Transcript – Episode 1: Chat with Stefanie Beck
David Morrison: Stefanie Beck is one of Global Affairs most prominent senior leaders. She and I joined the foreign service together almost 3 decades ago. And she was the envy of our class of young foreign service officers when she became Head of Mission at the tender age of 34. She stopped by my office recently to talk about her journey in the foreign service, her life as a single mother, her decision to leave the department and how she came back again less than a year ago. Hey Stefanie, thanks for coming by my very high tech A-8 studio which used to be my office. This is the very first episode of our new podcast called The GAC Files. So you are you should feel a very privileged guest. Just before we get into the interview I want to remind you that this is a public forum and that both of us should refrain from discussing or disclosing any sensitive or classified information. Given we know each other quite well I think I should also ask you to refrain from swearing. Those…those keen listeners will know that Stefanie usually speaks like a sailor. And also consistent with Canada's Official Languages Act I encourage you to speak in the language of your choice. So if you're set, why don't we just jump in. We're billing this as a podcast on the people's issue, people, issues and ideas of Global Affairs Canada. I'm quite interested in the people part. So I'm going to begin by sort of asking you where you came from. I we know each other quite well so and for full disclosure for our listeners Stefanie and I…Stefanie and I joined the department at roughly the same time 1989-90. Stefanie was about 12 years old. But unlike the rest of us who came from exotic places like Lethbridge, Alberta Stefanie had grown up all over the world. Born in Guyana, high school in Singapore, kicked out of boarding school in Ontario.
Stefanie Beck: Not quite kicked out, just suspended.
David Morrison: But tell us you know was it inevitable that you would end up in a place like Global Affairs or Foreign Affairs as it then was, your siblings didn't. What made you do the international thing?
Stefanie Beck: It's an excellent question. But first of all, I want to start by saying that I am honoured and privileged to have been chosen as the first person to do the podcast. It’s really kind. And I want to mention that I don’t always speak like a sailor. It depends on who my audience is and if friends are among it. But I can get through a conversation without saying anything rude, to some people's amazement. So my parents are New Zealanders and they brought me up I guess in the same way they brought up. They were born and raised in New Zealand First Generation and New Zealand. Their parents came from Scotland and Ireland, in fact my mother was a Kennedy. And we, me and two of my brothers were born in British Guyana upcountry and McKenzie in a bauxite mine because my father worked for Alcan. So I lived in bauxite mines all around the world, which were fascinating and great fun to play in, although my mother didn't like it much cause your clothes are orange after you've played in bauxite mines, but you get to play in big trucks and the big wheels and fish and do all kinds of things like slide down wet bauxite hills. Very entertaining. But it meant that I went to school in Guyana, in Jamaica, in the Saguenay Valley, in Singapore and then back into the aforesaid boarding school, which will remain unnamed in southern Ontario. But I grew up then with kids who came from all around the planet who were of different nationalities, came from different backgrounds, different languages. And what struck me after moving to Canada was how I never actually noticed that. For me their names were Kim or Nabeel or Susan or Karen. But it was… it was irrelevant, I was colorblind and background blind and whatever you might call it. So I discovered I really like that and I like people and I wanted a job then that meant I could do that all the time and even get paid for it.
David Morrison: What would you have done if you hadn't joined the department?
Stefanie Beck: Yeah it's an interesting question. I first wrote the exam when I was at McGill and I was also writing L SATs. So I guess I guess you know more education would have been a possibility. And then after university my Dad went to work in Guinea and again upcountry, not in Conakry in the capital city. So I graduated from McGill, actually went to work in Germany for a few months as a buffet mädchen on an exchange in Friedrichshafen in southern Germany and my Dad called and said, "Do you want to come and live with me in Guinea?". My mom wasn't gonna go for another year, my little brother was in school and sheesh like look for a job in Montreal or go live in the jungles of West Africa well like obviously. And I guess in retrospect that wouldn't have been everybody's decision,
David Morrison: Right
Stefanie Beck: But for me, of course and while I was there I wrote the exam and I did for the FS in the olden days.
David Morrison: Where did you have to go, did you have to go to…to London?
Stefanie Beck: To London and actually I met some.
David Morrison: That's where I wrote it as well.
Stefanie Beck: Yeah and it was great. And when you write it and you're already abroad and living it, as the doctor who is doing my medical said, "well the proof is in the pudding, like obviously you can do this because you do…do it".
David Morrison: So and you…you enjoyed success early on in your career, you became a very young ambassador but your first posting was if I recall to Senegal. And I don't recall anything else about your posting other than that you learned to fly. You got your pilot's license. What was that about?
Stefanie Beck: It was you know people often ask what's your favorite posting. I'm sure you've had that question too. You know when it so much depends on who you are at that time of your life. So when I went to Senegal, it wasn't my first choice by the way all of you wondering about your postings, I wanted to go to Hong Kong. But anyways it ended up being Dakar and we covered Guinea, so I actually went back.
David Morrison: For the record I wanted Argentina and they sent a vegetarian.
Stefanie Beck: I think I know who that was too. But so I ended up back in a region that I actually knew a little bit about and we covered Guinea so I ended up going back as a diplomat to this place I had lived in for a year and a half. But in Dakar then there was this great thing where we had Wednesday afternoons off and Friday afternoons off, that flexible work hours. And if I could respectfully ask the Associate Deputy Minister it would be pretty cool to do that in Ottawa. Maybe only for the summer, but from time to time at least.. Anyway, so I was richer at the time, being not married and no children and you know who doesn't want to learn to fly. So there was a little flying school.
David Morrison: Didn't you also cover Mauritania or something like that?
Stefanie Beck: Yes, we had seven, seven countries of accreditation, so Cape Verde Islands where I went to of course too. I think there are more Cape Verdeans who live.
David Morrison: But you didn't fly?
Stefanie Beck: No, not to there. We flew to Mauritania. I got the High Commissioner to come up with me in a small plane. I wasn't flying that one. The poor man was green the whole way. It was a little bumpy and I was sitting, no we put him in the back cause he was used to sitting in the back of course and he got a little hot. And by the time we landed in Nouakchott he was looking a little uncomfortable. He didn't want to do it again and I had to talk him into flying home right, cause you can't just go one way in a small plane.
David Morrison: So, I can't remember all the places but Canberra was one of them.
Stefanie Beck: And so Canberra and then ambassador in Cambodia and then ambassador in Croatia.
David Morrison: Cross posted from Cambodia. So how old were you when you became Ambassador in Cambodia?
Stefanie Beck: So I was 34 and I think at that time I was the youngest female ambassador and I think now there have been more younger women. But at that time it was, and HR told me at the time that they had taken a risk. And I guess. But in some ways you know being out there by yourself you actually become more cautious. And I don't normally think of myself as a particularly cautious person, but when you don't have a lot else to rely on I found myself slowing down a little and not second guessing myself, but thinking through things more carefully before leaping to judgment.
David Morrison: What was the hardest thing? What…what…what challenges do you think you encountered because you were a 34 year old woman?
Stefanie Beck: Well I think it also doesn't help that I'm not very tall. You guys can't see me on a podcast but and I have freckles and you know I don't look very old. I think there are 34 year olds who look a lot older than they are, but I have to say I did have some fun with it. So this is not sensitive or classified information.
David Morrison: And you are not going to swear?
Stefanie Beck: No, so…so I went to meet the dean of the diplomatic corps who happened to be an extremely old gentleman and he said to me at least three times, but you are very young, very young madam, but really, you are young. Do you know the Prime Minister? As if I was a political appointee and I said : But no, in fact, it’s only because I’m really intelligent. Like what are you going to answer, right? And I couldn't say well you look really old, because I'm politer than that. But after that he just you know accepted me at my word. But there was another one where I was at a diplomatic event at a reception and another ambassador from a foreign country like leaned in and stared at me and said the same thing you're very young, you're very gosh goodness, you know, and I got a little tired of this because it's been about the 20th time so I leaned over and whispered into his ear, “actually I'm a lot older than I look, but I've had plastic surgery”. I couldn't resist, it's not true by the way, but I couldn't resist.
David Morrison: What…what …what advice would, I mean you know the challenges you faced and they can't have all been fun, what advice would you give to women that are young or women that look young that you know are not taken as seriously as maybe they should be. You diffused it with humor sometimes, but what…what advice would you have?
Stefanie Beck: Well I think one of the benefits of going in with the title ambassador and being the representative of Canada means you have kind of a 5-10 minute delay. You have a by default they're going to take you seriously and you will have respect. So you need to use that time to demonstrate that you're worthy of that respect, that you will be delivering, that you know your files, that you know why you're there. And once you get over that initial hmm then the rest of the meeting goes well. The other thing I would say is using it to your advantage in that they will remember you. There is no one else there who is that young or looks like that or who represents that country, so you have an automatic memory jogger that not every country has, so that I found very useful.
David Morrison: So turn it to your advantage.
Stefanie Beck: Yeah absolutely.
David Morrison: So after…after Cambodia and Croatia you came back to Ottawa as a single mom. Your kids were…
Stefanie Beck: …quite young 6 and 3 at the time.
David Morrison: How was that?
Stefanie Beck: So remember around that time it was when we were starting to get blackberries and other mobile tools and you can work from home. So in the beginning what I did and actually not that different from you David being a single dad is have a huge network and lots of a A plan, a plan B, a plan C, live in caregivers, babysitters, friends. My parents don't live in in Ottawa. The children's father actually moved to Madagascar so he wasn't nearby for weekends or anything. Couldn't really call upon him. I did though occasionally call on my former mother-in-law and she would come from time to time, which is good. She is particularly good at organizing the pantry and of course she loved the children so that was great. But…but I was a little worried or actually maybe I shouldn't say that I wasn't so much worried, but others were worried about how I would be able to do my job. Wouldn't I be distracted and wouldn't I need to go home early and how would this all play out. And it didn't actually work out like that because I was in the beginning Director Defence and Security Relations, which was a big job, Afghanistan NATO detainee, NATO and Afghanistan with the detainees and then the second year in the Minister's office with Minister Bernier and indeed in that job the then chief of staff asked me, "well you're a single mom are you going to be able to do this job?" And I thought would you have asked that of a single dad. But in fact what I found was in both of those positions because I had the flexibility to work from home or actually I should put it like I could leave at five thirty or six, in the Minister's office sometimes later, but I had the berry and I could go and I could be bathing the child and occasionally checking the BlackBerry. And particularly in the Minister's office I wasn't writing the briefs. I was writing to say emergency, can you deal with it. So there are ways of managing.
David Morrison: Do you…did that experience make you more organized, more able to focus on what's important?
Stefanie Beck: Yes. Maybe it’s a little bit of both. I have always been very organized. My mother told me when I was 3-4 years old: “You were the one organizing parties, you were the one who was helping others in school.” But for sure multitasker, thinking five different chess moves ahead, what am I going to need to do to set this up, major long term planning. And…and ya it makes you more efficient at your job too, because you've thought through all of the different usually bad things that can happen, if you think worst case scenario.
David Morrison: In my own experience and you taught me this the government is a very family friendly employer. For those of you who don't know if you are a single parent the government will pay a babysitter to stay overnight when you have to travel for business. So that's a tip from me or via me from Stefanie because it is I've personally worked in a number of different institutions in different countries and there's no place I've ever seen that is more accommodating of the demands of single parents, but of families in general. So that's a plug for public service career. Let's go on Stefanie to another thing that I think distinguishes you in your trajectory. When I came back to the department or to Canada in 2012/2013 you were a DG in or maybe acting ADM in platform branch so you have done a Minister's office, done the geographic, done
Stefanie Beck: …multilateral, bilateral…
David Morrison: …as well as corporate services and then to the surprise of many of us you left the department definitively. Right? Quit Global Affairs as it probably then was and joined IRCC as the ADM corporate. Talk to us about that experience.
Stefanie Beck: So I guess first of all just to switch into the corporate into that part of it, so I had been a political officer and then an EX manager by then for gosh it must have been 19 years, something like that and the election was called when I was in the Minister's office. By then it was Minister Emerson and I was looking around for what else do I want to do next and you know how you have that okay I've been there, I've done that, I've done this other thing and I thought I really want to know how corporate works. Like where does the money come from? It doesn't fall off trees weirdly, it does seem to appear when you need it but maybe not always in the shape that we'd like it to be. The people, how do we manage our people? What is performance management? What is a staffing action? So I thought if I went and did corporate for a while I'd get a better insight into the skeleton of the department. And I thought it would be useful for any future job and frankly I really like managing lots of people and lots of money. So hence then the foray into corporate services here initially in the department in platform and then over to IRCC. And that was a long hard thinking decision. So by then I'd been in nearly a quarter of a century imagine that in this department and I kind of thought well what else do I want to do here? And I had been on posting by then four times.
David Morrison: And you said you don't want to be a HoM anymore.
Stefanie Beck: No, you know I lived most of my life abroad. Now I know, and I would have to do the math to check, but at the time I'd certainly lived most of my life abroad and didn't really feel like moving again and uprooting the children and they were in good places too. And I thought I want to go see what else happens in the Government of Canada. And I I loved being at Immigration Refugees and Citizenship, a fantastic department. And this is a plug, great mandate, really clear on what we're supposed to do all day long. A slightly smaller organization, but still eight thousand people.
David Morrison: And a presence abroad. And you lived and survived the Syria refugee crisis…
Stefanie Beck: …operation, it was fabulous and it was really great to be part of that exercise as well. Good timing.
David Morrison: What did you, what…what new perspective do you have on this place because you really cut the cord and went elsewhere? What…what would you tell people about Global Affairs that those that work here might not know.
Stefanie Beck: You know what really struck me in the initial few weeks and months was the physical isolation of this building, which you don't notice when you're in here and especially when I was in platform I thought man I know what's going on all around town I got 34 clients, I talk to them all the time. But once you get downtown in the IRCC office was at the corner of Laurier and Kent it's.
David Morrison: Better restaurants.
Stefanie Beck: You don't have time to get to them then either, but it's the physical space that I hadn't realized how much that that mental shift is that you are actually part of the Government of Canada. You're not on this little island off shoot, off to the side. And I got a much better understanding of what the domestic priorities are and then how those play into the international parties and how we can't do foreign policy without thinking about what's happening in Canada.
David Morrison: But finally you have decided to come.
Stefanie Beck: But the timing was perfect. I think it’s always a question of timing when you change position. What is open and when. I wanted to change position anyway. It had been three years and a half that I was at IRCC, which I loved. But I was in a promotion competition, I made it, it was time, where do I go now? And timing worked out. Global Affairs was looking for people who had a bit of a mix of experience who had been on posting, who knew what that life was like. And I must say for this particular job as the ADM of Europe, Middle East, Maghreb and the Arctic running 50 plus missions in 70 plus countries, knowing corporate services makes a huge difference.
David Morrison: So tell, how does it happen? You're out there in another department, timing is important as you said. I don't actually I don't know the answer to this question. The phone rings and it's Ian Shugar. How did you, how did you come back?
Stefanie Beck: So, actually this is, it's always fun to find it's like birthing stories for the mothers around here. So how did your baby? But actually I went to a party. That's how these things happen. So over the years I of course maintain close contact with friends and well colleagues at Global Affairs. And the usual posting season was coming about. I had been looking at a position actually in the United Nations so I had the assistance of Global Affairs colleagues for that, which didn't work out, which was kind of a bummer because I saw the package, man you get a lot of money if you get one. Just also a plug if you get one of those UN jobs. Amazing! Not the same as Government of Canada. Anyway, so I went to this reception actually at the British High Commission and I was wandering around and I bumped into one of the directors general who said so I hear you're coming back and I was all surprised, like what, I thought does he know I'm moving at IRCC because that was the plan I was going to switch jobs and I I kind of, you know the non-answer. And then I bumped into another of the deputy ministers of this department who said, “Stefanie you should really come back and have a conversation, we have some openings and you should really”. And I said, "Oh right, well thank you, yes". And then like another ten minutes passes and another deputy minister, there are a lot of deputy ministers at Global Affairs comes up to me and says, "Stefanie, you really need to come and have a conversation, we have some openings we should really discuss". So I said, "well thank you, Josh, gezz, very nice and eventually I wrote to Ian and I said, "It has been suggested that I come and have a conversation." And he was the nicest man I have to say. He said I wrote on a Saturday and he wrote back and he said, "yeah let's, come over" and he said it was so nice he said "Would Tuesday be alright with you and would you mind coming to my office?". And I did hesitate for a moment. Should I say, "no, you must come to my office". But I just you know and it was also that respect that reminded me of what a great place this is and I'd like to work for a deputy who is gracious and respectful.
David Morrison: So I mean in my experience that's often how you stumble into jobs. Right, their, it's timing and luck and those things. But I do recall when you came back and used colorful language to describe just how many countries you were in charge of and you didn't know how you would ever keep them all straight and so it's a, I say this as a former head of the Americas branch it's a huge operation with I think the biggest footprint in terms of missions and heads of mission and all that that implies in terms of managerial responsibility and PMA's and all the rest of that. Let me though switch a little bit again and we can have you back on the pod to talk about all that's going on in the Middle East and Europe and so on. But before we run out of time I do in the era of MeToo and how our departments trying to come to terms with that I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you what it's been like. You must have been in almost 30 years now as a, so joining at a very different time. Speak to your trajectory as being a woman at Global Affairs. And any advice you would give to other women particularly young women.
Stefanie Beck: It's…it's… it's not as easy as you might think. I don't mean the trajectory. I mean the giving the advice part because…because I think like most people not just women we just come to work and do our best and hope that it takes us to interesting places. And in my career I didn't ever particularly think I'm not getting a job or a position or something because I'm a woman. I guess if anything it would have been more because I'm young and I look inexperienced or you know something like that but not specifically female related. And in retrospect in my old age since apparently we're now senior management, which I always think is funny, because I don't think of myself as a senior. Is I look back and think what was it that I was doing or the position that I was in that meant that I was able to progress and to move to another one. And often it is timing, but often it is just sheer diligence. And I guess the other thing I would say is choosing a job you like. Like it's better to do a job that you're really interested in and to do it well then to choose a job because…
David Morrison: …you think it's going to advance you or or. Right. Yeah.
Stefanie Beck: Then you're kind of faking it and that's…that's always visible.
David Morrison: I mean I think personally that authenticity is amongst the most compelling traits a person can have. And it's easy to see in my experience as a manager somebody who does spend all of their time prepositioning for the next job as opposed to, as opposed to just really loving the job that they're doing at that time. Another thing that is I think super important for people on the way up is choosing who they want to work for. We talk a lot about training, but in fact most people learn from observing others not from formal training courses, so choosing… choosing your boss helps.
Stefanie Beck: And I would say learning in both directions. Learning what is not good in the behavior of a senior manager and what is good, because you know you like things about your boss and you don't like things about your boss. And being able to say, “gosh I'm never going to do that” is just as valuable as “gee that is an excellent practice and I want to follow that”. I guess the other thing I'd say is that there… there weren't and maybe more now but there certainly well I was growing up in this department not a whole lot of senior women. So, so in terms of mentors or people you'd want to be like we'd often have to cast the net pretty broadly. So you know would be the likes of Marie-Lucie Morin or Katherine McCallion who would be saying hmm, you know Colleen Swords. These would be names that probably the young ones out there wouldn't recognize, but these were women who were ahead of their time and as leaders in the department and demonstrating the kinds of values and behaviors that you know, I want to be like her when I grow up. That kind of thing. So now as a leader that's what I try and portray, I want to be the kind of leader that I would like to work for. If that makes sense. You know do unto others sort of mantra and to be very aware of the impact of what we say and do has on our staff, in particular on our women. And I…I try to be aware of that, it's not always easy. Sometimes you are just doing the job.
David Morrison: Yeah, but Stefanie and I went on the same leadership course, sort of an EX 4/5 Leadership course all last year and that was kind of one of the key lessons is that you are leading even when you don't think you are, because people are watching. I always find it strange in in my new role when somebody comes in and the first thing they do is apologize for taking up my time when actually my job is to see people and get to know them and try to provide them with advice or try to help solve their problems. I think that's part of what it means to be a senior leader in the kind of organization that we both work out.
Stefanie Beck: And I would agree that's most of what I do is looking after people, so that they can do their jobs.
David Morrison: Well that's great. Thank you Stefanie this has been I think a great first episode and we'll have to have you back to talk more about your policy files.
Stefanie Beck: Thank you very much. I look forward to it.
David Morrison: OK.
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