As we approach a federal election this month and municipal elections across Alberta in October, there may be lots of debate around the dinner table about what it means to be a good candidate. Not surprisingly, much of that talk is very polarized, and we don’t always agree on what attributes are important.
Given my personal interest in politics and my career focus on developing leadership talent, I find it interesting to compare the process for getting elected to public office with the process we use to select and develop top talent in the work world. Many of the questions we would ask a job candidate are the same ones you may want to ask the candidate who appears at your door over the next several weeks. The first one would be: What are your qualifications for office?
One of the common qualifications people look for is a candidate’s experience with managing the public’s money.
If you’re elected a member of Parliament and your party forms government, you may be involved in the finances of the country, which includes overseeing the programs and services delivered by the federal work force. In 2021, that means a projected budget of about $509-billion, with about 300,450 federal public employees.
In Calgary, municipal budget figures for 2021 project about $4.4-billion in net operating expenditures on programs and services, and an additional $1.1-billion in capital budget expenditures, delivered by roughly 13,000 employees (excluding police and fire).
Basic corporate HR concepts of having the financial experience needed to lead an entity don’t apply with these types of numbers. Apart from incumbent candidates who have been around for at least one term, few people running for the first time will have that type of qualification, no matter how much business acumen they can boast.
What about the people side?
Like any other governance role, such as being on a typical board, politicians don’t directly manage the public servants in their jurisdictions. Politicians do, however, set the leadership tone and policy direction for all those employees. How politicians conduct themselves with other people amid the work of governing is, to me, one of the key qualifications we should be looking for.
Too many of the people skills needed in governing are overshadowed in a quest for snappy catchphrases and sound bites. If you’re part of a corporate-leadership selection process, you’d probably probe a bit further about the leadership experiences and people skills of someone who promises to shake things up, or to “trim the fat.”
Leadership in all parts of the political process involves developing a strategic vision for the future of a country, province or city, and inspiring people to help realize it. That means a lot of talking to people and a lot of persuasion and collaboration skills. How has the candidate in question treated the people they’ve worked with in the past?
Daily, politicians continually balance the interests of individual constituents and the wider city, province or country. Amid the mundane decisions, there are very fundamental ones about policy that require considerable public input and consideration of factors that often are not clear-cut. Some skills about making decisions in an ambiguous context can be taught in a good public-policy school, but your average new politician must learn much of that in the school of hard knocks. Their willingness to be open to the learning experience is also something you should look for.
While critiquing our politicians is a national sport, choosing who will lead and act in our best interests as citizens is one of the most fundamentally important choices we make in our democracy. Take the time to ask the probing questions: this interview counts for all of us.
Eileen Dooley is a talent and leadership development specialist, and a leadership coach, based in Calgary Alberta
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