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10 Oct

Lessons from a Career in Public Service: Yaprak Baltacioglu

October 10, 2018 | By |

The first Peterson Leadership Lecture of 2018-19 began with one of the School’s newest professors.

Yaprak Baltacioglu

Yaprak Baltacioglu looked back at her 30-year career in the federal public service to talk about lessons from her leadership and public service before MPP students on October 9, 2018. She began with the idea that leadership often emphasizes command and control language and it implies a hierarchy in the shape of a pyramid. Her leadership story has always been an internal struggle with the structure.

Professor Baltacioglu arrived in Ottawa as an immigrant where she received a Master of Arts in Public Administration at Carleton University (already having earned a law degree in Turkey). She began her career as a junior analyst, 16 levels removed from the deputy minister. It took her 15 years to become a deputy minister and she would eventually become Secretary to the Treasury Board.

“I learned along the way that great leaders are catalysts who assemble and lead a great group of people, give them tools, space, support and watch great things happen,” she said.

Lesson One: Take your career growth in your own hands

Professor Baltacioglu’s first boss didn’t care about pyramids. She described his leadership style as circular as he was interested in hearing from people with initiative or were thought leaders. It was an atmosphere where ‘leaning in’ was easy. However, her next boss cared about hierarchy and she was given work that was appropriate to her level so she found another job in a hurry.

“It is never good to be stuck in a place when you aren’t growing and where you won’t feel you won’t make an impact.” She added that it often helps to be uncomfortable in your position and not coast in a job.

Lesson Two: Speak up

When Professor Baltacioglu became secretary to the executive committee in the Department of Agriculture (where she made notes as the deputy minister and other senior leaders met), she had the chance to observe how how decisions were made and how people treated the leader. She recognized that the top tip of the pyramid is a dangerous place to be especially when people were hesitant to disagree with the deputy minister. Eventually, she spoke up to a new deputy minister and got rewarded for her honesty with a job offer to be his chief of staff.

“You think people don’t want your ideas. Sometimes don’t believe your instincts, they may actually want to hear you. Don’t always expect the negative in organizations,” she said.

When she became deputy minister and walked into her first executive committee, she said “the only ground rule I would like us to have is that everybody speak up their minds.” In time, people spoke up and the meetings were appropriately tough.

Lesson three: Hire people better than yourself

Good leaders are surrounded by people who tell the truth and who are not intimidated. The more different the hires, the more diverse the ideas. Professor Baltacioglu wanted people she recruited to be interested in making a difference and not just focused on the career ladder which she believes kills courage. If you are so worried about your job prospects, you may not be giving good advice.

Lesson four: Connect with the front lines

Professor Baltacioglu also made sure to create systems and processes to connect to more of the frontline. She made a commitment to have coffee with 12 employees every three weeks and go to a region every three weeks. It was a way to hear about issues that senior staff would not mention.

The example she gave was while she was at Transport Canada, she was told in briefings that the aviation inspection systems were working great. But when she went out and met with actual inspectors she found out that they were unhappy with inspection system. They eventually held town halls that led to massive changes in the department. Her conclusion was that if leaders are too far removed from the front lines, “the pyramid itself could crumble.”

“I tried to create a sense of circle that I had in my very first job,” she said. “I worked really hard to create a workplace where people could contribute and lead with ideas.”

Lesson five: Be yourself and be ready

In the early days of Professor Baltacioglu’s career, women leaders had to make many sacrifices and appeared severe. She was fortunate that Public Service Canada was changing as she came up so she could bring her whole self to work including motherhood.

“I didn’t let the location of power change myself. You have to be yourself. My people were never fearful and could speak their minds and brought their whole selves to work,” she said.

Of course, there were glass ceilings but Prof. Baltacioglu believes the federal government is better off for women is way ahead of the corporate world. However, she also adds that when faced with setbacks in your career, it is important to look at your own performance.

“‘Was I ready?’ ‘Did I produce the best things’. Many times when things didn’t happen for me, I wasn’t ready. When I was promoted, I was ready,” she said. “Make sure you are good enough. And if you are faced with a barrier, you need to fight and speak up. The most important time to speak up is when there is a problem with the culture.”

In conclusion: Have confidence

“Holding a place of power with grace is key to being an effective leader. Power is a wonderful thing to have if you use it wisely. You can make things happen. You can transform organizations and the context of public policy. And in the context of public policy, you can make a difference for Canada. Holding power with grace first and foremost requires confidence: confidence to accept that you are not always right, the confidence to welcome healthy dissent and ideas, the confidence to understand that the best organizations are those where the ideas are challenged, tested and shared, and more importantly, it will require confidence to just be yourselves and not a persona that being a leader assigns to you.

“So my advice to you all is when you see roadblocks, events or situations or challenging things, don’t lean back. Don’t step back. You should really lean in and try very hard because the world needs good leaders so it may as well be you.”

The event was hosted by Professor Mel Cappe.