Reaping the benefits of keeping things real

Leadership in the Digital Enterprise: Patricia Kosseim

Patricia Kosseim, Information and Privacy Commissioner, Province of Ontario, takes pride in the opinion that despite the nature of her role, where having to “talk officially” is something of an occupational hazard, her tone is easy – decidedly non-bureaucratic.

“I take it as a compliment when someone says I speak naturally,” said Kosseim, who brings to the IPC significant experience and a wealth of knowledge in privacy and access law. I’m happy not to be shackled with the tone or voice of bureaucracy.”

Real Conversations

Kosseim believes that a deliberate approach is important as a modern regulator.

“Ultimately,” she said, “you want to bring a change in approach, and in my case the behavior of regulated entities. And you want to earn the confidence of the public.” But for all that to happen, Kosseim stressed the need to understand issues from not just one or two but many perspectives. “This helps you think and speak appropriately about them.”

In Kosseim’s work, asking questions is key.

“In my eyes, a modern and effective regulator – which I always aspire to be – is not afraid to wear multiple hats. Nor are they afraid to have real conversations.”

However, a good regulator,said Kosseim, always tries to maintain impartiality. “It’s important to always remain independent and open to countervailing views – even more so than appearing as an expert and/or fountain of all knowledge.”

Although what Kosseim calls a “ground approach” might bring with it a kind of vulnerability, she said it’s easily worth it. “It’s definitely worth it, and it’s the approach I like to keep things meaningful and real.”

Keeping the Fire Alive

Kosseim is well aware of citizens’ skepticism of the government employees, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. “The public servants I’ve worked with federally and [in my current position] are incredibly dedicated, not only to the organization but also to its mission and mandate.”

Kosseim notes that she’s seen this dedication first-hand and heard this dedication in real time and in the words of her team. 

One of the things Kosseim did was to survey her staff about what it means to be an IPCer (employee of the office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner). 

“We got so many inspiring and heartfelt comments that I actually [suggested to] the team that we publish many of them in a ‘culture calendar’. Every day people could look at these inspiring quotes to be reminded why they’re at IPC, and that they work with incredible people.”

“By doing these things we can keep the fire alive – by reminding one another why we do what we do. We can have fun too, and keep a good sense of humour. We always want people to enjoy their work, and have fun, because we spend so many hours of the day – of our lives – at work, so you might as well make it enjoyable.”

Focus on the Real

Kosseim believes the job of a leader is to determine what works – what really works. A lot of this comes by learning from others.

“I am a lifelong student of leadership and an observer of what others are doing, and I’ve been fortunate to have worked alongside some incredible leaders, and to be able to take in their different styles.”

Having seen so many different leadership styles and approaches gave Kosseim a rich pool to come up with best practices. “The key,” she emphasized, “is in understanding what works in the real world.”

As a regulator, having a keen sense of what really works, or will work, “at street level” is essential and brings the best chance of success.

“You have all these tools in your toolbox, but enforcement and fines are a last resort; it is far preferable to approach things in a more collaborative way because more and more, in many regulated areas today, our age-old assumption that fines and sanctions change behavior isn’t proving to be true after all.”

Being an effective regulator, said Kosseim, is clearly all about how you approach your job. While enforcement may have its place, Kosseim believes lasting results happen when “you change behaviours in a trusting environment, by supporting, enabling, and collaborating. This is real. This is how you influence people on the ground.”

Leading Despite Limitations

Many leaders, particularly those in the public sector, have limited resources. Most won’t prove to be sufficient to carry out some pretty big and ambitious public policy mandates.

“This makes it important for many leaders to be selective in their priorities, to be risk-based and proportionate in their approach and where they focus their energies,” said Kosseim. “Your priorities should be in areas of highest risk to the people you serve. Leaders who want to be relevant, or remain relevant, must be pragmatic and practical.”

Open to Challenge

Kosseim acknowledged the reality that people are going to challenge you. They’re going to speak up and say they don’t think one of your ideas works and here’s why, or ask whether you thought about the impact it can have on this community or that community.

“As a leader you really need to be open to these challenges (and questions) as they’re only going to make you, your ideas, and ultimately your organization better and stronger in the end.”

Kosseim is always 100 per cent open to advice. But the right environment must be set for this to take place. “As a leader you need to create spaces for those conversations to happen,” she said. Leaders need to give people permission up front to challenge – to make it clear that they are encouraged to speak frankly. “This,” she said, “is one of the first things I did when I became commissioner.”

New Terms of Engagement

A key challenge today, said Kosseim, is around the rules of engagement we as a society are going to get behind and feel comfortable with – and that we feel we can trust our public institutions to protect us.

“We want to feel that all these incredible new technologies will be used – unleashed – in a positive way, for everyone’s benefit. We need [the right regulatory] guardrails in place now, today, more than ever.”

Leaders today, said Kosseim, face the big question of how to enable and encourage innovation while at the same time ensuring the appropriate protections are built in..

“We’re entering a world of tremendous unknowns, and there are many values we need to balance, and many considerations we need to anticipate and address. So we need those guardrails in place, whether they’re policy frameworks or laws or directives so that the terms of engagement are clear for everyone.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Jim Love
Jim Love
I've been in IT and business for over 30 years. I worked my way up, literally from the mail room and I've done every job from mail clerk to CEO. Today I'm CIO and Chief Digital Officer of IT World Canada - Canada's leader in ICT publishing and digital marketing.

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