Transcript – Episode 22: Chat with Jean-Dominique Ieraci
David Morrison: Jean-Dominique Ieraci is one of our most senior trade commissioners. Born in Montréal, he has been assigned to Korea, Syria, Singapore, Paris and now Mexico. He was recently in Ottawa and dropped by my office to talk about his life, his work as a trade commissioner, his career in the department as half of an employee couple, and his vision of trade diplomacy.
David Morrison: Jean-Dominique Ieraci, John-Do, great to see you. You’re here in Ottawa today, I believe, for the Trade Commissioner Refresh. You’re one of the Trade Commissioner Service’s senior most officers—a distinguished career. I want to get to all of that, including the work you’ve done on trade diplomacy in your current job in Mexico. But we’ll start in Montréal with your family story.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: Well, I began, my family story began with a typically Canadian family. I have my father was born in Italy, my grandfather immigrated during a difficult economic period in Italy. One day he got on the ship, and why Montréal instead of New York? Maybe because that was the ship he found.
David Morrison: Yes, yes.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: Maybe because the founder of the village, who was a communist exiled to southern Italy by Mussolini, spoke French and had given my father and my uncles French documents. So my father landed here, my grandfather landed here. The first day, a shovel was put in his hands in early winter and he found it really cold and he had to find a better job, but that’s the typical story of an immigrant family at a time when it was relatively easy to find work getting off a boat. He had to bring his whole family over that way. On my mother’s side, well, there were the first boats that arrived in New France, my ancestors, and so it’s the story I think, of a quite typically Canadian family. Both my parents went to university. I grew up in that family, where it was clear that I would go to university.
David Morrison: But, as a family in the ’70s... you had the opportunity to travel quite a bit.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: Yes, because when my, at the time I had, people didn’t travel very much, so in the ’70s—I was quite young in the ’70s—but I remember particularly in the early ’80s, my mother worked for Air Canada. She finished as ombudsman for Air Canada at the end of her career, meaning that I had the chance to travel a lot to all Air Canada destinations. We did the United States some, but what interested my mother in particular was Europe. So all the old rocks we could find, the churches we could visit, we were dragged inside, and well, we nonetheless learned to see that there are things to see in the world other than in our little neighbourhood.
David Morrison: However, you became an engineer like your father.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: Well, I think that I see that with my children now, in fact, at 15, 16, 17, 18 years old, we have no idea what we want to do in life. We have a vague idea of what we like, of what we don’t like, but we’re unable to look ahead 40 years to see what our career would be. My father was an engineer, it was, there was no doubt that I would go to university. I chose engineering at the polytechnical school, late ’80s, early ’90s, and then, well, I did industrial engineering, which is at least what my father called social engineering, and then, yes, I don’t know where that would have taken me but I didn’t necessarily choose to pursue a career in it.
David Morrison: You told me a funny story about how you actually got into the foreign service. Tell our listeners.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: Well it’s one of these stories, right? You get out of university, you’re doing a few jobs, you know this is not the career you’re going to pursue—this is not a great job. So you go back to the university employment office and you look at the posters and one day there was that poster for the foreign service. So, you know, I registered for the exam. And one night I am with the pals, with a bunch of friends and we’re having a good time. And it’s about three or four o’clock in the morning as you could do in that period in Montréal, which was, by the way, a bit of a shock when I moved to Ottawa after.
David Morrison: Said like a true Montréaler.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: It’s only two hours away. So around four, one of my friends said, “Well don’t you have to be somewhere at eight o’clock to write that foreign service exam?” I said yeah well, you know it’s a bit of a long shot. Don’t worry I’ll do something else. And so we got into a bet, which I will leave untold on these airwaves—a bet I actually lost. And so I went back home, took a shower and wrote the exam. I’m not sure I was at my best, but clearly to be very relaxed was very helpful in getting through the first step.
David Morrison: And you joined the Trade Commissioner Service. Did a tour in media relations, some Korean language training, a posting to Korea. When was that?
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: I got to Korea in ’95 to ’98—right in time for the Asian crisis.
David Morrison: Right. And core trade commissioner, export promotion.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: Totally, you know, in the trenches, helping SMEs, export and trying to figure out. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, honestly. I didn’t understand what a trade commissioner did before getting there. You learn on the ground and that’s where I started getting quite excited about all these nifty products that small companies manufacture in Canada or services that they do in Canada. Also quite frustrated already by the fact that very few actually know how to do international business.
David Morrison: And after you were here at head office and worked in the personnel branch.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: Yes, because when we return from a posting, somewhat that challenge, the jobs always seem really boring when we return from a posting when we look a bit, I mean human resources, and what interested me most in that was actually I told myself, well, if I want to grow in my career, I need to acquire skills and there is one where—honestly, I grew up in a family, I was the only son, my parents are people who never raise their voice—and I ask myself am I able to have more difficult conversations or face more conflict? Human resources, as an assignment officer, well, we disappoint a lot of people, and there are a lot of people who are not very happy with the process, so I told myself it would be a good place for me to see if I can actually have those conversations that are hard conversations, easy conversations.
David Morrison: But what did you learn after a few years?
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: Well, in fact, I think it’s something that stayed with me my entire life. If we can have those conversations in the right way, in fact the result is quite good, people appreciate that they were told sometimes, after two, three years they don’t understand why they don’t have the jobs they want and you are the first person to explain to them that, listen, you need to work hard, you’re not where you think you are and here is what I propose, or here are some assignments I think could help you grow if you do things correctly and realize, I think, as a manager, that’s what we do every day having conversations that are not necessarily very easy. But we realize that, in the end, they are conversations that merit, that are worth having and we’re told 15 years later, you know that time you told me, conversations we don’t remember ourselves, but that clearly marked people, who said “ah yes, it made me think, I appreciate that you were honest with me.”
David Morrison: In my view it’s actually one of the key management competencies. Right? It’s really easy to tell people what they want to hear and to make them feel good. And often that’s not the appropriate action to take. You know you...in the same way that we often learn more from our reversals than from our successes, the frank feedback conversation about why things are as they are and what needs to change, frankly, or how the situation could be different next time around is actually the job of a manager.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: Yeah it is. I mean I have, I remember some conversations, some things my managers told me. I think I was always a good soldier doing a good job and, but I remember one day a manager said, “Okay I am going to rearrange the sectors you’re dealing with in Korea.” And essentially, he didn’t present that way, but he was taking away one, that was one of the tougher ones and moving it to somebody else and giving me something in exchange. And I fought for that sector and I wanted it and I said this is, you know, I don’t want to do the other duties as required sectors I actually want to have a couple sectors, that is meaty stuff. And he did tell me, “Well you’re not quite there yet, you know, there’s a few things.” And I said, “Well give me a chance, but I’ll need your mentorship or your support.”
David Morrison: Right.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: And it ended up that he did, but it made me realize that I wasn’t there yet.
David Morrison: Right.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: And it made me realize I needed the help and I actually needed to, I actually needed to walk in his shoes to understand this was the defence sector. So it was beyond just helping in SME and just transactional trade commissioner services. We were getting into more of a trade diplomacy type of work.
David Morrison: Right. We’ll come back to that with your current position in Mexico City. But there’s another aspect that I’d like to explore. After Korea and here in Ottawa, you had assignments in Syria, in Singapore and five years, I believe, in Paris, but during all those assignments, you were half of an employee couple here in the department. The challenges of and the benefits, I suppose, of an employee couple, particularly as the couple becomes more senior, I think would be of interest to folks listening to this. The compromises you’ve had to make, what the discussions are like, how you work it out.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: Well listen, for sure, I’ll start with the benefits.
David Morrison: Yes.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: It’s having a wife who experiences the same thing as you, who completely understands the environment in which we, the flexibility that we need in our lives, in our careers, raising our children and all that. That helps, it also allows us to be very healthy, like for example at a cocktail party, when we don’t know anyone and we arrive, at least there’s already two of us, when we network and we can share news, so we already have a mini-group, already pre-organized before leaving on a posting, but for sure, you have to compromise because my wife came to join me when I was in Syria. She took some unpaid leave, the next step was, in fact, proposed to her and I would follow her and somewhat at the last minute we decided—her more than me—that it wasn’t the right time.
David Morrison: It wasn’t the right time, yes.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: In life to go to a posting that was quite difficult, we had young children at the time, so, what happened is instead that she followed me on my second posting.
David Morrison: Yes.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: I was called to go to Paris, but that was not a condition, but for me, for her it was clear that after three years in Singapore where she hadn’t worked—she had done volunteer work, she did things, she gained some interesting experience—but from a career perspective, she had not advanced. Well, we wouldn’t go to Paris for four or five years without her being able to have some good professional development, so these were not conditions that we set, but the assignment would not work if there was no good hope of having interesting work. In that we were able to rely on a director general who supported us enormously in the transition, because there were no jobs there for her in the first year, but then she obtained a position as a policy advisor in Paris, and so it worked very well, and in Mexico it was me who followed her in a way.
David Morrison: Yes, yes, yes.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: My job was interesting, but at first.
David Morrison: Yeah, but you’re.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: It was more, it was more her who...
David Morrison: Yes.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: Career development.
David Morrison: I remember very well because I was the Assistant Deputy Minister at the time and we didn’t know each other and there was this possibility of having a couple, which, I think... would be very interesting to have, a couple, but there were risks too, and you’re in over-fill, I mean, Jean-Do is EX-3 in an EX-2 position, but I think that it works very well now in Mexico. There is an innovation that we have tried where there is a rotating D-HOM, yearly I think, we agreed to, but talk about the other models. I know the Brits have a job sharing where, you know, someone is the HOM for six months and then the partner is the HOM for six months.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: Yeah I’ve seen a couple of examples like this, I’ve seen the six months in six months, I’ve also seen the Swiss do a job sharing on a daily basis and you know
David Morrison: like morning and afternoon.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: Morning and afternoon. And the first time I heard of this I thought it was really nuts. I mean when your contact phones. I mean how does your contact know how to phone which hours in the morning or in the afternoon. It didn’t make any sense. But you know it actually worked. Your contacts aren’t stupid. They actually figured it out. And yes, if there is a crisis then there’s a crisis. What ends up happening, still you end up probably working a bit more than the actual hours. But again, if you’re looking at making it work for a couple, you need to be a bit creative and it’s not only to make it work for a couple, but it’s probably still very much an issue where if you want to promote women in the organization it is still women who tend to take more leave and it was much more like that when I started in the ’90s. It was really still very much dominated by my men, senior management, etc. But if you want to promote women you need to figure out a way to be more flexible.
David Morrison: To figure these models.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: To be flexible. And it actually works relatively easily. From what I can understand, I mean managers might frown upon it at first, and I think that the key is if both are high-performing individuals it works pretty well. I think that then the key becomes if you’ve got one of the two that’s really strong and they’re sharing a same job obviously as a manager you’ll tend to rely on the stronger one of the two all the time.
David Morrison: Yeah. Again it’s high, it’s complicated, but potentially very high reward for everybody, including the families.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: As you can imagine, we spend, work doesn’t stop at five o’clock. My wife and I have had some conversations about how do you think we should do that next week. So we try to limit how much work we’ll be bringing back home. Or else you just never relax, but it is actually—I think the issue is if the couple starts going faster and faster well that’s an issue.
David Morrison: That’s what I meant by sometimes high risk. There is also the problem that one cannot report to the other, according to our rules, so that it does get even more challenging as you get into HOM territory. But you spoke a few minutes ago about the ’90s and the changes in the department since then. Tell me about the changes, the evolution of the Trade Commissioner Service. It is a very different service than when you started.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: Yes, when I started already, listen, from day one there was no email on our desks.
David Morrison: Yes, yes.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: So, we’re talking about a time that, for many of your listeners, is not completely over, anyway, I know my children cannot imagine a world without social media and, at the time, the Trade Commissioner Service had not defined its clients, or what services were offered. I remember one day in Korea having spent hours and hours and hours, there was a guy in Canada who, who liked to buy airplanes as a hobby, he was looking for a Dash-3, during the Korean War, I think it was a Dash-3... an old De Havilland airplane ... he knew that some were left that were in hangars in Korea and I spent days and weeks looking for airplanes for him to buy them, and we say, yes it was worth it to define who our clients were and what our services were because that was not a very efficient way of proceeding. We received faxes in the morning, we roughly chose what we would do and then we answered questions and followed up. I remember in the late ’90s, we had, in fact, defined who our clients were and it was very difficult change management because there were a lot of people who said that we would lose all our clients. A lot of my colleagues said that it was not possible.
David Morrison: Because it was very responsive... yes?
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: Yes.
David Morrison: To the faxes, the emails.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: And we did what a Canadian company wanted us to do.
David Morrison: Exactly.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: And it was really the first time that we thought about what our added value was, what the public good was compared to what a company must do itself, and so, that was a very, very important transformational event. So at the time we did our core services—the six basic services—a few years later, another change management process, we went to four basic services, because we realized quite quickly with the Internet, telling people what hotel to stay at in Seoul or in Damascus, was no longer necessary—it was information that was available, so we realized that to continue being relevant, our service needed to have more and more added value.
David Morrison: Added value.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: But throughout that time, you’ll remember for now David, there were all those questions, we wondered if diplomacy was still necessary, because we would now read the news any time and I remember that was hard for us, but I remember that the discussion for policy officers was much more complicated because many saw themselves as people who summarized the newspapers. They were already doing more, but a lot harder to see what they were doing than us in trade, where we had already instinctively understood who our clients were. So, the world evolved, now we have reached what is called TCS Refresh—a renovation of the Trade Commissioner Service—an operation that every organization must do anyway every five, six, seven years. It’s time to sit down and reflect on all that, and then we realize the main pressure is that we have limited staff. We serve a number of companies, we cannot serve more with the resources we have, so if we want to have a greater impact we need to spend more time with better companies, but that closes the door to different services and companies that we serve more compared to companies we serve less. You can imagine the type of challenge this represents for the public service to tell people “you’re in the gold club, you’re in the platinum club and you’re in the plastic club, 1-800 don’t call me”—that creates tensions in the organization and all the required change management because that’s systems, partners.
David Morrison: That’s how the business world works—it has to be done.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: But there’s no choice, that’s what we see, I think, the immense chance that we have at Global Affairs Canada and in the Trade Commissioner Service, we have about 100 offices around the world and those offices are isolated, they can totally ignore instructions from Ottawa when they want.
David Morrison: I’m shocked.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: Yes, that’s it. You’ll be surprised to learn, but in particular it gives us an independence that allows for a lot of innovation, so I think a lot of ideas, advances that we are seeing now in discussions on the innovation of the Trade Commissioner Service are really ideas that come from the postings. A lot, almost all of the best initiatives that we’ve had over the last few years, whether technological accelerators or others, are ideas that were developed in postings and, in general, a trade commissioner who never tells anyone outside his assignment that the support of his ambassador or head of mission and who waits to see if it works before telling Ottawa, because otherwise Ottawa will apply a framework and will create, will evaluate the program before it even works, it becomes very cumbersome to manage, so we have this strength and this capacity for innovation that we benefit from in the end. It’s a bit difficult in the public service, but it works quite well.
David Morrison: It works. There is always going to be a tension and we play it out daily in thinking through some of our HR challenges and thinking through many of the major things on the corporate agenda. There is going to be a tension between specialization and generalists, specialists and generalists. And in an amalgamated department, you know we have obviously the core diplomacy, we have the Trade Commissioner Service, we have our development practitioners and the whole equation gets more and more complicated when you go to more senior levels. So we do need, for example, EX3s to have deep functional expertise, but they also need to be general managers and different people have different views on how to square the generalist specialist circle. I’d like you to talk a little bit about what you’re calling trade diplomacy because my belief is that that is very close to the kind of policy dialogue that happens in the development space and frankly very close to what in the traditional diplomatic space is called advocacy.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: No and absolutely and I think it’s a I find it the specialist versus the generalist debate a bit artificial. I think specialists tend to be more junior in the system. You grew up as a specialist and as you go, in French we say adding arrows… strings to your bow.
David Morrison: Yeah, yeah.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: As you go you gain, you know, I gain experience as a manager as I grew up, I gain experience in more complex files, I gain experience...you move on from helping the SME looking for a distributor to a medium or large size company looking to win a contract, an infrastructure contract, they’re...they’re looking for partners. You might...you might, you know lobby the government.
David Morrison: You have more of a broker networking.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: You have a more efficient network. It’s a longer term. You spend more time on this and so as you move up you need to widen and widen the scope of what you do. I realized first part probably in Paris... I realized that there was actually a nexus between what I was doing, a relatively pure trade job and actually the need to lobby government. And I use the word lobby, I mean we use advocacy more often than the other.
David Morrison: But it’s lobbying.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: But the reality is that we do lobbying, but in a much nicer...much nicer way because on much nicer files because we’re the government and we project values and promote our values as well. But when you get into...into more complex files and in France I had I, you know, the first month on the job you get the worst tasking you ever get, right? And on my first month on the job I got a tasking and say you need to lean on President Sarkozy. He’s now the president of the European Union at the time that that job exists because we’ve been trying to launch negotiation with Europe, trade negotiations with Europe and we haven’t gone anywhere. And with like if he leans on Europe we might go somewhere. So of course you’ve got as we say in French un grand moment de solitude, thinking I’m not quite equipped, my network is not quite up to speed to convince Nicolas Sarkozy to help us out. But we did and with the ambassador, a great ambassador, Marc Lortie who had luckily tons of experience in doing that type of stuff, who was not a trade specialist, but knew how to push a file with the government. I saw how you actually move that file the government. And I remember the last meeting in the Élysée Palace with the diplomatic advisor to Sarkozy and the conversation and the guy said, “Yeah you’ve got all the support.” And the ambassador say, “Well you know in Brussels they’re not helping us out.” And the next morning at 9 o’clock our guy in Brussels phoned me and said “What did you do to the French, they’ve got fire under. they’re all over the place.” And we did launch negotiations. We had the isotopes crisis and at some point if you remember that we just...we had to close down Chalk River. The tasking is it comes to the trade guy because I guess you’re the more technical guy and you’ve got the contacts. The French were the only ones who would be able to supply isotopes for medical care here, but their plant was going on maintenance and it was going to shut down. My job was to keep that plant open.
David Morrison: Keep that plant open.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: So fast forward to Mexico and in Mexico well I thought it was going to go diving in Mexico. I accepted the job. I’ll follow my wife. This is going to be nice, it’s sunny. And it’s and then Mr. Trump got elected and the Mexicans thought we would throw them under the bus NAFTA wise. It was all over the press. There was no strong relationship apart from the relationship that Minister Freeland already had with the Minister of Trade in Mexico. So the bandwidth was very short. The lack of confidence was very obvious. My job was to build that up. My job was to make sure that...that not that we would throw them under the bus, but that they would not react to that...that false information and actually do a quick deal with the U.S. So how do you set that up? That’s true. You might say trade negotiations a bit outside of the Trade Commissioner Service and it is, but let’s say move into pipelines that are being blocked in Mexico right now, move into mining interests that are being blocked right now. Transmission line, you know, Mexico is developed enough to have a lot of rules, but the rule of law is a bit weak, so these rules tend to be used for extortion purposes. You go face to face with narcos. You go face to face with not your usual stakeholders when you’re dealing with trade issues. My job is to go and work with the government and say guys you know it can be up to—you need to send the army, you need to send the police. And my job is to pull a minister and to have those calls between ministries occur. Because you realize one day in your career that, wait a minute, nobody in Ottawa is actually giving me instructions. I actually have to tell Ottawa.
David Morrison: Here’s what we need to do.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: Here’s what we need now, right.
David Morrison: I was the recipient of some of those calls.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: And you were the recipient of those. Call...call us please.
David Morrison: So...so you’ve, John-Do you have very eloquently made the point that I was trying to make, that at a certain level Canada as a trading nation relies upon not just trade commissioners to promote things, but all diplomats to ensure that the places that we’re trying to sell into we are well-connected, know what’s going on and can help shape things in ways that are favourable to Canada.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: No and you see it. I do get calls from companies and they say I know you guys are doing it, can you tell the ambassador in country X to do the same for us and then we talk to them and say well I don’t think it’s my job to lobby the government on their behalf. It is.
David Morrison: It is!
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: Yes it is. It doesn’t mean you have to do that for every single company. You have to make sure it’s also...it falls within our interests etc. I’m not going to help any company that knocks at my door. But there are times where that company is not applying its own rules and they need to be applied.
David Morrison: The country is not applying its own rules.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: The country is not, yes sorry. They are trying to expropriate our companies. They’re trying to block it. They’re trying to favor national companies or companies from third countries that are operating under a different...different rules let’s say. Yes you do need to intervene and that doesn’t mean an ambassador needs to have a deep understanding of how business works. An ambassador is not doing their job if they don’t have a strong network of critical government that they’re able to lobby when the Government of Canada needs it.
David Morrison: Yeah absolutely. Well look Jean-Do we could go on. It’s great to talk to you. I always learn things. We didn’t even cover our favorite topic today which is usually wine. So we’ll leave that.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: Well we don’t have. We are not allowed to drink on the job. And we are in your office right now, so.
David Morrison: So we’ll leave that for another occasion. So thank you very much for being here and thank you for everything you do every day for Canada.
Jean-Dominique Ieraci: It’s a real pleasure. There is no more enjoyable job when we know that we’re defending the interests of our country. It’s very noble and it’s exciting, especially when we can go to the beach once in a while.
David Morrison: Okay, thank you.
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