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Changing a city’s leadership culture – building ELASTICity

8 min read

Changing a city’s leadership culture – building ELASTICity

John Leeburn shares his experiences transforming the leadership culture of a city from rules-based to one that taps into inspired employee engagement.

John Leeburn became CAO of Port Coquitlam two years ago. He arrived with a mission to change the leadership culture of the city. His goal is to truly engage city employees to achieve a better workplace and a better city. In this Leadership Conversation we learn how he is driving this change.

Brad: John, what kind of change are you trying to impart with your team?

John: When I arrived here two years ago, I had an idea of what a good organization looks like, what a healthy organization looks like. Then it's been about learning what exactly Port Coquitlam is, and then understanding what needs to change, and quite frankly who needs to change. Then getting my senior management team in place, getting the right people around the table, or as James Collins would say, getting the right people on the bus.

Get the right people on the bus.

Getting the right people on the bus, getting them bought in and believing in where we're going as an organization. Not as a community, that's council's job, but as an organization - what are we going to be? Then articulating that in a way that's somewhat interesting and then taking that out to the masses. It was probably eighteen months of getting people in the right place, getting them buying in, and then properly articulating what we want the organization to look like as a senior management team, and then the first few months of this year spreading the word.

We deliberately distilled the vision for the organization into something that could easily be remembered and something that fits our culture. We’re a bit more folksy than academic. We tend to talk about “getting better” rather than “shifting paradigms”. We settled on ELASTICity where each of the seven letters of elastic are the first letter of a component of what we want the organization to be. The E is for "engage," the L is for "learn," the A is for "accountable," the S is for "service," the T is for "tone," the I is for "improve," the C is for "one city," C for "city." 

image1 John Leeburn explains the values of Elasticity to his team.

Elasticity is the brand. It's not branded, but Elasticity is the brand. I was just out talking about why it's important. What I want our organization to be, how I want our employees to feel, and here's what the organization can do, and here's what you need to do.

We're going to do Field of Dreams theory, right? If we build it, they will come. Our job is to put the programs, the structure in place. If we put the programs and structure in place, then their obligation is to come and play ball. I'll build the stadium, but they have to come and play ball, and if we do that we'll have a lot of fun together. The first three months of this year were about getting out and talking about what Elasticity is, and why it's important, and talking about some of the things we've already done in terms of moving towards our vision, and then some of the things that are coming. Basically trying to paint the picture.

Brad: I think when you roll out a program like that, you come to a point where you tip. People start to get on board and it really starts to gain momentum. Whereas early on people are sort of assessing it, trying to figure out whether it's actually going to be real. Where do you think you are in that process?

John: We've started. I think one of the things that is key to the success of things like this, Brad, is getting disciples. Obviously, getting the senior management team on board was my first step, because if they're not singing from the same song sheet as I am, then we're in for a whole lot of hurt. They're on board.

One of the first critical early steps was an employee survey, the entire workforce. We asked: "What are the things that are critical to your success and how are we currently doing on them?" Out of that you get the gap analysis, "How important is training and development to you for your personal success? How is the city currently doing on that?" Where you've got big gaps, that's what we're going to focus on.

One of the things identified in our survey was a strong desire for more training and development. So one of our responses was to bring in BCIT and we run an in-house leadership program. We have twenty-four of our employees who get together every Thursday, from two to six, in a BCIT classroom here at city hall and they're doing the leadership certificate program – 8 accredited courses over a 2 ½ year period.

That group of twenty-four are becoming disciples. Now I've got two or three disciples in each department, plus I've got the seven department heads plus myself. You just keep growing it from there. You get people involved in projects who get to see that you're serious, and real, and honest about what you're trying to achieve, and well-intended. You just keep that snowball growing.

You asked me where we are on it. We're starting, we're gaining momentum. There's still a lot of resistance. I'm under no illusion that we've crested the hill and it's clear sailing now, it's far from that. One of the indicators that we're at least making progress is people are starting to use the language that we talked about in Elasticity. One of the key symbols of it is that we talk about three kinds of employees. These come from the Gallop Q12 engagement survey where they talked about engaged, not engaged, and actively disengaged.

What we talk about are rowers, coasters, and drillers.

The analogy being you're in a rowing team or a dragon boat team. You've got some people who are constantly rowing and they're really keen, and they want to practice, and they want to go to the gym, and they want to go for a beer after work, and they want to make sure the boat's in great shape, and they're just like stroke, stroke, stroke. Then you've got coasters, who are kind of along for the ride, and occasionally stick an oar in the water, but kind of enjoy the scenery, and let the rowers do much of the work, and every now and then you've got to remind them to stick their oar back in the water. Then you've got drillers, who are actually trying to drill holes in the boat and sink the freaking boat.

That symbolism that we use is starting to be used a lot around the city now. Are you a rower? Are you a driller? Stop coasting. You know you're starting to have a little bit of impact. I'm under no illusions about where we are, but we're started and we need to keep holding up our end of the bargain in terms of, building the stadium and delivering on the things that we said we would deliver on, and if we build it, they will come. That's the theory.

image2 John counts up “rowers”, “coasters” and “drillers” during an employee workshop.

Brad: What do you think makes that particularly hard to do, given that it is a city?

John: I think any change is difficult. It's not about the workforce. The management culture that was here prior to my arrival was quite different than it is now. It was quite top-down; it was sort of managers-know-best. An attempt to write policy, add checklists and rules for everything so that nobody had to think. There was not a whole lot of reliance on common sense and understanding of why you're doing things. You just follow the rules. There's a formula for everything, and if we just follow the rules then we can't get blamed if it works or doesn't work. I don't know if that's bureaucratic, Brad, or what way you would describe that as, but just very formulaic, to take away risk and liability. Which, I suppose if people think the world is black and white, then you can do that. I'm not casting aspersions on the past. It may have been put there for very good reasons, right?

It's just my view of the world is, I've never had a black and white world, I've lived in a very grey world and I don't think you can policy, checklist, guideline, formula your way out of everything.

People have to understand why they're doing things, what's important, and what needs to be considered, and then you support people and trust them to apply those sorts of common sense and good guidelines. The pendulum has gone, in my opinion, too far to the formula and I'm trying to pull it back.

Brad: Nice. As you've gone through that journey, how has your culture and values both played into that and changed as you've moved along?

John: What I believe are the values that make a good organization, are consistent with my own personal values. If you look at Elasticity, Brad, the number one, the E is for "engagement" which really talks about involvement. Employee involvement, I think, is just completely fundamental. Employees are not the only source of good ideas, but boy oh boy the people who do the job everyday know they work really well and so you need to continually be talking to them about the work and how do we do it better. Learning's important.

I think the thing that many cities do poorly, certainly the few cities I've been in, the number one issue, in terms of improving the organization, has been our willingness to hold each other accountable. It's not that we're nice people, Brad, it's that we're conflict-averse people. Improving accountability is a fundamental.

The things I think are really important are embedded in Elasticity, I have each of those values. I think they are just fundamentals for a good organization.

Brad: Elasticity is such a great way to anchor a change initiative like this – well done John.

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

John Leeburn
John Leeburn is the Chief Administrative Officer for Port Coquitlam. In his twenty-five years working in municipal government in Metro Vancouver, John has held steadily more senior positions, and has proven his ability to lead municipal departments, work closely with Council and other department heads, build trusting relationships, and engage workforces.

John is one of the few CAO’s in the province of British Columbia, Canada to start his career in human resources. When not at work he can be found wandering around Port Coquitlam with his golden retriever, Echo.

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Brad Palmer

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