Skip to content Skip to footer
Search

Loading Results

Tammy Labelle on her journey to CIO of Canada’s Public Services and Procurement

Episode 3

Tammy Labelle on her journey to CIO of Canada’s Public Services and Procurement

Episode three of the Government Matters podcast sees PwC partner Suji Kanagalingam speak with our first international guest, Tammy Labelle. Until January 2021, Tammy was the Chief Information Officer of Public Services and Procurement Canada and continues to work tirelessly, to raise the voices of fellow public servants, driving change today for our collective digital future. In this episode they discuss Tammy's 37-year career in the public service, empowering women in the workforce and the evolution of leaders' since the '80s.

 

Episode Transcript

Di Rutter:

Welcome to Government Matters, a podcast from PwC Australia that features stories of transformation, reform, and innovation from some of the most respected and accomplished leaders working in the government and public sector. I'm your host, Di Rutter. And in this episode, PwC partner, Suji Kanagalingam talks to Tammy Labelle, who until recently, was CIO of one of Canada's largest federal departments. Tammy has had an expansive courier of almost 40 years in the Canadian public service where she first started as a receptionist before breaking through a number of glass ceilings and overcame countless obstacles to become CIO of one of the government's largest departments. Her reflections on juggling a demanding career in government as a single mom, the leadership values that she fostered, and her candid summation of what it was like being a woman, trying to break into a male-dominated field at a time when diversity and inclusion had yet to find its rightful place on the corporate agenda. I trust you will thoroughly enjoy this international and unique perspective from the incredible Tammy Labelle.

Suji Kanagalingam:

Tammy, thank you so much for joining us on the Government Matters podcast. We're very excited to have you today to learn a bit more about you, your experiences as a professional, and what that might mean to the public service in Australia. Before we get started, what I'd love to hear more about is actually you, where you were born, where you grew up, what shaped you into the person you are today.

Tammy Labelle:

Thank you so much, Suji. It's such a pleasure to be here with you today. I was actually born in a little town called Pembroke, which is not far from the capital of Canada, Ottawa, and I grew up mostly in the Ottawa region. It's a large government town, and so it's not surprising that when I finished high school, that I searched for a job in the public sector because my mother also worked in the public sector for many, many years. And so it was just a natural progression for me.

Suji Kanagalingam:

Awesome. Well, as you talked about, you touched on coming out of high school and going to the public service and that you've got an illustrious career of some close to 40 years within the public service. We came to understand a bit more about how that came about. Why did you choose the public service more so than anything else? And what led you to the path of finally going into that CIO role or chief information officer role within the public service and procurement in Canada?

Tammy Labelle:

It's so interesting that when I first started my career, I wasn't really thinking about it as a career, it was more of a job. When I was growing up and when I started working in 1984, we didn't talk about me going to university. There wasn't any money for university, and we didn't talk about the women in our family. I was dating somebody and they were more busy asking me when I was going to get married and have children than they were concerned about me having a career. It was really only in my later 20s, after I had gotten married and had children and found myself as a single parent, that then the career became more important because then I had to look after my family on my own.

And that's really when it took off from me. Before then, it was very interesting and I showed a lot of affinity, especially in IT. In 1984, I started working for what we call the Canada Revenue Agency. It's our taxation department. And I started working in their IT organisation, and they saw a little bit in me. They saw some potential there and started training. I'm always proud to say, when I look back there, there wasn't very many women in IT, but the men that I worked with in the taxation department and IT taught me everything I know. And I always look back fondly on the lessons that I learned from them.

Suji Kanagalingam:

Yeah. Fantastic. And you just touched on, I guess, women in the workforce, right? And we face into a range of challenges today and we can ensure that women thrive in the workforce. I'd love to hear your perspectives on what that looked like in the mid '80s versus what that looks like now.

Tammy Labelle:

In the mid '80s, there wasn't a lot of women in IT, and I think it was at a point where they were trying to recruit a lot more of us. And what I can say is, because I thought about this and I thought, "What did they look like in 1984 in comparison to today?" And I would say that back then, from a leadership perspective, there wasn't a lot of role models for me. And the role models that did exist had to become very masculine in order to be able to be successful.

Recently, when we talked about my recent retirement, they talked about how I was with my staff and how I helped people to grow and how I brought this sense of professionalism to the job in the workplace. But back in 1984, when a woman retire, they talked about how she could curse like a truck driver and those kinds of things. You can drive really fast to get to meetings, and they were male characteristics as opposed to female. And I would say that that is the biggest difference that I found from back then to today is the fact that women in leadership can bring their femininity and their diversity to the table and still be successful. Back then, it wasn't seen in the same light. We weren't listened to in the same way as we were today.

Suji Kanagalingam:

I love that. I love that. And I think that's a really unique perspective on how do you recognise the value, the diversity and to the workforce today versus how it was recognised in the past. So just talking about, I guess, some of that recognition, I'm keen to understand in that illustrious career of yours, what are some of those career highlights? What really stands out for you as being those moments that really mattered?

Tammy Labelle:

Well, the moments that really mattered were, I think, if I look at it from a personal perspective was the fact that I never took no for an answer. And I always wanted to continue to learn and to improve for myself, and I wasn't afraid to go and ask for help and to learn from others. But I'd also say some of the other highlights of my career have been the opportunity to influence the redesign of our taxation system and to start one of the other big projects that I worked on was consolidation of HR across the Government of Canada, so two projects that I learned a great deal from.

And I would be remiss to say the other highlight of my career was the people that I worked with. Public servants are just incredible. In every job that I had or every team that I worked with, I always said, "I'm never going to be able to get a team as good as this." And I can tell you, on the 37 years every team that I worked with, I left with friendships and I left with relationships that have lasted a lifetime. And I'm really proud that I got to work alongside them.

Suji Kanagalingam:

That's awesome, Tammy. You just touched on, I guess, learning. In 2003, you completed a master's in business administration, and I know you touched on earlier that coming out of high school and starting family, and that wasn't necessarily the thing that was talked about. It wasn't necessarily the thing that was focused on. What prompted you to do that and kind of advance your career from a professional qualification?

Tammy Labelle:

Well, when I became a manager, probably in the late 1990s, I realised that there was a glass ceiling. So first, I was a woman; but second, I didn't have a university degree. And in the federal public service to become an executive, it's recommended that you have a university degree. So I wasn't really sure what I was going to do about trying to match up. I didn't have the master's, but I had 20 years of experience. And so that's how it came together, where the EMBA was looking for people just like me, who had a lot of experience inside the government and who were looking to expand that experience. It was truly... That is one of the moments in my life. It really changed my world. It opened so many doors for me. And having worked for 20 years in IT, it taught me about the business outside of IT, which was really a great gift.

Suji Kanagalingam:

And so when you talked about there's a range of things that university and EMBA can provide, one of those key things that you're known for is your leadership within the public service. And so do you think that's something that can be taught through a university degree or do you think it's a blend between what you've been taught as well as what you've learned on the job?

Tammy Labelle:

I really believe it has to be both. You can't have one. It's not just one or the other. There are things that you cannot learn out of a book, dealing with people. How you deal with difficult situations? How do you adjust when you're not successful? How do you deal with that? Those are things that you can't learn in a structured setting, but at the same time, when you're in a structured setting, you get more than just the learning. You get the network, you get the collaboration with others, and I can say that throughout my career, very often I would go back to the EMBA and my alumni, or I would go to my colleagues for help because the reality is we do nothing alone. You need to know, as a leader, who you are and what you're good at. And then you've got to go seek help for the things that you're not so good at.

So I was on a project many years ago, and I'm a project manager and an IT person, but I was working on the business side. And I was working on the business side of pension and HR, and I'm not an HR expert, but I hired an HR expert to work side-by-side with me in order to make sure that I had the complimentary skillsets that I needed. Leaders shouldn't be afraid to say, "I can't do everything by myself." It's about you going to create the organisational capability that you need in order to be able to deliver on what you need to deliver on. And as a leader, they'll ask you to take on just about anything, and so it's not in your bailiwick, it's not necessarily always what you're good at. And so you have to be able to learn how to leverage expertise and support from others.

Suji Kanagalingam:

And do you think that in this digital age that the skills and the qualities or characteristics of what leaders need to know today has evolved or do you think some of those fundamental principles have stayed the same?

Tammy Labelle:

I think that the principles have stayed the same, but I think people's expectations are changing in the workplace. And I think that their expectations of their leaders is different. Mental health is now a very big and very predominant and diversity. And those things are difficult. They're very, very difficult. And oftentimes, leaders are selected because they're the expert in the area, not necessarily because they have the leadership skills, and I found that a lot in IT. The team that I was leading, one of the things that I found was really difficult was sometimes we have CS doing non-CS work because we didn't have that capability inside. And that's not the right place for us... Sorry, I say CS, when I mean a computer science professional. When they're working on administrative work, you're not getting the full value of that resource.

And so those are the things that are really important for us as leaders to be able to navigate. And how I've navigated that in the past is when I don't have a skillset that I have, I look for partner, whether that's with the private sector or with other government departments to say, "Hey, do you have what I need?" And that happened once. So it's not a project, the common HR project, where I had a piece of functionality that I needed to develop and I didn't have the expertise. And being transparent in talking to my clients about it, one of the clients said, "Hey, we have that expertise." And then we brought those people on the floor with us to work with us. And I really think that's what's going to change in the future. I think that's what maybe COVID has taught us, is that all being in the same room at the same time doesn't necessarily mean you have all the resources you need to be successful in the project. Sometimes they're outside the room.

Suji Kanagalingam:

Yeah. And just on that, I guess COVID-19 impacted the world in a variety of different ways, and the public service obviously played a massive role in ensuring the public health and the safety of citizens and businesses. And so I know that you are at a stage in your career where you're probably in and observing what was going on. How do you think government responded to the COVID-19 and what do you think that they did really well?

Tammy Labelle:

For COVID-19, I remember when it hit March 13th here for us, the dates seared into my mind. I remember getting my team together and starting to talk about what it is that we're going to need to do. The problem I was facing at that point, as a chief information officer, was only a quarter of my staff across the country could actually log in to work from home. Everything we did was based on people coming into the office. And so very quickly, we had to shift that. So within two months, we were able to get everyone logged back in from home so that they could work remotely. And so we're probably talking from March 2020 till about the end of April 2020, when everybody was working from coast to coast, but it wasn't easy.

I have to say that about two weeks into the pandemic, we had an issue. We put a change in, and then that change in order for it to take effect, people actually had to be plugged in into the office in order for them to be able to get these changes, but then we couldn't have them come in. And then the quarter that was logged in, couldn't get logged back in because of this problem. So two weeks, we had to lift our sleeves up. Every executive on my team was out working alongside the working level, and what we were doing was helping get each and every person logged back in from home. And it was very technical and it was very complicated. What a learning experience that was. When you're asking people to actually key in certain keys and elements, and they couldn't find them on their keyboard, each keyboard was different. It was quite an experience, but it was an opportunity for IT to connect with people working on the ground, in the business. We started forging relationships we didn't have before. And that was a great blessing.

And we were also able to teach people how they could leverage their laptop in a home setting. I think, for me, I was very fortunate with my team. Like on day one, I was able to set up a chat log where we could all go in. I could get answers in 15 minutes because we were all connected in the same place. I already knew intuitively how to do that because in IT, you're always ready for the next thing to go wrong. You're always ready for something not to work. So we're well-trained to get up and running right away and to get things set up.

And it was a very proud moment for me because I had a very large team of 1700 people across the country. So to say that we could connect and talk and be able to get things done, and one of the things I was really proud of is I instituted, because it was really difficult in those first months, and I instituted after 5:00 no calls unless it was really an emergency because people were burning out, and I knew that this was going to be a long haul, so we had to pace ourselves. But things changed significantly overnight, and I don't know if they will ever be the same because real property was looking at new ways of accommodating or using space for their workforce. So I don't think when we go back into the office, I don't think it's going to be the same going back into the office as it was before. I think there're going to be more collaboration spaces and that the individual work we do, we will have the flexibility to do that from home.

Suji Kanagalingam:

And just on that, I think, due to the range of similarities that presented themselves within Australia in terms of the need to kind of respond overnight and how do we get people connected within the public service and the private sector across the board and especially for those business critical-type activities. And when you reflect on, I guess, Canada, as a country and as a public service and Australia, I'm keen to get your... Any perspectives that you've got around? What are some of those cultural values that are shared? And alternatively, what do you see as maybe some of those key differences?

Tammy Labelle:

Well, one of the things that I thought was a real similarity is that we both originate from the UK and have the Westminster model, correct, for democracy. And we both very much value diversity and value achieving consensus. And in most cases, that is a great quality and has allowed us to evolve our societies in a way that makes everybody feel like they can participate and be the best that they can be in our country. That said, one of the areas that I found that to be quite problematic when I was working was that it's difficult when you're doing project management and you're trying to reach consensus. And so a lot of the projects, and I had a lot of programmes that delivered services on behalf of the Government of Canada, but the owner was not me. The owner was a central agency and so that becomes very problematic.

And I did some work actually with Gartner, we looked up projects all around the world to see what were the factors of success. And one of the things that we were able to clearly determine that there was always a very clear decision-maker on the projects. And so that's something that we're continuing to work on. In the past, I haven't had the opportunity of having just that one. I've always had to collaborate across. If people want to know what it is that I did, I spent a great deal of my time building relationships with people because if you have a relationship with someone, it's a lot easier.

And as I said at the onset, we never do anything alone. And so those relationships were really, really key, but I'd say that is something that I think both our countries... I think it's wonderful that we have that diversity and that we can bring all those players to the table and make them feel included because then they own a part of the solution. And they're part of the journey to get there and so on and so forth. But it's really difficult when you have several people thinking they're the decision makers in these projects. And that's, I think, one of the reasons why many projects fail.

Suji Kanagalingam:

And when I reflect on what you say and the formal structures that exist to get things done, the reality is it's the informal relationships that really get stuffed up, especially in times of crisis or when there's a need for a really fast response. I absolutely resonate with that.

Tammy Labelle:

My witness test for that, Suji, is always that if I call someone when they pick up the phone, I always feel very honoured that they picked up the phone because it means I did a good job in building the relationship.

Suji Kanagalingam:

As we draw to close on the podcast, Tammy, one of the primary objectives of this podcast is to inspire those working in the government or public sector. And I'd love to hear if there's any advice from you of whether it be somebody, how they would shape their career or the things that need to think about, but any advice that you've got for anybody in the sector today?

Tammy Labelle:

In the public service today, I would say that the world is your oyster and it's what you make of it. Each job is what you make of it. Each opportunity you learn from them, you learn things that you want to replicate, and you learn things that you want to change about things that you want to change. I would also say that if I was going to give advice is to treat yourself like a business. And this is what I tell people who come for coaching with me. Every opportunity gives you a new set of competencies, a new set of skills, and you put those in. And when you treat yourself like a business, I used to get people to do a graph and to say, what are the three last jobs that you had? And what are the competencies of the job that you're trying to achieve? And it's amazing what that tells somebody.

I had a woman who was working for me. She was my executive assistant. She had been an executive assistant for 10 years. She was desperately trying to become an executive, but she didn't... In the last 10 years, she hadn't managed people or budgets. And when we did this exercise together, I was able to show her distinctly. So here's all the skillsets that you have, but here's the ones that you're missing. So when you go to select the next job that you want to do or the next opportunity, and it's not always the work that's in your job, sometimes there... Because as executives, we get horizontal initiatives or horizontal tasks that were given. You can use those as well or even things that you're doing in the private sector or outside of government, but bring those skillsets together and enable yourself, right? And know and choose properly.

So there was... Let's give you an example. There was one time I was trying to become a director general, and I didn't have a lot of experience working with unions. And one of the characteristics or one of the competencies they were looking for were working with unions. So I joined the health and safety committee in my department. And eventually, I was co-chairing the committee with the union head. So that's what I mean by, it wasn't part of my regular day-to-day job, but I knew I needed that competency. And I've had people working for me, sometimes they'll say, "Well, I don't have enough budget experience." I'd say, "Tell your manager you want more budget experience. I promise you they'll give it to you. They'll help you." So that's what I mean by treat yourself like a business. And the last piece of advice I'd like to give is, and also set your own expectations, so that you're not always evaluating yourself on the expectations of others because sometimes they're impossible to meet. So set your own goals and your own expectations and congratulate yourself when you meet them. That would be my-

Suji Kanagalingam:

I love that, Tammy. Thank you so much for sharing that. And I guess, maybe one cheeky last question, only because you've been very vulnerable and transparent and open about sharing your life journey about being a single mom as starting your career in a sector that was very unknown to many. And so, I'd love to hear any advice that you might have for parents or single parents, especially women in the workforce today in the public service, and how can they take ownership of their careers and really accelerate amongst the challenges of family?

Tammy Labelle:

I think it's twofold. Sometimes I tell folks that you have to look at your life and where you're at in your life and understand how much you can give, right? And then set the boundaries and make sure you're having a conversation with your supervisor. It is a lot easier today than it was in mine. I remember in my time I had two children at home and I'd get a call at two in the morning and I had to go into work because there was a problem. And when they enabled us to work at home that first time, and I could tell you the telephones were huge, the computers, anyway, but it was a godsend for me. But set your boundaries and let people know what your boundaries are. It's not forever. There are times in your life whether you're taking care of a parent or you've had a significant impact in your own life, right? Understand where you are, and it is okay to step away sometimes.

I've had people who have stepped away and I say, "Step away, take care of yourself, then come back." But also, just as a single parent, the other pieces, don't underestimate the power of being able to do homework with your children and to be able to learn and work with them, and how that will not only influence you in your career, but how it'll teach them the key steps on how they can be successful in the future as well.

Suji Kanagalingam:

That's amazing advice. Thank you, Tammy. I appreciate that. And I'm sure our listeners will as well. So with that, I have thoroughly enjoyed learning from you, listening to your journey, and I really wanted to just thank you for the insights that you've shared both professionally, but also personally. And so Tammy, with that, thank you very much.

Tammy Labelle:

You're very welcome.

Di Rutter:

Thanks for listening to Government Matters. I hope you can draw on the inspiration from Tammy's fascinating story. Join us for our next episode where we'll meet another prominent public sector leader to discuss their journey and their contribution to making a better nation.

 

Contact us

David Sacks

Government and Public Sector Leader, PwC Australia

Tel: +61 3 8603 6151

Diane Rutter

Consulting Diversity & Inclusion Lead and Customer Experience Lead, PwC Australia

Tel: +61 431 164 710

Suji Kanagalingam

Partner, PwC Australia

Tel: +61 3 8603 5351

Follow PwC Australia