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Building purpose for public-sector employees

7 min read

Building purpose for public-sector employees

How do public-sector leaders create a sense of purpose and commitment for their employees? Patrick Draper, City Manager at St. Albert, helps us explore how purpose begins with culture and hiring practices.

When you work for a company your purpose is clear – sell more, win in this sector, etc. But in the public sector, purpose can be nebulous – your role is to help citizens. How do you measure progress? How do you translate this into a sense of purpose and culture for your employees? Patrick Draper, City Manager at the City of St. Albert, who has extensive leadership experience in both private and public sectors, dives into these challenges with me.

Brad: What would you say are the uniquely challenging parts of being a city leader versus your private sector experience?

Pat: Well, in the private sector it's much easier to drive a common sense of mission and purpose. I worked for the Pepsi-Cola Company for many years, and it was in the States. It was a very simple -- sell more than your key competitor. You know your revenues and what your market share is. There were some people worried about the bottom line, but you knew if you sold more, you were going to be successful.

Many companies in the private sector have, I think, simple tasks ahead of them, in terms of wanting to be an international leader in a particular segment, or wanting to be Canada's number one at what they do.

In a municipal context, we're dealing with more elusive visions and goals. We're dealing with quality of life. Too many municipalities say, "We're the best place to live, work, and play." which is way over-used. But what we do creates quality of life for people.

"What we do creates quality of life for people."

If we do our job in policing and fire services, we have a safe community. And the people that work our swimming pools make sure the decks aren't slippery, so it's safe for people. We do all these things to make a safe environment. It adds to the quality of life. How do you measure that?

Brad: How do you measure that?

Pat: We try with satisfaction surveys and such, but we don't get a monthly report card that says sales were up or down 10%. We have to ask residents, how do they feel? How do they like the quality of life here? What are the issues or the things we can improve upon? It's a little different.

Brad: Right. It's sort of a different world because you have to translate that into inspiration for your team somehow. How?

Pat: We've created a new organizational leadership and culture focus late last year. What our organizational culture really speaks to is caring for the community and being proud of the work that you do. In a private sector business do people really care about the product?

Brad: Do people really care about the product?

Pat: Well, maybe if there's an entrepreneurial owner who's passionate about their widget, but a lot of people are kind of like, "It's a job, and I like my job. I hope this company's successful, but I don't have an emotional bond with that widget."

In a community, in a municipality, what we're talking about for our organizational culture is we need people who have a passionate connection with the community, because we take care of the community.

We fix potholes, we fix drainage issues, we repair trees so branches aren't falling on people. We do all kinds of things to make their life enjoyable. We run festivals and events, and as you know, the children's festival and things. Why do we do that? Yes, it's for quality of life, but we have to care about how our residents are doing. It's almost like they're our kids, they're an extended family, we have to watch out for them. There's a different type of individual who subscribes to that kind of concept.

Fortunately, we have a lot of staff that fall into that category, who go above and beyond, who are doing things in the evenings or weekends just because they care. They want things to be done right. That bridge repair, it's going to be done right. Our process and procedures in the swimming pool, it's going to be done right. We're going to make sure that people have a good time and are safe. We'll celebrate the positive feedback we get. There's some different aspects to this, the culture, but the key thing really, I think, in a municipality, is you have to have that emotional connection to the community, whereas in a business environment that's not really as high on the critical success factors.

"You have to have an emotional connection to the community."

Brad: Nice. So that must impact how you hire people.

Pat: We're trying. It's a challenge because in an interview we can't ask somebody, "Are you proud of your work?". "Of course, I'm proud of my work." "Do you care for your community?" "I don't know, what does that mean?" We have to approach it from a slightly different angle.

One of the obstacles is it's a very busy environment, workloads are high. Many people on the outside think that civic bureaucracies are slow and don't do very much, but I would invite you to come and work inside the city for a couple months. I currently have, I think it's 155 projects on my project list, and that's on top of the regular services that we deliver.

The tendency in hiring is to get somebody in who knows how to do the job. A lot of our process around recruiting starts with a position description that leads to a job advertisement, which leads to interview questions by an interview panel that has a score for a candidate. That favours people who have been there and done that.

So, if recreation needs an event coordinator, it's written up that you should have five years experience doing event coordination and recreation. When five people come in, then you've got an independent event planner who's never worked in a recreation department, they get low scores, but they could be, culturally, a phenomenal fit and actually bring a lot, and probably have lots of good technical skills around event planning. Maybe better than the person who worked it for five years in municipal recreation event planning for one of the other municipalities. So, we're changing that paradigm in our recruiting. We're not going to preclude people who have experience from other industries, provided they have the technical skills.

"We're changing that paradigm in our recruiting."

Most importantly, much of the evaluation is going to be based on fit to our culture. That is a huge change for the hiring managers. They had an easy time before because, when you use a panel and they score, it's very easy to give that candidate a three, and that one a five. When you add it up, and candidate number two got the high score, they get the job. There's not a lot of decision making required by the hiring managers. In this new system, the hiring managers are going to have to make some judgement calls around cultural fit. That’s a transition that we're going to have to work through with them.

Brad: Articulating your culture and hiring for fit – that’s a big step forward, Pat.

In other conversations with Patrick Draper we explore city vs. corporate leadership, leadership career development, and culture and recognition in municipal environments.

It's interesting to note the topic of purpose and its role in building culture is top of mind in corporate environments too. We recently conducted a survey to explore how executives and employees differ on employee engagement. The results highlighted four potent predictors of engagement, including purpose and the belief employees have that their work matters. Together with Brian Solis, we packaged our findings into a white paper (free to download with no strings attached!).

About Leadership Conversations:

Our day job at Jostle is creating a platform that helps leaders engage employees, drive culture, and catalyze collaboration. Through this Leadership Conversations series we seek out top people-oriented leaders to explore these topics with us. If you know someone we should include in this series, please contact us at leaders@jostle.me.

Pat Draper

Patrick Draper is the City Manager at St. Albert. He is a persuasive leader with broad general management experience gained in corporate, public sector, and entrepreneurial organizations in Canada, the United States and internationally. Patrick joined the City of St. Albert in April 2012 after two years as the President & CEO of the Toronto Region Research Alliance, a regional economic innovation agency. His previous career span of twenty-five years included leadership roles in high-growth organizations including Deputy Minister of Economic Development for Ontario and President of an international consumer products company.

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Brad Palmer

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