executive that you can be here.

Danl Loewen: Thank you very much. Jerry Salembier, Assistant Deputy Minister with Western Economic Diversification responsible for British Columbia. Sage lessons on how to speak truth to power so that we are providing that fearless advice to be followed by faithful implementation of whatever the decisions are. And surviving the responsibility by taking care of ourselves. Thank you very much for coming.

Gerry Salembier: Thank you Danl, pleased to be here.

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