‘Define people by contribution – not rank,’ says winner of public service leadership award

By on 30/05/2016
Dan Couture, deputy assistant commissioner, Canada Revenue Agency

Defining people by the “contribution they make rather than the level they occupy in an organisation” is key to being an effective leader, a Canadian senior civil servant who won a leadership award has said.

Dan Couture, deputy assistant commissioner at Canada Revenue Agency’s (CRA) Human Resources Branch, is among five public servants who won this year’s APEX (Association of Professional Executives of the Public Service of Canada) award of excellence.

Couture, who first became a public servant when he started at a local call centre, received the leadership award “for his overall management excellence on numerous initiatives within his department and for his dedication to mentorship and coaching,” according to APEX.

He’s been leading a move to create a more efficient and customer-centric HR function within his department for 18 months and is now focused on monitoring the reform programme’s impact.

He told Global Government Forum that a “great public service leader has key attributes that allow for collaboration and engagement, and constantly strives to recognise the unique contribution that all bring to the organisation, regardless of grade or level.”

Throughout the 26 years he has been a public servant, he says it has been a priority to him to recognise that people “should not be defined by the level they occupy in an organisation, but rather the contribution they make.”

To help him in his decision-making he confides in a group of five people he calls his “small kitchen cabinet.”

“They are people I rely heavily on, because sometimes it’s lonely and you need people who will safeguard your information and provide an environment to bounce things off in.”

The cabinet is made up colleagues of colleagues from varied levels in government who “allow me to keep a pulse on what’s happening in the organisation and the frontline.”

He met them over the years, he added – “either they worked for me, or I for them, or they were introduced to me by other parties because I could provide them with some advice on their career.”

Mentors have been an important part of his career so far, Couture said: “I was fortunate enough to be chief of staff to the former commissioner Rob Wright for almost four years in the late 1990s. He was not only a boss but clearly a mentor and he put immense weight on recognising the ‘people component’.”

Today, Couture is a sought-after mentor himself. “I do coaching and mentoring activities when I can. I think it’s part of everyone’s responsibility to do this.

“It’s not in my job description, but I think if we want to create a good culture in an organisation and embrace people it’s essential that one makes a commitment to it – whether it’s within working hours or outside them. And for me, it’s often outside of work hours.”

When he agrees to mentor people, he has three rules: “First of all, the fact we are in a mentoring relationship doesn’t mean that I’m the only game in town and that you cannot at some point sever that relationship and then re-establish at a later point in your career: it’s not like a lifetime membership, although I do have some people who will always be in that relationship.

“The second piece is at the essence of it: everything we talk about is really confidential – I like to create a safe environment where people can open up – whether that’s with individuals or in a group session. I like to create a safe environment, because that’s how I feel people learn the best.

“And thirdly, for each person I invest in I request that they do the same thing for other individuals.”

Those three rules make up “the unwritten contract we agree to,” Couture said.

His mentees have included Laura Germano, former chair of the Young Professionals Network (YPN) at CRA’s Human Resources Branch, who in 2014 won the Michelle C. Comeau Award which recognises outstanding public service leaders in the HR profession.

He also helped put together a networking event for the whole CRA’s YPN which offered younger employees to mix with CRA senior executives as well as officials from other government departments while raising money for charity.

“I had recruited 35 senior managers from across the organisation to contribute mentoring sessions. It was an outstanding event.”

Proceeds from the event, which was held in Ottawa earlier this month, went to the 2016 he Government of Canada Workplace Charitable Campaign (GCWCC), which supports services for people in need.

Couture has volunteered as a GCWCC cabinet member for three years, which means managing a portfolio spanning seven departments and agencies.

He is also the APEX emissary within CRA providing an official link between the association and the department.

He said: “I press upon people the importance of finding the time to do what it is that needs to be done, to make the time to contribute to the organisation.

“To me there’s an expectation that in addition to your work you will find a way to contribute.

“If you can find the time and get involved in things that are more than just your work it will enrich your work life and you as a person and you’ll be happier all around.”

Couture will pick up his trophy at the APEX Symposium, a two-day conference for Canadian senior civil servants starting tomorrow.

He will be joined by Jennifer Hollington, director-general (DG) at Natural Resources Canada who won the healthy workplace award; Norm Sheridan, executive director at the Canada Border Services Agency who won the career contribution award; Ezio DiMillo, a DG at Public Services and Procurement Canada – the department responsible for the government’s internal servicing and administration, who received the partnership award; and Sara Filbee, leader of the Implementation Committee at Employment and Social Development Canada which won the innovative team award.

The event will be held at the Shaw Centre in Ottawa under the banner: ‘Leadership Action for Excellence, Innovation and Health.’

It will include various workshops and speeches by senior officials including Canada’s most high-ranking civil servant Michael Wernick and politicians such as Scott Brison, the minister responsible for the public service.

For up to date government news and international best practice follow us on Twitter @globegov

See also:

APEX award winner Jennifer Hollington’s 5-step guide to creating a healthy workplace

‘Don’t always look for next promotion,’ says Canadian senior civil servant who won career contribution award

Revealed: winners of Canada’s senior public service awards

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About Winnie Agbonlahor

Winnie is news editor of Global Government Forum. She previously reported for Civil Service World - the trade magazine for senior UK government officials. Originally from Germany, Winnie first came to the UK in 2006 to study a BA in Journalism & Russian at the University of Sheffield. She is bilingual in English and German, and, after spending an academic year abroad in Russia and reporting for the Moscow Times, Winnie also speaks Russian fluently.

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