The City of Nanaimo wants to transform a virulent workplace culture into a positive environment.
Last week, the city issued a request for proposal seeking a private firm to provide 60 senior managers with training and coaching services as part of a leadership and corporate culture change project, a new initiative aimed at making staff feel more comfortable and empowered in the workplace.
Tracy Samra, the city’s chief administrative officer, said there is a “culture of fear” that exists among senior managers and attributes some of it to ongoing conflict between council and staff, adding that it needs to change. She said she’s focused a lot of her time and energy on council and city operations and not enough time on senior management.
“I need to do more to support my senior management and to demonstrate that I support the people that work for this city,” she said. “I haven’t done enough of that and I heard that message loud and clear.”
Samra said she’s made a commitment to keep senior managers updated more often about decisions through regular communication. She said she wants to create a safe place for all senior managers to be able to come forward and address issues and concerns with her, adding that the recent boycott of the city’s Christmas luncheon by CUPE workers completely caught her off-guard.
“I was blind to the boycott,” she said. “All of my effort and energy has been on council and on dealing with operations [and] I have not spent the time that I should have spent getting to know my leadership team, let alone management and the rest of staff.”
The leadership and culture project will be rolled out in three phases over a 12-month period beginning in late January and is anticipated to cost around $75,000, according to Samra, who said the goal is to eliminate fear, foster a healthier work environment, provide management with the training needed to be able to take on greater leadership roles and improve communication.
The RFP comes after the city issued a press release in October indicating that it was going ahead with a new professional development initiative after receiving approval from council. Samra said she had found someone from Vancouver Island University to carry out the initiative, but later decided to open the bidding up to everyone.
Samra explained that it’s her understanding that city employees are fearful of communicating with her or disagreeing with her on operational decisions, adding that she doesn’t want that to be the case.
“Staff have to be able to feel comfortable to come to me and say, ‘Tracy, I don’t agree with your approach you are taking here and you need to consider these things,’” she said.
Samra said it’s important to create an environment where council can question staff members, who, in turn, must be able to feel comfortable enough to explain their decisions and rationale without being criticized. She said staff have also been negatively impacted by years of power struggles between various factions of council and senior management and that staff are afraid of what they perceive to be public criticism from councillors.
“Part of the situation that we find ourselves in is that lack of leadership … within council and that conflict has absolutely impacted my ability to be CAO and we see two years down the road that it has spilled out negatively and impacted staff,” she said.
Nanaimo Mayor Bill McKay told the News Bulletin that he welcomes leadership coaching at all levels and that criticism of city staff members by councillors shouldn’t happen, adding that understands if staff members feel like they’re being cross-examined by council at times.
“Council should never be going after staff for anything,” he said.
McKay says there is absolutely no doubt in his mind that the ongoing rift between certain members of council has had a negative impact on city staff.
“When members of staff don’t want to bring things in front of council, that is not a good place to be and I would sure like to change that, but it takes all nine members to do that,” he said.
Samra said she believes the leadership and culture change project will produce results. She said staff members will be able to come up with their own ideas throughout the project to improve the working environment.
“I think that this program will help city staff be empowered and feel safe to take leadership roles that will make a difference to our organization and our community,” she said.