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Is city leadership different from corporate leadership?

5 min read

Is city leadership different from corporate leadership?

Patrick Draper, City Manager at St. Albert, a medium-sized Alberta city answers questions about the differences between corporate versus city leadership.

Cities are complex organizations that bring together a diverse range of employees. Do they bring unique leadership challenges? Is city leadership different from corporate leadership? Why are cities a great place to build your leadership career? These are questions I explored with Patrick Draper, City Manager at St. Albert, a medium-sized Alberta city.

Brad: Nice to meet you Pat. I lived in St. Albert for a decade and remember it fondly. Such a great place to raise a family.

Pat: Thanks. We work hard to maintain a strong sense of community and great programs for families.

Brad: Leading a city has got to be one of the hardest leadership jobs out there. There's just such a diversity of employee types and needs for different services that you need to deliver. Much more than a normal company would ever take on.

Pat: That’s very, very true. I was actually having this debate with a group of city managers from Edmonton Region on Monday. Part of their argument is that it's very complex because you have everything from fire services to recreations, to policing, to ambulance, to parks and trees, and garbage collection. You're dealing with elected officials so it's a very, very broad role, which is true.

St. Albert is about 160 million dollars in revenue. If that were a private sector company, it's kind of mid-sized. We've got about 600 full-time staff. Each department is of a modest size, and yes, we have to have strategic plans, and policies, and procedures around each of those.

But if a private sector company's doing $160 million dollars a year, it might be operating in 15 different countries around the world, in 10 different languages, with manufacturing facilities in Mexico, Indonesia, and somewhere in Europe. Now, that company is also pretty complex. How are you complying with all the laws in the United States, and dealing with foreign currency, and hedging? There's a fair bit of complexity.

On the other hand, a St. Albert company doing road paving and generating $160 million in sales; maybe that's a little simpler. So municipalities are more complex than some private companies, but less complex than others. Larger municipalities get a scale that's equivalent to major, major international companies. Calgary, for example, has 16,000 employees. They deliver, in essence, the same range of services that we would in St. Albert, but they're significantly larger, and that size brings enormous complexity.

Brad: Your own history is interesting, you've had some very different jobs in the past.

Pat: Yes. I’ve enjoyed being able to work in a multitude of different environments. I started off in the private sector. I worked for the Provincial Government in Ontario at an executive level. Went from a very large scale organization to owning my own businesses. I had a corporate travel company and then I started a technology company around webcasting. Streaming live presentations and communications over the internet...we built a little broadcast studio.

Then I got into municipal government and some work in economic development and regional innovations. The common threads around this related to growth and strategic planning, and visioning and professional management of an organization.

I may be a little biased this way, but I found that you can move across industry sectors.

"You can move from a profit business to government, or non-profit... a lot of the skills are transferable, a lot of the insight too."

Brad: I've actually done the same. I've worked in maybe five completely different industries. And also in the public sector and big public companies, and entrepreneurial. So similar, and I agree with you, they are not so different.

Pat: It makes it interesting, but also you kind of learn a little bit more and share a bit more insights. In this kind of environment, there are some really good technical professionals and they're very used to their municipal world, and we're trying to shed some insight that maybe there's some other principles that you could use and they would apply.

“...they're very used to their municipal world, and we're trying to shed some insight that maybe there's some other principles that you could use and they would apply.”

So as an example, we run a transit system and in transit you have to design routes. Where's the bus going to run? Where are the stops? How often do you stop? Do you stop every half hour? Hour? There's a whole body of work around doing that. There are other industries that do the same thing, but a little different context. I worked in the soft drink industry, you wouldn't think it's like transit except they have trucks... delivery trucks and they make 40 calls a day. So, how do you want to plan that schedule, or do you actually schedule it?

Brad: That’s interesting, Pat. The real differences between looking after your customers in the public sector are really no different than in the private sector.

In other conversations with Patrick Draper we explore career development, building purpose, and culture and recognition in municipal environments.

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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