Transcript – Episode 16: Chat with Peter Boehm

David Morrison: Peter, it’s great to see you again, this time in front of a live audience. Last time we did the GAC Files, you were on the very eve of the G7, and what a G7 it was! We’ll get to that in a moment, I hope, but this time you’re on the eve of another significant event, perhaps even more significant for you personally, and that’s your retirement coming in 30 or 20…48 hours or so—after a stellar 37-year career in the public service. We thought it appropriate before we go into your formal retirement celebration here at Global Affairs [Canada] headquarters to ask you to take a couple of minutes to reflect on that career and, particularly, any messages that you would like to pass on to younger colleagues, or I should say more junior colleagues, and, in fact, to all colleagues as they navigate the waters of work and life.

So, I looked at the transcript of our first session, which was, I think, back in May or June, and you said to me that your career just kind of happened, you didn’t have a grand master plan, but then you said many people think you always wanted to be ambassador to Germany. Which of those is accurate?

Peter Boehm: “[German greeting]” David, thank you and thank you for inviting me back, and I really think that these GAC Files, it’s a good thing. We’re out there, we’re showing that we’re contemporary and we’re reflecting on people’s experiences and to the extent that colleagues and others will listen. I think it’s a great way to demystify what it is that we do and also spread the word of what we do, in fact, is very…is very exciting. Did I have it planned? No. I spent…I spent the first part of my career as a Latin Americanist, and I enjoyed it a lot, and that was…that was terrific for me. We had a young family at the time as well, and for the…for the kids and being in Havana running around on the beaches, that was…that was great, and so was Costa Rica later on. So Germany, very, very exciting. But I knew that the people who were selected to go there were among the most senior in the…in the department, and I never really had that as a goal, although I did think, hey, it might be nice, and then it was Bonn. So for it to be Berlin, even more exciting.
David Morrison: You on this notion, though, of whether you should, you know, deliberately plan and set goals or just kind of be open to, to what comes along. Again, in the first time we recorded the GAC Files, your advice to young people was don’t be afraid, ask questions, think ahead. Is that…is that still how you would?

Peter Boehm: I think so.

David Morrison: I was thinking of…thinking of someone’s career. I am spending a lot of time right now with people, many of whom are trying to become HOMs [heads of mission] for the first time. So how did you navigate?

Peter Boehm: A lot of the navigation when I started was…was done for you. It was done because we were a very closed group. It was basically all FSs [foreign service officers] in the…in the category. You had an assignment officer. I was an assignment officer once, who you entrusted with the welfare of your career, potential postings and the…and the like. The competitions were in…in groups or in batches; there never was an interview. There would be a group that would get together and go through all of the appraisal reports. If you had a supervisor who could write decently and fill the margins with platitudes about you, then you were really in pretty good shape. So a lot of that was automatic.
It’s…it’s very different today because we’re a much larger entity. We are amalgamated, so we’ve brought in different…different strains and different streams. When I joined the Trade Commissioner Service, integration was something relatively new, and that, that took about a generation to become effective, I would argue. So the challenge, I think, that newer people in the department right now have is to how do I fit into something that is amalgamated when I don’t have an agent who is looking after my own welfare, and I basically have to operate in a free market? So that’s why I said in my…in my parting message and also on this program that you have to take some risks. You have to get known, and you have to be willing to look at different…at different aspects. And, frankly, be Zen about it as well.

David Morrison: I find, just to build on that, that the number one missing ingredient when we are thinking about assignments is actually what the person wants to do, where they are in their career trajectory, where they are in their career aspirations. That was probably a role that used to be filled with conversations with an assignment officer. Now in a free market system, it’s…it’s really incumbent upon the candidate to make themselves known and make what they want known, and maybe that’s where you were going when you were talking about don’t be afraid…don’t be…don’t be shy. Perhaps we can switch now and talk a little bit about work-life balance. You’ve always been known, at least as long as we’ve known each other, as a guy who has, I don’t want to say hasn’t taken work seriously, but…but a guy who has successfully found that…that balance. You talked in the first time you were on the GAC Files about having a special needs child. You talked about being proud of being one of the first ADMs [assistant deputy ministers] in town to take the full parental leave allocation.

Peter Boehm: Male ADM.

David Morrison: Male ADMs. Where do you think that comes from? Where it’s obviously healthy, but was it, was that a set of conscious choices you made? And again, what advice would you give to people in this room and others that will be listening to this episode?

Peter Boehm: Thank you for that question, David. I believe that work-life balance is the biggest challenge we have here. It’s not only with postings but with themes, and the issues we lead are very difficult, very hard from time to time, and we have to work all the time. So trying to get that balance, I think, is…is difficult. You…you have to have, if depending, and it all depends on you, depends to a great degree on what sort of a family unit or spousal unit you have, or if you’re on your own. That’s just as important as…as well, so striking the balance, it means you…you have to explain what it is that you’re doing at home, and that, and why you’re doing it, and know that sometimes you have to do some…some, take on some all-nighters.

I recall chairing the Lebanon evacuation task force in July of 2006. We were here all the time. And lo and behold, Minister MacKay showed up at three in the morning and brought in pizzas for everybody. So, you know…but you have to then balance that with, okay, I’ve just done something really big, I need to decompress. And…and the decompression part is…is…is really important, and that’s what I’ve been advising people. Although after Charlevoix, I did send a note out on my new iPhone. I didn’t notice the auto-substitution, and “decompressing at the lake” became “decomposing at the lake,” so people were really…really worried for me, so…in premature retirement universe.

David Morrison: Do you think it is, those challenges are more acute or less acute at post?

Peter Boehm: It’s…it’s different.

David Morrison: Or is it possible to generalize?

Peter Boehm: It’s a really good question, David, because it can be…it can be more acute in a sense at posting because you’re in a much smaller bubble, so you lose…you lose your anonymity. And if you’re having some challenges, and it goes to everything from strife within your personal relationships to just exhaustion in your own mental health, people will notice. On the other hand, at post, depending on where you are, you might have a closer support network because people will notice. At Headquarters, you would have, again, if…if…if you’re in a situation where you need counselling, you have access to our counsellors without being several time zones away, for example. So I think it’s a…it’s a mix. It really depends on the situation.

David Morrison: You mention mental health, and when I was thinking about this chat today and your legacy in the department, that has to be at or near the top. The work that you have done as a champion, not only in this…in this organization, but I think around town as a champion for more attention to mental health issues in the workplace. How far do you think we have come, and what’s left to be done?

Peter Boehm: I think we’ve…we’ve come a long way in addressing mental health issues. Certainly in my younger years, in this place if you demonstrated any…any weakness or you thought you were, you think you’re cooked. You…you had to show that you were strong, you could do a stiff upper lip thing, and that’s why people stayed in the office till all hours. After that, of course, you could have your BlackBerry for all hours, and you didn’t really have to be in the office. But essentially it was…it was the same, you get to demonstrate that. I think we’ve…we’ve come a long way in destigmatizing.

As I recall when I wrote my first blog and talked about mental health being important, I had a lot of people coming forward to talk to me who had…who had issues. Some of them were the issues that were sort of borderline. I wasn’t promoted, or I didn’t get the posting that I wanted, that sort of thing, and it’s affected my…my mental health. That’s fine. But others were much more serious. I have an abusive boss. I’m being harassed. I don’t know whether I can handle being in a level five hardship post. It’s tearing away at my marriage, that…that sort of thing. So people were…were coming forward.

And in conjunction with that, the clerk, it was then Clerk Janice Charette and then Michael Wernick, continued to put together a very small group from the private sector and a couple…a couple DMs [deputy ministers] as well. I was on that group, and we started to advise how we might…might look at that in terms of our…our HR processes. We put a lot of emphasis on looking at training in the future, and that’s why I think it’s really important that all managers middle level and higher, all heads of mission before they go out have a course on the mental health thing. I think it should be mandatory. I don’t think it is yet, but I think we’re moving in that…in that direction. And that our executives, in particular, and even those managers who are not yet executives, who are in the middle management level, that part of their evaluation, part of their PMP [performance management program] or PMA [performance management agreement] has a reference to how we handle mental health. And that, I think, will put us on a better track to…to sensitivity and destigmatizing this whole thing.

David Morrison: I agree. And my personal take on some of this, which I’ve developed since taking your old job as…as DMA [associate deputy minister of foreign affairs], is that a lot of the conversation now focuses on issues of…of harassment and workplace well-being. I think those conversations are intimately linked. I think that the…the instances of, some of the instances that constitute harassment that I’ve come to see since taking over my new responsibilities have attributes of…of some of the mental health challenges that your organization is dealing with, and obviously mental health challenges can be exacerbated in unhealthy workplaces.

Peter Boehm: With that, too, I would…I would add, we, because it’s being gradually destigmatized, more people are aware. It also means we need to put more resources.

David Morrison: Right, yeah.

Peter Boehm: And that is a challenge, obviously, for any…any department, but it means we need more counsellors, we need more money for training. All of, all of the above, and that’s where we cannot fall behind.

David Morrison: Let’s talk now about how the department has evolved over the past 37 years. How’s the department evolved for the better and for the worse in your time?

Peter Boehm: Good, thanks. I talked about…I wrote something on the evolution of the department in the context that we didn’t have computers, everyone smoked in the office and they drank too much, during meetings too.

David Morrison: Was not all they did.

Peter Boehm: I would go to…to meetings, and I’d come in our 500 rooms [conference rooms] on the various…various floors, and people would be smoking, and I’d be in there for a couple hours for a long meeting on an MC [memorandum to cabinet] or something, and I’d have to really have my stuff dry cleaned afterward, and my…my eyes would be a flame. So, we, I think we’ve evolved a lot, and we have evolved because we now have…we have a 24/7 news cycle. Our political masters have to be attuned to that. So everything has to move very…very quickly, with that, to communication and the professional communication we undertake.
We used to do dispatches on my first posting in Cuba. They would go in the bag because they would be analytical pieces, and the telex was used for a report that was a bit more…more current, and sometimes it would get to Ottawa in about a week or two, depending on when the bag went, and the desk officer would…would read it and then put it into the circular file, the shredder. And maybe there would be something the BICO would pick up and put on the, on the…

David Morrison: How many people know what a BICO is?

Peter Boehm: Everyone over a certain age.

David Morrison: The…the front row…the front row doesn’t count.

Peter Boehm: You missed the BICO. The BICOs were the records, the record keepers. They would keep the paper files on…on everything.

David Morrison: But in the…I mean, I think about that a lot as well. I was in Havana after Peter, and we had the same regime of…

Peter Boehm: You had the same staff coordinator.

David Morrison: I did. We had the same regime in terms of most of our reports went in a diplomatic bag. I’m not as convinced as I would like to be that the practice of diplomacy is immeasurably better because we can send instant flash reports about everything. If you, as I once had to do as a third secretary, clean out the archives at the embassy in Havana…I saw these beautiful numbered letters.

Peter Boehm: My reports.

David Morrison: Well done. You know, but they were every couple of months with great analysis. Five or six pages that you couldn’t get anywhere else. Anyhow, there’s…there’s a PhD thesis out there somewhere on the impact of technology on…on what we do. I don’t want to let you leave without sharing a little bit with us about any regrets you might have.

Peter Boehm: Well, I, David, I sent out a message to the department saying, “no regrets,” so you’re asking me to do a Frank Sinatra.

David Morrison: No, but come on, come on. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Peter Boehm: Regrets, I’ve had a few. I…I wished I would have stayed in development longer, two years wasn’t enough, and doing the sherpa bit while in development off the corner of my desk did not allow me to devote as much time as I wanted to that. But then on the other hand, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I’ve just done, then worked on the summit, on the summit side, and very closely with the Prime Minister. So you know, you have to…you have to toss it up. I regret not having had a posting in Africa. I think that would have been fascinating, but I had great postings, so there is always the balance issue.

David Morrison: Any particular posting that stands out as being especially great for the family or especially interesting personally?

Peter Boehm: You know, I…I….I think they were all great, and I was reflecting on this as I was writing my farewell. I cried leaving every post. And if there’s one thing that in the…in the foreign service we don’t often recognize is that we have got some really great locally engaged people all over the world, who sit there and wait for the next crop of Canadians to come in and then…

David Morrison: We roll our eyes.

Peter Boehm: Two or three weeks before it’s this or that, you know, thumbs up or thumbs down. So and you have…you have postings at different times in your career, and if you’re fortunate, as I’ve been, and you move up to greater levels of responsibility, the posting is different, and you see it differently. Being a head of mission can be very lonely. You’re…you’re on your own, and you don’t send the message to Ottawa or call Ottawa when you, when you’re thinking, gee, how would I handle this particular situation. Do I really need advice? Maybe not. So it’s…it’s different on the other hand, when you’re first starting out, you observe others very closely, including from other missions or even in your own, and you try to find out what are the best practices. How can I…How can I learn? And if you’re at a mission or somewhere in a division with a bunch of duds, you’re not going to learn very much. So sorry, but I’m rather candid, but I’m leaving soon.

David Morrison: You have license to be candid on your third last day. You won’t remember this, but I do, Peter. Peter was my boss in 1995, the first time I was in the department, and he’s a great boss by the way. He was the director for G7 summits, and I was a desk officer. I then left the department, and I went to a place where I was instantly managing a team of ten, which then…which then grew quite rapidly, and I just as…as Peter said, you find yourself in situations often having to do with people management, human resources, where you’ve never…you’ve never run into this before, and it got thrust on me very quickly, and my go-to place was, “What would Peter do?” That was…that was where I always went. And in a certain sense where I still kind of go when I have tough management challenges. So that’s my sort of legacy from…from Peter. I know many of us out there have similar stories of how you have inspired us, how you have led us, and I know I speak for everyone when I say how much we will miss you and how much we wish you a great new chapter.

Peter Boehm: Well, thank you very much, David. I appreciate your kind words, and certainly I’ve received a lot of messages in response to my news that I was going to be moving…moving on. But I’m planning on staying in Ottawa, and I don’t live that far away from the department, so I can see who’s keeping good hours and bad hours as I sit on my porch with a beer, so…

David Morrison: About noon. So thank you, Peter, and thanks everyone.

Peter Boehm: Thanks, David.

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