Tammy Labelle recently retired as CIO of one of Canada’s largest federal departments after an impressive career of almost 40 years in the Canadian public service. Tammy started as a receptionist before breaking through a number of glass ceilings and overcoming countless obstacles to be appointed CIO three years ago.
She reflects on juggling a demanding career in government as a single parent, the leadership values that she fostered, and her candid summation of what it was like being a woman trying to break into a male-dominated field at a time when diversity and inclusion had yet to find its rightful place on the corporate agenda.
When a job becomes a career
Growing up in a small town in the Ottawa region in Canada, Tammy applied for a position with the Canadian public service because her mother had worked there for a long time and it felt like a natural progression.
When Tammy joined the public service, she considered it a job, rather than a career. Her family didn’t have the money for her to attend university and societal pressure at that time preferred she get married and have children. Tammy says, “It was really only in my later 20s, after I had gotten married and had children and found myself as a single parent, that the career became more important, because then I had to look after my family on my own.”
In 1984, Tammy started working in IT for the Canada Revenue Agency, Canada’s taxation department, and showed potential:
“I’m always proud to say, when I look back, there were very few many women in IT, but the men that I worked with in IT within taxation department, taught me everything I know about leading in IT.”
Tammy feels the biggest difference between then and now is that women in leadership can bring their femininity and their diversity to the table and still be successful. She says, “Back then, it wasn’t seen in the same light. We weren’t listened to in the same way as we are today.”
Juggling parenting and a career
Tammy remembers a time as a single parent when she had two children at home and would get a call at two in the morning to go into work because there was a problem. After a few years, the ability to work from home for call-backs, was made possible. It changed my world. I could balance motherhood with my passion for improving myself and my work.
… don’t underestimate the power of being able to do homework with your children and to be able to learn and work with them, and how that will not only influence you in your career, but how it will teach them the key steps on how they can be successful in the future as well.
Tammy’s advice is to take a look at where you are in your life and work out how much you can give. Then set some boundaries and make sure you communicate with your supervisor about them. She feels it’s easier to do that now, compared to when she was navigating it.
Experience versus tertiary education
Tammy is well known and admired for her leadership within Canada’s public service. She believes the key to her success has been a combination of what she was taught and what she has learned on the job.
When Tammy became a manager, around the late 1990s, she recognised that as a woman without a degree, there was a glass ceiling that would be difficult to break. She wasn’t sure how to achieve the degree, but she had 20 years of experience. Fortunately, she discovered an Executive Master of Business Administration for people who had a lot of experience and were looking to expand their marketability across the federal government space.
Reflecting on that time, she says, “That is one of the moments in my life. It really changed my world. It opened so many doors for me. And having worked for 20 years in IT, it taught me about the business outside of IT, which was really a great gift.” She also enjoyed the collaboration with others and the network she gained while studying.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
For Tammy, the reality is that in a work sense, we don’t do anything alone. She says, “You need to know, as a leader, who you are and what you’re good at. And then you’ve got to go seek help for the things that you’re not so good at.” She has also tried not to take ‘no’ for an answer.
Throughout her career, Tammy always wanted to continue to learn and to improve. When she found she didn’t have a particular skill set, she would look for a partner, either in the private sector or another government department:
I think that’s what maybe COVID has taught us, is that all being in the same room at the same time doesn’t necessarily mean you have all the resources you need to be successful in the project. Sometimes they’re outside the room.
To hear the full interview with Tammy Labelle, and other inspiring stories from public sector leaders, visit PwC’s Government Matters podcast.