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“I am a Canadian, free to speak without fear, free to worship in my own way, free to stand for what I think right, free to oppose what I believe wrong, or free to choose those who shall govern my country. This heritage of freedom I pledge to uphold for myself and all mankind.” ~~ John G. Diefenbaker

FRANK LEONARD -- Governance and Workplace Culture ... ‘Why are you here’

My wife and I were visiting her family, at their village in southern China, when I would slip away for walks.  I’d find women cleaning laundry in the river, merchants preparing chickens for sale and farmers tending to their fields of rice and peanuts. 

One day I came across a soccer game: men in their twenties; a somewhat organized game with lots of shouting; and on a field with more gravel than grass surrounded by scooters rather than spectators.

At one point a young man approached me and said: ‘Why you here?’  I often consider this question to be profound but, in this case, it was quite practical as I was the only spectator and likely the only ‘white dude’ for a hundred miles.  I replied in mandarin who my wife was and he stared back and shrugged before returning to his game.

Years later I was appointed to lead a public agency and the employees were gathered on short notice to meet me.  I said a few words about myself, how I looked forward to working with them and then asked if there were any questions.  There was a very long pause and I thought no one would dare speak until a young woman asked: ‘Why are you here?’  This time the question was both profound and practical so I simply spoke of ensuring value for taxpayers and service to the public.  My answer was met with stares and I realized once again was in ‘foreign territory.’

I’m fortunate to have had many ‘first days’ in leadership positions of various private and public entities.  I’ve relied on orientations to learn ‘what makes the trains run on time’ and to even determine if we are in the ‘railroad business.’  Whether it was with a mandate from electors, shareholders or colleagues, I usually knew the extent of change needed to achieve my goals.   

In addition, I’ve made it my personal mandate to understand the workplace culture because I believe if the culture is the problem, there will be other problems as well.

On this topic I am still a student.  I learn something every time I attend a seminar on this topic and from colleagues that I work with.  What I can share as my own governance rule is that you must breathe the same air as your management and employees in order to understand workplace culture.

In business the decades-old acronym is MBWA ... Management By Walking Around.

In governance you must not ‘walk around’ and get in-between your management and their employees, but I do believe you need to be visible and familiar.  If my office has a coffee machine I have it removed so I can walk to the lunchroom.  If there is a newspaper in the lunchroom, I’ll pause to read a section even though I’ve read the whole thing at home.  If a manager wants a meeting, I’ll ask that it be in their office and arrive a few minutes early in case others want to say ‘hi.’  No matter if the office is a short walk, drive or a time zone away I will find a way to breathe the same air as our team.

And then I wait ... and then I wait some more. 

And I wait until I know if these folks are workmates or cellmates; until I know if management has the ‘secret sauce’ for good workplace culture or if what needs to be done is no secret at all.

I’ve encountered both extremes. I’ve had existing managers relieved to now get the backing to introduce modern HR programs, and I’ve had employees speak to me directly, or submit a ‘brown envelope’ with legitimate whistle-blower content. 

I’ve seen special events and succession amongst ‘workplace families’ and I’ve seen bullying before it was called that.

An exaggerated traditional governance model where you only interact with the ‘one employee, the CEO, won’t let you breathe the same air with employees in the workplace.  Nor will outside consultants and employee surveys tell you if staff say ‘good morning’ when they pass in the hallway.  All this matters because I believe everyone deserves a good place to work, and because we can’t achieve our goals with a bad workplace culture.

I believe governance can respect the CEO’s jurisdiction, while still being familiar to the organization, rather than just a picture in the annual report. 

So my real but unspoken answer to ‘why are you here’ is ‘because you are going to see a lot of me; I’m going to become very familiar to you and this workplace; and that in order to achieve our goals, I’m going to ensure that a CEO makes this the most fulfilling job you’ve ever had in the best place you’ve ever worked.’

Check out my website at for information on Local Government and Consulting


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