LeaderLab: How to navigate change and build consensus with City of Toronto Chief of Staff Jeff Fielding

Jeff Fielding, the City of Toronto’s Chief of Staff and a long time civic leader, shares what he has learned about leadership and community building in times of change.

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In this episode

Jeff Fielding discusses:  

  • His job trajectory (01:04)
  • Four leadership principles and how they’ve guided him through challenging times (02:07)
  • How to handle a crisis (04:15)
  • How to develop “leadership courage” to have difficult conversations (06:13)
  • The value of humour in tense situations (07:20)
  • Lessons learned from navigating complex stakeholder relationships (08:16)
  • Managing the impact of social media on public discussion (10:13)
  • The importance of lifelong learning to remain current and connected (12:50)
  • How to prepare for the first month of a new leadership role (15:32)
  • How leaders can bring people together and build consensus (19:27)
  • How he feels about Brussels sprouts (23:08)

Jeff’s advice for leaders:  

  • Do the right thing and do it well (02:10)
  • Care about other people (03:16)
  • Be true to yourself and lead by example (06:16)
  • Communicate clearly, and with the goal of being understood (09:26)
  • Listen and learn before taking action (15:50)

More about Jeff Fielding:  

Jeff Fielding has been in civil service since 1978. He’s a consensus builder and passionate civil leader known for speaking truth to power. Now the Chief of Staff to the city manager for Toronto, he’s also held the job of city manager for Calgary, Burlington, Ont., and the City of London. Fielding is also an educator who has lectured at Western University’s Ivey School of Business in the MBA and Executive MBA programs, as well as in the University of Winnipeg’s Geography Department.

Fielding was the first recipient of the Award of Excellence in Local Government from Western University. He also received a John Robinson Award for Reducing Violence Against Women and a Calgary Construction Association Partnership Award for Industry Partnership. He’s a board member of the Canadian Council for Private Public Partnership and an Executives-in-Residence at the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership at the Ivey School of Business.

Links to additional resources: 


Memorable quote:  

“There’s a lot going on in people’s minds today and trying to understand that and gain those insights is absolutely critical as a leader, because you can misstep so easily.”

About TILTCO, Inc.

TILTCO is a boutique consulting company that helps leaders define and execute their strategies in order to achieve extraordinary business and personal results. Founded by Tineke Keesmaat, who has over 20 years of leadership consulting experience with McKinsey & Company, Accenture and now TILTCO Inc. To find out more go to www.tiltco.ca.

Full Episode Transcript:  

TINEKE KEESMAAT: Putting fires, out keeping your hockey rink open, and helping people when they need it the most, this man does it all. Listen in to learn more.

ANNOUNCER: Welcome to Leader Lab, where we talk to experts about how leaders can excel in a modern world. Helping leaders for over 20 years your host Tineke Keesmaat.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: Jeff Fielding is a passionate civic leader. He has brought innovation and excellence to municipalities across Canada, including London, Calgary, and now Toronto, where he is the chief of staff. His achievements are multiple, including the first recipient of the Award of Excellent in Local Government from Western University, The Calgary Herald annual list of 20 People to Watch, and the John Robertson Award for Violence Against Women.

He is dedicated to making a positive impact in the communities he serves. And we are honored to have him with us today on Leader Lab. Jeff, welcome.

JEFF FIELDING: Oh, thank you so much.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: Jeff, can you just give me three interesting facts about your background that led you to where you are today.

JEFF FIELDING: Oh, I hope so. First of all, I started as a meterman.


JEFF FIELDING: I was 18-years-old, and I was on the street every day. And people wanted to know about public service. They wanted to know what was happening in their city. And I had that opportunity to listen and learn. It was a great experience.

The next piece about me was that I was actually moving into the executive office in Winnipeg, when they were going through massive change. And so I got to learn firsthand what it was like to be a leader at that level. You know, coming up through the organization, not knowing what an executive looked like and what their functions were, that was a true learning experience.

And the last one was that I got the city of-- a new job as a city manager really not knowing that I was going to be a city manager. And so for the very first time I knew what it was like to be alone. You know, I didn't have colleagues around me that were doing the same type of work. I was actually, you know, the head of the organization and learning as I went along.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: Amazing and now here you are.

JEFF FIELDING: Yes, exactly.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: Great. So, Jeff, you've had amazing leadership experiences. I'm wondering if you can just share three of the leadership principles that resonate for you or that are important to you.

JEFF FIELDING: Well, actually there's four, and I learned them from my father. And my father says, do the right thing, whatever you do, do it well, care about people, and the last one is to be true to yourself.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: Those are fantastic. Can you tell me a little bit about each of those, so why they're important to you and--

JEFF FIELDING: Sure, absolutely. So he said, do the right things, that's about who you are, your ethics, your character. Make sure you live up to the standards that you set for yourself. Do the right thing, that's about competency, make sure you do it well. Whatever it is you're undertaking, do it to the best of your ability.

He was a person within 12 in the family. So he had 12 brothers and sisters. And so he learned how to take care of people.

You know, much of his life-- he was one of the older children in the family-- was spent looking after his siblings. And that was communicated to me to see what a different somebody could make in somebody's life just by caring about people. And the last one was about be true to yourself. And that was, you know, make sure you don't try to be something you're not.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: Those are great philosophies. I'm wondering about the connection of those to your current life as a public servant. Did that stem from this, "care about people," is that kind of what--

JEFF FIELDING: Remarkably, I learned it from my life with him. And I didn't-- it wouldn't be something that we would have written down on a piece of paper. There wouldn't be something that I would have in a book that was-- you know, that he would pass on to me. But it was ingrained in me in terms of what was important. And so caring about people, in terms of a leadership position, has always been first and foremost my most critical aspect of leadership, because that's who undertakes the work. And they have to be trusting of you, and know that you care about their welfare.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: That's amazing. And I guess there's lots of opportunities to feel the impact of care in your day-to-day work.

JEFF FIELDING: Oh, it's remarkable what people do on a day-to-day-- you know, from a day-to-day perspective in public life.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: That's amazing. I'm wondering about this being true to who you are. I'm sure that, as a leader, you've been in moments of crisis where things haven't been going the way that you want them to go. How does that come to play this, you know, being true to who you are, doing the right thing? Can you tell me about a time where it may have been challenged, or how you work through that?

JEFF FIELDING: Oh, absolutely. So, talk about being authentic, but also from the perspective of being courageous-- so when I was in London, and we were dealing with a situation there of absenteeism. In other words, all the stereotypes of public servants were being played out on the floor of council.

Public servants were lazy. They didn't come to work. They were overpaid. Too many entitlements.

And so the notion that we had high absenteeism was something that we needed to tackle. And the numbers backed it up. So we needed to be able to make this change and stand in front of the Council in the community and say, you know, what we gotta get better.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: And so how did you do that, because essentially you're saying to folks, hey, it's not good enough. And people have been not showing up or not being their best at work for a while. So how did how did you navigate that as a leader?

JEFF FIELDING: You know, people knew it. People could understand that people weren't coming to work. They could see the types of behavior, because the vast majority of people working for you want to do the right thing. And so when they see the types of behavior going on around them, they want somebody to confront it and make a statement and make a stand. So it wasn't that difficult to gain the acceptance of the workforce that we needed to do something, and we needed their help.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: And how did you engage people in getting their help?

JEFF FIELDING: Well, surprisingly, I mean, in terms of the London situation was that we were in the newspaper. So if you want to read about yourself on the front page of the newspaper every day, and you go to a coffee break and that's all you're going to talk about are the circumstances at city hall, it didn't take much to convince people let's get out of the news. And so from the perspective of being very clear-- and also to be able to speak to the advocacy groups that were expecting better behavior from public servants. So, you know, it was just making the case--


JEFF FIELDING: --for people that we needed to be better.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: That's great. As you were talking, this notion of leadership courage, having the tough conversations, putting it out there, has been coming into mind. I wonder if you could talk to me a little bit about how you've developed leadership courage over the years?

JEFF FIELDING: You know, I don't know that it actually was something that was learned. I think somehow it's intuitive. And I don't know whether that fits into any model on leadership or not.

But I know from the circumstances when I'm on the floor council, when there's criticism of the organization or people within the organization, that when it's the right time to stand up, when it's the right time to voice your concerns. The people that have worked for me in the past would understand that I would do that. And it came to be expected of me. And that became a storyline within the organization that the leader was prepared to stand on principle and speak to the heads of the corporation, and say this is behavior that we can't accept, in terms of how you're trying to portray our employees. So I think it was just that intuition about knowing that when something was not right, and when you needed to speak up at the right time, because there's also times you can overplay that hand.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: Right. I read someplace that you also like to use humor at times to get people on track. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

JEFF FIELDING: You know, I think sometimes we all get too serious. And again, I'll use the floor of counsel. I think many times the issues of the day, they're complex, and vexing. And I think councils find themselves sometimes in a spiral of, you know, going round and round the issue. I find just breaking that tension sometimes with a little bit of humor or interrupting the conversation is just enough to get them on a different track.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: That's good. It probably humanizes people too, right.

JEFF FIELDING: It does. And I think it sets up that situation where they say, OK, I understand where you're coming from, right? Time to reset.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: That's awesome. That's awesome. So as you were talking, you mentioned this notion of the complexity of being in city council. And I know that for a lot of the leaders that I work with they do have to work in complex organizations with lots of different stakeholders, lots of different issues. I'm wondering if you have lessons that you've learned over the years around how to navigate, kind of, complex stakeholder situations?

JEFF FIELDING: I think that's what the difference between private sector and public sector. Everything that we talk about happens in public. Everything that we discuss happens in public. So it's in a public forum. And it's open for debate and discussion.

Immediately now, when you think of social media, it happens, that conversation happens as soon as the words leave your mouth. So from the perspective of understanding how carefully you need to address situations, how you need to simplify a complex matter so that the public can understand what it is you're talking about, and how you want to be able to make a difference. And then, delivering on what you say. I think all too often, you know, in public service, we talk a lot, but we don't necessarily close the loop on a lot of issues and circle back to say that we said this, and we've accomplished this now. So those are things I think that set the framework or the foundation for getting things done and executing.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: I love that, just clarity. I reflect too often that internal communications-- it's just loud and complicated language versus being very clear around here's what I need people to actually understand, and then following it up with commitment and action.

JEFF FIELDING: Absolutely.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: That's great.

JEFF FIELDING: I go by the quote that I didn't have enough time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one instead. And I think that's all too true in terms of the reports that we write in public service. I think the way in which we communicate is bureaucratic.

It's not plain language. And people just see a baffle gap. And I think what they expect from us is to be much more selective in terms of how we say it, and then what we're going to do about it, and then make sure that we circle back, and say we accomplished the things that we wanted to get done.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: I mean, totally fascinating, right? Because people in their personal lives, they interact through tweets, Facebook, and it's all these bite sized moments and messages, and that's how people have learned to communicate with each other. And, yet, in internal work environments, we're still relying on these very long winded words and--

JEFF FIELDING: Well, I think that's what's changed in democracy. I mean, I don't want to make too broad a statement, but I think democracy is changing as a result of social media. There was a time when the conversation that would happen on the council floor, for example, was supposed to happen at that time, in real time.

In other words, you weren't supposed to draw an opinion prior to you getting in to the council meeting. You weren't supposed to be soliciting advice on the floor council. That stuff is coming now, wanted or unwanted.


JEFF FIELDING: And so counselors and politicians are bombarded by social media messages that have an influence in terms of their position on issues. And it does adjust the thinking. So from the perspective of doing the most for the best, or doing the most for the betterment of your community, you can be swayed by special interests or commentary that's happening in social media.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: So how do you, as a leader, take advantage of the good parts of social media, and then manage perhaps some of the complexity?

JEFF FIELDING: I think we're struggling with it. I really do. I think that we have not in public service really grasped how to use social media to our effect. I know that when we do surveying that we know that people are much more trusting of what they see in social media or on the web than they are of messagings that we send out under traditional sources. We know that the trust and confidence in public servants is not necessarily as high as it should be. So when you're looking at their relationship with the people we serve, there's a long ways to go in terms of how we can actually continue to have that engagement and figure that out a little bit clearer.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: It's funny, because I think of so many leaders today, they grew up in the world of an email very periodic messaging, and from a leader top down driven. And now they're having to lead in organizations, where there is social media, there's, you know, much more frequent messaging, and so there are the leadership learning that I think needs to take place,

JEFF FIELDING: Well, look at my career. I mean, I started going to public meetings and speaking to councils since 1979. So I've been doing this work for 40 years.

And when you consider what has changed over those 40 years-- I can remember my first computer. It was a Radio Shack TRS-80, you know? So when you think about those floppy disks, and the way in which we work today, and the speed in which we work today, and to be able to adjust, but also to have the vision for what the future looks like. And so, you know, people like myself in positions of responsibility need to spend a lot more time learning about what the future is about, and being much more clear about what that vision will entail.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: And how do you do that? How do you--

JEFF FIELDING: Well, that's the one thing I think, you know, lifelong learning. You know, I've been so lucky to be in cities where we've had great institutions. I mean I talked about London and the ability to work with Ivey in Western, you know, the University Calgary when I was in Calgary. I've always been in a city where I've been able to leverage my position with the institutions that are present in the community. And we've always had a, I guess, a program going with the universities or colleges.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: So just really diving in, and staying current, and stretching your knowledge through reading, and attending classes.

JEFF FIELDING: Absolutely. The other thing was just teaching.


JEFF FIELDING: So I'd still continue to try to keep my hand in doing some of that, which keeps you fresh. You know, it's amazing what, certainly, young students the energy and enthusiasm, and what they have to think-- how they're think-- what they think about issues today. It's challenging to put yourself in front of a class like that and be able to answer questions from them, because they look at the world totally different than what I used to look at the world like.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: So in the context of greater scrutiny and awareness in the public sphere, what keeps-- with that I could see there being an hesitancy or, kind of, a worry about doing the right thing. And I'm just curious, how do you stay motivated?

JEFF FIELDING: I think it's become a challenge. I mean, I really do. I think attracting people to public service these days is a challenge.

And it'd be one thing that, in terms of this podcast, that I guess I'd like to get out there is that we do meaningful work. You can have a rewarding career here. It may not be about the money and the entitlements, but I can tell you in terms of how you can contribute to the quality of life of people and what you get back in terms of self-satisfaction and helping people succeed, is just remarkable.

Talk about the flood in Calgary, you know, the situation where 100,000 people are displaced. And, you know, you're putting those people's lives back together. We had a big fire this week in Toronto. And many people were displaced from that apartment building, dependent on public service to find them homes and places of refuge in times of need.

So the thing for me was always that I could help people. I could actually help people. And I could over a life long time in public service, I could see a legacy that I could build.

And you know, I can take my grandson by the hand, and I can take him to the places I worked and say, this is what happened when I was here, and this happened when I was here. There's that continuity of service that pays off that you get to see in your community. So not only am I enthusiastic about public service, but everything I have in life as a result of that.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: It's amazing. It's totally inspiring. So, Jeff, you've come to the city of Toronto. You're eight months into your work here. A lot of leaders that we work with are neutral. What are your recommendations for leaders in that first 30, 60, 90 days of getting into an organization?

JEFF FIELDING: I know we talk a lot about that. But in the first thing, try to show up before you actually start your job. Try to be present a week, two weeks before, as long as you possibly can.

Get to know the folks, understand the territory, so that you can put your feet firmly on the ground when you do arrive. Spend time listening and learning. All too often and we want to jump into the job and start in-flight. And I think that that's a mistake. I think if you take that first 30 days, at least, just to listen to what people have to say, ground yourself in that understanding, you can then start to formulate what needs to be done.

And the next piece is really explain what your assignment is. Why were you hired? What's different about you that was not the case previous to your arrival? What are you going to deliver on?

What's the expectation of the organization? What are your principles and values that you can start talking about, so they know who you are and what's expected of you as the leader, but also what's going to be expected of them. If you can level set those types of things within your first 90 days, I think you're-- you can move a long ways to success.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: So listen, and learn, and get to know people.

JEFF FIELDING: That's it. That's the first thing get to-- make sure you're listening and learning. And the next step is to be articulate about why you were hired, and what your assignment is for you to accomplish.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: Amazing. Amazing. Jeff, I'm a huge fan of the Olympics. I wanted to be in the Olympics, that never happened. But you went through an interesting experience yourself with the Olympics recently in Calgary. And I'm just wondering if you can talk to me a little bit about that experience, and what you learned from it.

JEFF FIELDING: It was so insightful. I mean we did some surveying, not only in Calgary, but there's surveys in other areas of public life that are telling us that people are really fixed in their positions.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: What do you mean by that?

JEFF FIELDING: So ultimately, you know, 49% of Canadians already have their opinion drawn, and yet not much chance that you're going to change their opinion, regardless of what you do. So when you're looking at a situation like the Olympics, where a plebiscite was required, and it's 51% to get you over the hump, and you know that 49% of the folks are already fixed in their position. You don't have a lot of maneuverability to be able to adjust public opinion.

So we knew coming in that was going to be a tough task. And we also understood that it wasn't necessarily about the sport. It was really about the confidence and trust in the large organization of the International Olympic Committee. And so when you're looking at something like that, and trying to understand really is motivating people in terms of their decision making, and how are they coming about arriving at that decision, and what's influencing and then their decision, it wasn't just going to be our story to tell.

We needed a larger story that really spoke to Canadians in sport, and what it meant for Canadians, and how was going to fit into the future of what we were trying to accomplish in the country. You know, it also related to the circumstances in Alberta at the time, where the economy had certainly gone south. And people were concerned about their future. And where did all this money that would be spent on sport in the city of Calgary, where did it fit in terms of the priorities? So there were a lot of things that were going around these major issues.

And we have them all the time. And you can see, whether it's Brexit, they're stuck in a situation right now, where it's not clear where they're going. You can see it in terms of the elections, and how leaders are getting elected, and how you're getting these big swings from 180 degree swings that you're seeing in these elections. So there's a lot going on in people's minds today. And trying to understand that and gain those insights, it's absolutely critical as a leader, because you can misstep so easily.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: What do you think this solve is when we have such a bifurcated world right now? What can leaders do to actually help bring the world back together?

JEFF FIELDING: I think we're halfway between a real difference in government. The first government model was we do things for people. And the future model is we do things with people.

And I think the struggle today is that people are taking back the authority and influence for their communities. And so they're not necessarily trusting of public servants. They're not necessarily trusting of politicians, because, ultimately, they want to be able to have a say in how those issues are arrived at, and not just by making a vote once every four years in terms of-- in the case of a municipal election.

They want to be able to make it ongoing, and have their say and includes the outcome. And so people are much more engaged today than they've ever been. As much as what people say that you don't see the vote at the ballot box, on critical issues people do show up and have a straight opinion about what that looks like.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: And so I guess, as leaders, there is new skills required around deep listening and engaging people, looking for ways to have people involved in meaningful ways--

JEFF FIELDING: Absolutely.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: --in order to unlock--

JEFF FIELDING: This might sound trite or simplistic, but facilitating a meaningful conversation around critical issues, and taking the time to actually make that happen I think that that's something, a skill, that is now, in terms of public service, more critical than ever. It's an interesting thing when you look at like, I reflect on my career, I'm a city planner by background, I would never have been a city manager 30 years ago. That would have really been the city engineer or somebody dealing with infrastructure, you know?

Because what city building was about, we build roads, we put pipes in the ground, those are the things that were expected of the city. And then, of course, we came into a world of finance, where, you know, we had to balance budgets, we had to be more efficient, we had to make sure the tax increases weren't exceeding the ability of people to pay. And then, my role started to come out-- the ability to be able to pull people together and gather the, you know, what people thought, and how you can use those insights to drive change in municipal government.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: True community building.

JEFF FIELDING: Absolutely.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: So instead of the roads, it's community building.

JEFF FIELDING: Exactly. We're on that evolutionary journey. And you know, that next step will be interesting in terms of the skills and abilities for people at my level in the future.


ANNOUNCER: And now let's get to know our guest a little better with some rapid fire questions.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: Jeff, this has been amazing. I really do thank you, first of all, for your efforts in keeping our cities wonderful and building communities. I'm truly inspired--

JEFF FIELDING: Oh, thank you.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: --about what you do. But now I want to let our listeners get to know you a little bit better as a person. So I have some rapid fire questions.

There is no right answer. But here we go. First, the craziest place you have ever been?

JEFF FIELDING: Oh my god, what are the craziest place I've ever-- oh, the basements of people's houses. You know, when was the meterman-- it's amazing what people keep it in their basements, from chickens to the oddest things that people have in their homes. I'm telling you, snakes, you name it. I've seen it all.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: I don't think I would like to see that. Are you a morning person or a night owl?

JEFF FIELDING: Definitely a morning person. Up and out.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: You as a teenager in three words?

JEFF FIELDING: Sports oriented.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: Nice. Your favorite emoji?

JEFF FIELDING: Oh god, a smiley face.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: And the most important question of today-- how do you feel about Brussels sprouts?

JEFF FIELDING: I hate them. Although, my wife loves them. And I'm learning to like them, because she does at least-- we put them on the barbecue and they get a little bit better.

TINEKE KEESMAAT: That's awesome. Again, Jeff, thank you so much for your time.

ANNOUNCER: Thank you for joining us today on Leader Lab. Leader Lab is powered by Tilco, helping exceptional leaders achieve extraordinary results, and the Ivey Academy at Ivey Business School, Canada's home for learning and development. You can learn more about Tilco and Leader Lab at Tilco.ca. And to find out more about the Ivey Academy go to IveyAcademy.com.