Reflections: Women in Public Service Leadership and Change Management

Erin Halonen is an Educator and the former First Nations, Métis, Inuit, Curriculum Consultant in the Curriculum Implementation and Resources Branch, Alberta Education. Her passion for Education for Reconciliation and Indigenous Ways of Knowing was born through her lived experience with the local Cree First Nations community. Embedded in her work is deep sense of agency to urge the provincial education system to move forward in reconciliatory understanding and action.  

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Reflective leadership practice is a process that supports understanding of self which can develop emotional intelligence and leadership capacity. By reflecting on what we have learned and how we affected an organization and its outcomes, we can mindfully bring key learning forward into the present, and recognize our ability to intentionally influence what is happening around us. Maria David-Evans presented about her experience as a woman in public service leadership during the Leadership Series. Her insights inspired my reflection about change management, decreasing divisiveness and my personal experience in public service leadership.

What can we agree on?

“It’s all about relationships! Nurturing long-standing relationships and trust is most important above all. Our work is always about forging and maintaining relationships. Based on how you treat others, how you live your values and demonstrate your principles, you can always find common ground.”

~ Maria David-Evans

Maria David-Evans shared a story, during her presentation, about a challenging time in her career when she was required to bring together two groups of people with opposing viewpoints. The intention was to work collaboratively toward developing a common understanding. In situations where viewpoints may not align, she offered the advice to guide the group towards what everyone can agree on.

Personal public service leadership experience

In 2008, I was elected to local municipal council.  The municipality’s tax base was largely comprised of folks with fixed incomes. During that time, costs of maintaining an aging infrastructure were on the rise. Taxes had increased to support the rising costs of maintaining the roads, water, wastewater and gas systems. Looming projects such as a multi-million dollar upgrade of the wastewater facilities had council carefully prioritizing and planning budget areas. Continuing to raise taxes as a means of revenue was not a feasible approach.

One piece of aging infrastructure that became an issue of contention was the beloved community outdoor swimming pool. It was built in 1967 with grant money made available during the Canada Centennial celebrations. Many community members, including myself, put the recreational facility to good use. The pool was a hub of activity during the summer months where many learned to swim, participated in fitness programs, or just used as a form of entertainment.

Operating only 4 months of the year, like most recreational facilities, the aging pool did not generate enough income to offset rising costs of operating, maintaining and upgrading.  A group of citizens proactively organized a fundraising committee. They worked to offset some of the costs, but the majority of the expenses rested on the taxpayers. Politically, there was mounting pressure by opposing factions. Those who wanted to close the pool, and perhaps look at more cost effective recreational options, and those who wanted it to remain open.  In the end, what everyone could agree to was that increasing taxes was not a feasible solution.  

Lotus Flower

Opportunity in challenge

Council took a broader approach and proactively led the community through a dissolution process. Dissolution would mean that the village would assume hamlet status and integrate into the broader tax base of the county. The county assumed all of the village assets and debt. While some residents were concerned about the dissolution because of the possibility of loss of services and political autonomy, the end result was a lowered tax rate, and increased ability to support infrastructure including saving the swimming pool from closure.

My community’s challenge regarding how to save the swimming pool led us to a solution that affected and supported sustainability beyond one recreational facility. We had discovered opportunity in challenge.

Change: A creation of necessity

Change is often created out of necessity. Often, if everything is rolling smoothly, we do not see the need to change. Life has a way of bringing unforeseen challenges that catalyze evolution.

A related example is our current state, brought to us by the Covid-19 crisis. It has been an excellent reminder of John Adam’s words of wisdom, “Every problem is an opportunity in disguise.” An underlying current embedded in the new normal has been the need to develop the ability to ebb and flow with grace through an ever-changing world. Throughout the pandemic, I have watched in awe as my professional counterparts MacGyvered their teaching practise to support at home learning environments.

By focusing on the opportunity to lead through challenge successfully, we demonstrate resiliency, and perhaps unearth new possibilities. When we reflect on these forced adjustments to the way business is conducted, I can’t help but wonder what broader systemic evolution may result?

Shifts can occur that we may not have otherwise considered, much like the beautiful Lotus flower that comes to life and blooms out of the murkiest of waters. I am excited to experience the broad reaching shifts and changes to education that may be possible. Are you?

Finding the opportunity

Problem / Solution

As I continue forward in leadership positions, I will be intentional about encouraging opposing factions to release divisiveness and find common ground because it leads to solutions focused process.  The truth of the matter is, if we pause to look for the opportunity, there is much more to agree on than which we disagree.

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Be well.

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