A FWD50 Interview with APEX CEO Jacqueline Rigg
At FWD50 this November, we’re running three days of executive content. The Association of Professional Executives of the Public Service of Canada (APEX) is partnering with us to put together a day of leadership content aimed at the unique challenges senior managers in government face.
In this interview, we asked Jacqueline about how the Covid crisis is changing tech adoption; the importance of health and wellness in successful leaders; and maintaining contact and context with a distributed, socially distanced workforce. You can watch the whole video on our YouTube Channel. You can grab in-person or virtual tickets for both the executive track and the general conference on our website.
Alistair: Jacqueline, can you tell people what APEX stands for, and what your role is there and what you do in the organization?
Jacqueline: Well, thank you Alistair. It’s really great to be talking with you today. APEX is the Association of Professional Executives of the Public Service of Canada. APEX has been around since 1989 and our focus is we are a not for profit organization and we represent 7,000 plus public servants from coast to coast to coast.
Alistair: What is APEX’s focus?
Jacqueline: APEX ’s focus is exclusively for the Executive Leadership, the top leadership of the public service. It provides them with support, whether that’s career management, leadership, mental health and wellness, counseling.
Alistair: And how long have you been in this role?
Jacqueline: I’ve been in this role a year now.
What do you think are the biggest challenges that executives in government face in general?
Jacqueline: There are so many challenges out there.
In this context of the pandemic, there’s a requirement for leaders to have an increase in their tolerance to ambiguity. We have to now work in an environment where how we work and what we do becomes a bit more nebulous than it has been in the past.
So for me, it’s a fantastic, but a challenging, time to lead.
Alistair: This time last year, what were the sort of hot topics that leaders couldn’t get information on or discuss with their colleagues anywhere else?
Jacqueline: We just finished our five year strategic plan. Our plan is delivering community value, and it’s all about having the needs of our executives at the very center of everything that we do. So we now have three advanced focus areas : Compensation; health and wellness; and leadership.
Alistair: You mentioned ambiguity as one of the challenges that leaders are facing. What about technology adoption? Is that a challenge for these leaders or is it something that they were already sort of on the road towards?
Jacqueline: It’s absolutely a challenge. We’ve all used technology—we’re in the modern world—but not to this extent. Just as working remotely is not something new, but the magnitude of it is what’s new right now in terms of managing at a distance.
Particularly for the public servants, which is my area focus.,we have a lot of technology challenge in terms of things as simple as bandwidth and availability and systems that we feel are secure enough to use while we’re working from these very different locations.
The miracle of it all is that work is still getting done. We’re finding a way to get it done, but there are challenges that we encounter every day.
Alistair: It really does feel like in leaders, you have early adopters, like the Julie Leeses of the world who are really pushing the envelope and they’re like, “yeah, how can we do this?”
Then you have people who are not so comfortable with it, and I guess this is a forcing factor.
I was talking to doctors the other day who are now doing meetings with the patient,the doctor and the specialist, and everybody loves it.
But they were not going to try this until they were forced to. Can you see any examples of things that people are now realizing they should have been doing for a long time, but weren’t?
Jacqueline: It’s a true catalyst, to your point. This pandemic has caused us to do stuff that was probably in the future, but it’s brought it a little bit faster and we’ve had to accept that work can be done in a non-traditional way.
You think of our call centers, they’re being handled remotely. Who would have ever thought that that could be done. Early adopters are saying “rah rah!” like you said, and our stragglers are kind of saying, “okay, I better figure this out because it’s here and it’s here to stay.”
I think leadership has been really big at embracing it and understanding that this is the new normal. Managers have found some efficiencies in this. So we’re like, “Oh, we can do this without all that technicality behind it.” So I think there’s going to be many lessons learned from this.
Alistair: That’s a great point about communal learning. Is APEX a platform for sharing learnings and best practices? Where are government executives sharing what works and what doesn’t so that we can learn collectively?
Jacqueline: Well, you know, at APEX we have a goal of creating and helping to support excellence in the executive community. So, we always have speakers, thought leadership, events, everything that brings best practices to them in a way that they can absorb it. And we partner with different organizations from the Canada School [of Public Service] to academia to make sure we’re bringing the best to the executive community.
Alistair: So there’s a challenge to this because I heard a story about people who are call center operators working from home, and then with the emergency relief benefit that came out, we just swapped. We trained them for a day and said, “okay, you’re now all call center operators for CERB for the next two weeks.”
It doesn’t matter what department you’re in, you know how to answer a phone. You know how to explain things. Which is great because it means that the workforce is kind of burstable and reassignable in ways they wouldn’t necessarily be in a physical world.
But at the same time, it’s very hard to lead and manage and drive accountability if that employee’s priorities or objectives are shifting in a reactive way. It’s easy for an employee to go, “yeah, well, you know, I had that thing where I was on the phone with that other group for two weeks, so I didn’t get my goals done.” What do executives need to do to manage the leadership of their employees, even though they’re at a distance and they may be moving from task to task.
Jacqueline: Leaders have had to pivot. Many leaders are used to face-to-face and we’re not even being comfortable in this environment that we are right now. Case in point, you and I are doing this interview on our computers.
So leaders have had to pivot in terms of how we continue to connect with our employees in a meaningful way and manage them. And so what we’re doing is talking about important things. It all starts with trust, believe it or not, because you’ve got to trust the people that are doing. But it means extra work from a leadership level in terms of how they communicate, how they assign work, what their expectations are. They have to spend more time on team management than they would in an environment where they could just haul you into your office.
So to me, leaders are having to expand their communication and their flexibility in recognition of the new mobility of the workforce.
Alistair: I really liked the way you put that. What about time management? It seems like people have an open door policy, but when I have an open URL policy, like my calendar looks like the end of a Tetris game. So, how are they changing time management?
Jacqueline: It is very scary and leaders have to manage that. I had the same experience at APEX. All of a sudden, there’s no separation between church and state. All of a sudden you’re always in your office, and all of a sudden everybody is not calling you anymore.,they’re zooming you, or they’re Microsoft teaming you when you’re on the screen, and you’re talking nonstop and you’re seeing each other nonstop. So, time is really important, because you still have to realize there has to be a separation of when you work and when you take some downtime—or we will experience burnout.
So we’ve been doing some resiliency training. We’ve been doing some wellness training, teaching people. You have to put parameters around the work, whether it’s something as simple as saying, “our normal business operations are going to be, we communicate between nine and three.” And you know, you might work eight to four, nine to five, but you got to have a cutoff time and actually walk away.
Leaders—especially at the initial point of the pandemic—found it very hard because of their dedication. They were just always on and always feeling they needed to be available. And it’s a challenge now to realize that there are parameters that still have to be set and work still can get done within those time slots.
Alistair: I mean, there’s nothing wrong with a sprint for a few weeks to save the country, but then it’s a marathon and you gotta pace yourself, right?
Let’s talk about serendipity. Obviously I care about this a lot as someone who runs conferences and gets on stage. Having spoken at a couple of your amazing events, when I go to a physical event, there’s so much of the lobby conference, the serendipity of walking by, and I think that’s true in public buildings as well.
The number of times I’ve gone to 90 Elgin, big Tim Horton’s in my hand — gosh, I miss that — and serendipitously, for example, Imram Bashir walks by and have a conversation with him about how SlideShare isn’t working in a certain department. And he goes, “Oh, I’ll fix the firewall.” And then the department goes, “Hey, SlideShare works.”
It’s incredibly useful and serendipitous and unstructured. And I think we lose that when we lack the walk-past, comfortable, chance interactions: “This is my friend,” or, “here’s a person that I know that you should know.” How are government executives keeping the serendipity going while they’re isolated? And how do you think that’s going to change?
Jacqueline: When it was a sprint, we were really overcompensating for that. We were really being extra communicative. We were reaching out to larger networks to make sure we knew what was going on.
So I think we’re gonna find a way. We’re being creative. Everybody is now realizing it’s not by chance I’m going to pass that person, so I need to actually make a point of getting in touch. The leadership has pivoted amazingly on that.
And they are making the very important connections and they’re being, very directive about it. And it’s working. Nothing will replace the casual passing by, and the camaraderie. But from celebrations to workload, we’ve been doing it effectively for the last 11 weeks.
Alistair: Digital tech can serve citizens, and we’ve been talking about this at Forward 50 for the last three years. Our M.O., our whole “raison d’etre,” is simply, we want to use technology to make society better for all. It’s a nice aspirational thing, but it’s informed a lot of what we do.
We’re very nonpartisan, so we don’t want to be a policy platform, but it seems to me that technology and policy are inextricable and that digital technology can serve citizens better because it’s customizable to the individual. You no longer have three forms to choose from; you can have a form personalized to you. You can translate it. You can use an assistive device for someone who may not be able to consume it through their eyes or may have trouble hearing it.
It’s accessible, it’s customizable, but it’s also a major shift in how we think about tasks and jobs and automation. As this accelerates the adoption of technology, where do your executives see opportunities from this, and where do they see caution?
Jacqueline: We’re still at the very beginning of this, so we don’t have everything worked out. They see technology as a bigger enabler than it has ever been before. Privacy is still very, very important, but it’s also in terms of network availability, bandwidth, all these other techy words that I’m not even familiar with, these cause us, again, to be very, very thoughtful and very conscientious about how we use tech, when we use tech, and why we use technology. This is causing management leadership to actually stretch.
We’re seeing the questions, “why can’t we use this technology? Why can’t we use that?” So we’re asking all the right questions to the employer, saying, “we want to incorporate this.” So the curiosity gene is just running ,rampant right now and it’s great. We need to think about new ways of doing this.
Alistair: It does seem to me like there’s also a risk of the shiny new thing. I just spent time studying the virtual conference industry. I looked at 176 companies. I literally have 176 rows and I had to stop. You wind up asking, “why can’t it be as easy as Netflix?”
The government has built a “ride the bus” website. Literally talks on AI and digital government that are snackable. You can consume them on the way to work right on the bus. And it seems to me executives have to have this ability to encourage curiosity without analysis-paralysis or without distraction. How can you work with your leaders to help them find that balance between curiosity and distraction?
Jacqueline: You can’t always go for the latest shining bauble, because it doesn’t always work. The executive community is being very, very prudent here. They are realizing that though we cannot go on analysis-paralysis, we also can’t just go and grab it.
We are relying heavily on those departments in the public service to give us guidance on safety and recognition. Along with a curiosity, there’s an openness that you have to have to try this new thing, but there has to be a patience. Because at the end of the day, there are huge ramifications if there’s a breach or something goes wrong.
Balance curiosity, patience, and delivery. All those have to be done and it’s a three legged stool. That’s what we’re trying to coach and help executives.
Alistair: So we’re doing this APEX thing at Forward 50. Three days of leadership, training and executive-focused content. If I could have made a wish for the best three be partners for this:
- We want to talk about leadership, we’ve got APEX
- We’re going to talk about global digital government, we’ve got the Digital Nations.
- We want to talk about public, private partnership, we’ve got the CIO Strategy Council.
Chunking it into leadership and culture; global cooperation; and private-public-sector partnerships tackles three of the big topics that your members have to deal with. So what are you hoping will be the result of this partnership?
Jacqueline: You said it. Leadership. Leadership is the foundation of everything that we do. So what I’m hoping to see is we’re going to bring in some great thought leaders, the best and brightest guidance.
I’m hoping that we will be able to equip that executive community and all those who attend with some new tools. Some new arrows, because the pace has changed. The methodology to deliver at this pace has changed. So we need to bring them thought leaders who can provide them with the tools, the way of thinking of how to now work in this environment. And then newsflash: It’ll change again.
So therefore it’s about that resiliency to understand change and keep moving with it. But at the same time, we need to learn from best practices and other thought leaders that are out there that have been down that train a little bit ahead of us and take what we can and apply it to our environment.
Alistair: It does seem like in the past when I’ve seen talks at the symposium, it was much more, “here’s how to jump in the river.” And now it’s like “how to swim when the water starts flowing faster.” I’m already getting ideas just from this conversation about what we can include in the programming.
And we have just released this content survey that goes out to all our members and all our readers. We collect the feedback from them on what topics they want to see; we do this every year. So in a couple of weeks we will have a report that describes what the community told us was important.
It’s going to be really interesting to dovetail that with APEX’s mandate and priorities, and the three pillars you spoke about earlier.
Jacqueline: It’s great, because as you know, we aspire to be that preeminent voice and supporter of the executive community and the public service. So partnering with groups and organizations like yourself is our raison d’etre. But our biggest purpose is to deliver information and tools about wellness and health , because you cannot be a great leader without that as your foundational piece.
I think it’s going to be a successful event. So looking forward to it. We’re glad that we’re working with you at Forward 50.
Alistair: All right, Jacqueline. Thank you so much!