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How to Survive as an Executive, Season 2, Episode 2: Reflections on Career Progression, with Stephen Burt

How does being a director differ from being a director general or an assistant deputy minister? How do you know when you are ready to move to the next level?

Stephen Burt, Assistant Deputy Minister at National Defence, explains what to consider when comparing the various roles in the executive cadre. He discusses some of the considerations you need to take into account in order to be successful at your level within the organizational echelon:

  • effective leadership behaviours
  • the responsibilities that come with these roles
  • maintaining a balance between personal and professional life

Duration: 14:11
Date: June 18, 2021

Transcript

Stephen Burt: I think as often as possible you should feel ready. I think if you don't feel ready before you jump into it, chances are you're not.  I think that rounding yourself out and making sure you've got the right skills for the next level before you move up to that level is important.

Annie Therriault: We can't be everything to everyone. In our organizations, every level has a role to play and every team member counts. As EXs and leaders, we're being asked to deliver results. So how can we find our way and navigate throughout the EX levels? We're also dealing with an established structure. How can we make sure this structure is a value-added, rather than a roadblock preventing us from moving forward? Hello, I'm Annie Therriault. Welcome to How to Survive as an Executive. I'm thrilled to share with you a conversation I had with Mr. Stephen Burt, Assistant Deputy Minister, Data, Innovation and Analytics at the Department of National Defence. Mr. Burt will share with us his extensive experience as an executive and more specifically, how establishing our boundaries can be a major asset for a successful career as any EX. So, do you aspire to climb the EX ladder? Is there a price to pay to move on to the next level? And how do you know if you're ready? Let's hear from our guest.

Annie Therriault: When I became an EX, I thought, OK, if this person can do it, I can definitely do that for sure, you know.

Stephen Burt: I do think ambition and strong belief in yourself certainly do play a big role.

Annie Therriault: Good self-esteem, confidence in your competency.

Stephen Burt: Exactly.

Annie Therriault: Thank you so much for being with us today. I know you're busy, so we totally appreciate the time. And I'm sure you can help us figure out how to survive being an executive.

Stephen Burt: I think it's too soon to tell but, so far, so good.

Annie Therriault: So now you're at an ADM level. And I heard you say previously that you became an ADM, the way you became an ADM was unusual. What exactly do you mean by that?

Stephen Burt: Sure. And I guess it's not so much the way I became an ADM, but the situation that I inherited was a bit unusual. So when I became an ADM in 2018, it was to not just take on the Data, Innovation and Analytics portfolio, but to create it. So, there was no organization, with two, three people already on the staff at that point and taking over functions that had been run off the side of the desk of the commander of the Navy. So it was a bit of a strange situation having to build the organization at the same time as I was learning to be an Assistant Deputy Minister. What I found was I reverted back very much to the kind of behaviours I had as a director. Right. You were building something new. You had a small staff. You had to bring people in, you had to sort of elaborate what the functions were going to be, what teams were going to look like. It was very up close and personal, as it often is when you're a director with the group that you're running. So it was a big challenge.

Annie Therriault: Yes.

Stephen Burt: It was a different way to do things, from moving into an existing structure, where all these things have been set out and often generally run for years in particular ways.

Annie Therriault: That's a major undertaking you had to go through there. So how did you find that impacted your leadership style?

Stephen Burt: It was interesting and it gets to boundaries, because what I found was because I was so hands on in the early, early days. I mean, really the first two years of the building of the organization, it was a very personal experience, right? Very personal connections, right down to the most junior levels of the staff, and that was good. It was important to build the team, it was important to build that esprit de corps. But as the organization grew and as we established those structures and how we were going to plug into other parts of the defence and armed forces organizations and began to formalize these things, it actually became a bit of an inhibitor where I expect my directors to have a very close and personal touch with their staff. What I was finding was that as the ADM, once I have DGs and directors, in some ways I was at risk of undermining them, because I had often had more established and more personal relationships with their staff who maybe had been there before the other execs came in. What I had to start to do was sort of the opposite of the thing that people say all the time, which is that my door is always open. I had to make it clear to people that my door was not always open and actually begin to build some obstacles, frankly, around the staff and myself, to make sure that I wasn't inadvertently undermining the other executives and I was giving them the space to actually manage their teams. So it's been an interesting, almost backwards learning experience in terms of the adjustments I've had to go through building this team and running it at the same time.

Annie Therriault: That's very interesting, because now what we preach necessarily is a more agile type of leadership and as you said, with a door open and we want to be accessible as leaders. So how do you keep that balance in place? You know, how do you determine when it's a good time, when it's not a good time? What can we learn from that?

Stephen Burt: I think, partly I think what people are getting at when they talk about having their doors open and being accessible and whatnot, partly what they're getting at is the need for transparency. And I think that that is real and that continues. So actually saying to people, as I was trying to build these structures and insulate myself a little bit from the day to day at the staff level, saying to people, that's what I was doing and explaining to them why and explaining that their director, their manager, their director, their DG, actually had to have the space to make decisions that made sense for the team, that I increasingly was not in a position to make for them. I'd only been making it for them because they hadn't been there before. But also, I think that the key to actually doing it successfully was a good personal staff. Bringing in the right people, the right personalities into my front office, people who had also had good connections across the working level and more easily than I could sort of take people aside and say, now come on, you know better than to bring that kind of thing forward to an ADM and it's not appropriate - that I can have those conversations in a more personal way, because inevitably I find in big organizations, as you move up, it's, even when you don't mean to be, it's easy to bruise people. Hearing from me that it's not appropriate is harder on them than hearing from, you know, my senior advisor. So trying to make sure that people were able to adjust to this in a way that was a little bit more protective than having me put my finger in their chest, being perceived as having told them off.

Annie Therriault: So it's a very different culture from one department to the next. Any advice to the EXs listening right now as to what is appropriate at different levels? What's your view on that?

Stephen Burt: I do think departmental culture plays, I think small policy departments tend to be a little more tightly knit than big operational departments, as a rule. So you do have to adjust. On the theme of boundaries I think there are some basic behaviours that matter at each of the sort of director, DG and ADM levels. I think at the director level, as I've alluded to, you're still very much in the detail of your files. You still have to be something of an expert. You have to be close to your team. You have to be able to speak for your team. Sometimes you have to be able to pick up things from your team and run with them yourself. The boundaries you need at the director level, certainly my experience, was very much in the zone of what we tend to call work-life balance, which is not a term that I am super fond of, but it's about making sure that your boundaries are clear, particularly with your bosses, but also with your staff, about when you're available, when you're not available, how they can get hold of you when you're not in the office, making sure that you are for me, at least when I became an EX-01, I had a fairly young family, making sure that I was - I put some hard stops in terms of when I was ending my work day and going home to do things on the family front and still being available, often by phone and by email. In fact, when I became an EX, Blackberries were still relatively new and I've said a few times to younger staff, it's a blessing and a curse, but I probably would not have become an EX without the BlackBerry, in that early mid-2000s zone, because I wouldn't have been able to spend the time in the office that I would have had to, without that technology. So all that to say, I think at the director level, establishing particularly with your bosses, but also with your staffs, where those personal boundaries are is really important. At the DG level, you're running a program and you tend to be dealing mostly with other executives at the director level and your ADM and above level, your boundaries are really more about looking at things from a more systematic standpoint. And sure, you still have to get in, roll up your sleeves and deal with personnel issues, but really, you're running the system and relying on your directors to be the experts that they are, but adjusting to sort of a broader view of the organization and keeping your antenna up so that you're plugged into what's happening at the most senior levels. And you've got the sort of that small P political sense of when things might be going in a different direction than you anticipated and being able to manage your program in light of that. And then, like I said, I think at the ADM level, you're back to being up and across in a way that you aren't really at the other executive levels. I had not anticipated the extent to which my work as an ADM would be horizontal. I knew I'd have to keep the deputy happy. I knew I would have to build this structure. I hadn't really anticipated the amount of time I would spend talking to other ADMs, making sure that the overall branch is aligned with them and their views and that they understand where we're going and that we understand where they're trying to get to. Particularly in a world like data analytics, where you're providing, often providing a service to other ADM-level organizations in in the department.

Annie Therriault: So definitely establishing boundaries and moving up that EX ladder can change quite a bit, your reality, as you said.  So for those of us who are thinking about climbing that ladder as an EX and moving to the next level, what are the implications? What should we keep in mind?

Stephen Burt: I think, you have to want it, right? And you have to be honest with yourself as much as you can be about how much that ambition to move up is worth to you. Because it does cost you in other areas. It does mean you're getting there to the office. It does mean that you are online more and that only increases as you go up. So having a good network, having trusted whether they're mentors or peers, people you can talk to about whether or not you're actually prepared to take on those responsibilities, is important. Thinking about when you should say no is important. It's very hard when you're offered that opportunity to advance, to really be honest with yourself about whether or not you feel ready and whether or not you're prepared to take on what that is, what the responsibilities are of that. You have to think about it. You have to have a conversation with your partner on the home front. Think about what it's going to mean from a family standpoint. You have to talk honestly to whoever is going to be your boss about what you think your limitations are in that zone and where you're concerned about being able to do or maybe not do what they're asking of you. But fundamentally, it's a bit of a gut check, right? And I don't think we are always as good as we could be at making some of the downsides visible to people. I like being an executive. I'm enjoying being an ADM. I've been fortunate in the jobs that I've had over the years. Finding, you know, interesting work with people you like is probably the thing that matters most to me at this stage of my career and I've been saying that for a long time. It becomes more true as I go up. Because the pressures are real.

Annie Therriault: Definitely. So you were talking about being ready, feeling ready. So should we wait until we feel ready to jump to the next level, or should we just do it and then get ready for the level? What's your take on that?

Stephen Burt: I think as often as possible you should feel ready. I think if you don't feel ready before you jump into it, chances are you're not.  I think that rounding yourself out and making sure you've got the right skills for the next level before you move up to that level is important. It's a judgement call. And I did have the experience, again, as an EX-01 where the job I was doing, I was quite happy with. I had an opportunity to do a different job, had an offer from a fairly senior person to come over and work for them. I was really interested in the substance of that job. I had a good long conversation with them about what their expectations were going to be, and we were in the zone of agreeing to it. But I had nightmares about that job for a week after we had that conversation. I said I was going to get back to them. I was waking up in the middle of the night and I couldn't really put my finger on what it was, about it. But in the end I said no, because there was something about it that wasn't happy. And I think that was the right decision for me at that time. You do have to listen to your gut on these things.

Annie Therriault: Thank you. So your inner voice, your intuition always knows, right?

Stephen Burt: I don't know if it always knows, but you've got to listen to it and weigh it in with everything else.  So don't ignore that, that feeling.

Annie Therriault: Definitely wow, that's a lot of food for thought, and I hope that people will take all the elements and all of the advice into consideration. Thank you, it was very inspiring to hear your story and all that you've learned that you were able to share with us today. Thank you so much.

Stephen Burt: Thanks very much Annie, it was a pleasure.

Annie Therriault: Thank you for listening. We hope this conversation with Mr. Burt inspired you and provided an opportunity to reflect on your own boundaries and on your career as an executive. We invite you to continue the conversation by sharing this podcast with your network. And do you know an executive who has a great story to share? Better yet, would you like to participate? Please contact us.

Credits

Guest: Stephen Burt, Assistant Deputy Minister, Data, Innovation and Analytics at the Department of National Defence

Host: Annie Therriault, on behalf of the Canada School of Public Service

Would you like to participate or suggest a guest for our series? We want to hear from you: executivelearning-apprentissagepourlescadres@csps-efpc.gc.ca.

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