Public Sector Senior Level Recruiting

February 15, 2011

The recent resignation of Shoppers Drug Mart CEO Jürgen Schreiber has forced that firm’s board of directors to launch a process to determine and evaluate the qualifications for his successor. It is complex, artful, risky work with a constellation of interrelated and fast moving variables competing for priority. Despite this, there is certain logic to the endeavor, one driven by the firm’s goals and very specific obligations to shareholders. But when one tries to apply the same logic to the replacement of senior public sector executives it becomes apparent that when politics is introduced as a variable, logic runs for cover. Consider the case of RCMP Commissioner William Elliott.

In 2007 the RCMP faced mounting criticism after a series of public missteps. These included the questionable management of the police force’s pension funds and insurance plans as well as then Commissioner Zaccardelli’s admission that he had given incorrect testimony in the Maher Arar case. Critics charged that the RCMP was ‘terribly broken’, an arrogant, calcified, inward-looking organization increasingly disconnected from the citizenry it is mandated to serve. And then one day the federal government took action. Commissioner Zaccardelli was relieved of duty and an outsider, one William Elliott became the new leader of the iconic national police force.

Mr. Elliott was described as an “outstanding 25 year career bureaucrat”. Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day stated at the time, “He is an excellent choice. I know he’ll do an extremely good job in this role”. The optimism surrounding Mr. Elliott appeared to centre on a few key attributes, perhaps best summarized by former RCMP Commissioner Norman Inkster, “He understands Ottawa well, he understands policy well and he will be able to implement the kinds of changes that are necessary.” In a press conference Mr. Elliott promised that under his leadership the RCMP would become a "modern, efficient, effective organization." To many these resonated as reasonable goals.

We were left to conclude by the majority of comments that understanding policy and the ways of government were considered keys to Mr. Elliott’s ability to achieve his goals. Presumably the relationships necessary to lever that knowledge was also considered critical. Strangely, there was no indication at the time, at least that I can find, that Mr. Elliott had a track record as an agent of change, of walking into organizations, diagnosing their problems, prescribing solutions and implementing them. There was no mention made to the other modern, efficient, effective organizations he had put together in his 25 years of government service. Cynically, one might wonder whether this is because such descriptors of government organizations are oxymoronic. And finally, there was no reference made to his leadership style or personality and why it was deemed appropriate for the job at hand.

It is hard to imagine a more inward looking, ‘us versus the world’ culture than a 140 year old iconic policing institution, and thus the change mandate awaiting Mr. Elliott must have been ‘interesting’ to say the very least. And perhaps predictably the forces against change threw everything they had at Mr. Elliott, including going public with complaints that the person whose job it was to blow the place up had an explosive personality. Senior officials accused him of being hot-tempered, erratic, abusive, non-inclusive, demeaning and well, just plain not nice. Senior officials suggested that morale was sinking to an “all time low” and that grizzled veterans of the force had actually been ‘brought to tears’ by this outsider who understood so little of their world. Mr. Elliott was also accused of profligate spending in taking expensive leadership development courses and one RCMP officer even filed a complaint after viewing a photograph of Mr. Elliott wearing a side arm on a trip to Afghanistan. This precipitated an investigation as to whether the citizen Commissioner was sufficiently trained and qualified for such a privilege.

For his part, Mr. Elliott admitted only that he can be blunt, and that such bluntness can occasionally stifle discussion. However, he categorically denied that he was autocratic, that he lacked inclusiveness or that he had anger issues. Though the government investigated the accusations (odd that after 25 years of government service there was no human resources dossier somewhere that might have corroborated either side of the leadership style debate), it did not acquiesce to the demands of the mutineers that Elliott be immediately relieved of his duties. At the same time however it did little to strengthen Mr. Elliott’s hand.

This month, after 4 years on the job, Mr. Elliott suddenly announced his departure from the RCMP. Was he pushed, pulled, punished…. who knows? Depending on who you choose to believe, he leaves either a partially reformed police organization or a massive mess. Some suggest that Mr. Elliott made considerable inroads by changing much of the senior leadership team as well as key elements of the organization’s culture. They would argue still more work needs to be undertaken to secure greater transparency and public oversight of the police force. Meanwhile, other observers suggest Mr. Elliott was little more than an ‘apologist lapdog for the government’, a failed experiment in repatriating power by a highly controlling Prime Minister. These latter voices would also argue that the RCMP has paid a steep price for venturing too close to the toxic politics of power. Officially, the federal government has said little beyond thanking Mr. Elliott for his many years of public service.

We are told that the federal government will now “consult” with the House of Commons Committee on Public Safety before establishing the selection criteria for Mr. Elliott’s replacement. Included among the witnesses to that committee will be two of the most vocal senior RCMP mutineers who, it has been reported, will argue that above all else, the successor must come from within the ranks of the police force. Many others have made similar assertions including one official who asked, presumably with a straight face, “It has to be someone with policing credentials. Think about it…what does the non-policeman commissioner say when he is a guest in a room with the head of the FBI? He simply will not have the background for it.” The press has yet to report on the other voices that will be heard during those proceedings.

Mr. Elliott’s stated goals were to create a "modern, efficient, effective” national police organization. After 4 years on the job how is he to be evaluated against the goals he set? Are these still the goals and if so what are qualifications of the individual who can best continue to modernize a $5bb per year, 28,000 person strong public organization such as the RCMP? If these are the questions being discussed why do we only read about the need to restore morale within the force and why are we constantly told that only a police officer can accomplish this?

The public will likely never know the answers to most of these questions for when it comes to public sector organizations the road to good governance usually travels through that house of mirrors that is politics. This is why calls for transparency, public oversight and logic in the appointment of Mr. Elliott’s successor, or of Christiane Ouimet's replacement (the former public sector integrity commissioner), or the head of Ontario Lottery and Gaming (OLG) or countless others will likely go unheeded.
About the author

Robert Hebert is the founder and Managing Partner of StoneWood Group Inc., a leading executive search firm in Canada. Since 1981, he has helped firms across a wide range of sectors address their senior recruiting, assessment and leadership development requirements.

Contact Robert by email at rhebert@stonewoodgroup.com or call (1) 416-365-9494 EXT 777.