Seen and Heard: Leadership in Public Policy with Shelly Jamieson

Naomi Shuman

On Thursday December 6, Ms. Shelly Jamieson joined MPP candidates at the School of Public Policy & Governance (SPPG) as part of the Leadership in Public Policy Series to reflect on her executive experiences in both the public and private sectors. The Leadership Series is specifically designed to expose students to exemplars of leadership in public policy as part of their training as policy makers.

Ms. Jamieson currently holds the role of CEO of the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer, and recently held the role of Ontario’s highest-ranking civil servant as Secretary of Cabinet, Head of the Ontario Public Service and Clerk of the Executive Council. She also demonstrated leadership through her service as Deputy Minister of Transportation for the province as well as President of Extendicare Canada, a provider of long-term care. In all of her roles Ms. Jamieson was and continues to be committed to building effective partnerships for achieving meaningful outcomes.

Through her conversation with SPPG Professor Mel Cappe, former Clerk of the Privy Council, Secretary to the Cabinet and Head of the Public Service in Ottawa, Ms. Jamieson described the skills needed to be a good leader. Ms. Jamieson emphasized the importance of balancing authenticity and speaking your mind with the need for buffering the edges of criticism. She backed this up with an anecdote from personal experience where she was thanked at a town hall for being honest and explaining the rationale for her decision when telling staff something negative.

A good leader also has self-awareness: they are aware of their shortcomings and the areas they need to work on to become a better leader. To that end, Ms. Jamieson indicated that she always asks for honest feedback from someone she respects within the organization, stressing that a good leader knows how and when to ask other executives for help. Ms. Jamieson looks to this person to help her identify when she needs to stop and take a minute to rethink a situation or to consider another perspective.

Other important characteristics a leader needs include good communication skills, decisiveness, patience, and loyalty to those who work for them. She mentioned the need to think beyond individual needs and to respect others. Ms. Jamieson also indicated that while not everyone should be a leader, it is important to help individuals develop leadership skills by giving them permission to lead. In a large organization leadership can be seen at different levels.

Another key message from Ms. Jamieson was the role of evidence in making a decision. She suggested the importance of distinguishing when you have enough information to make a decision. Evidence can help decision makers identify risks before they happen, and ultimately help decision makers to choose the right option.

In addition Ms. Jamieson discussed the role of gender in leadership. She made the distinction between letting gender affect the way she leads and gender systematically influencing leadership. Ms. Jamieson said that she has been in situations where she was the first woman, or was an underdog and she chose to put her head down and demonstrate her leadership capabilities by doing a good job instead of addressing the negative energy. She stressed the need for higher female representation on boards in Canada and at the Deputy Minister tables and suggested that better thinking is done when there is a mixture of individuals involved in a decision.

Ms. Jamieson concluded by acknowledging that there are some differences between being a leader in the public service and being a leader in the private sector. While a public service leader needs to ensure that the public service runs smoothly and is aligned with the premier’s agenda, the basic leadership characteristic are the same.

Naomi Shuman is a 2013 Masters of Public Policy Candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. She holds a MSc. Biomedicine, Bioscience and Society from London School of Economics. She also has an Honours BSc. Biology Co-op with a specialization in genetics and a minor in psychology from McMaster University. Her policy interests include science and health policy as well as policies to improve diversity in large organizations.

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