Leading Through COVID-19: Leadership Lessons from Sara Filbee, ADM, Atlantic Region, ESDC/Service Canada

5 minute read

On April 2, the IOG launched a free webcast series, Leading Through COVID-19 #leadingthroughC19. You can revisit the first episode with former Clerk of the Privy Council, Mel Cappe here.

In the April 9th episode of Leading Through COVID-19, IOG President Toby Fyfe interviewed Sara Filbee, ADM, Atlantic Region, ESDC/Service Canada. She shared lessons learned from leading teams in times of high stress, as her department is currently working on the front lines.

Speaking to the impact on the ESDC team, she focused on both the human element, and the priority of providing critical response quickly. "Getting money out to Canadians, primarily through CERB, has been a high profile, critical piece of work for us", she stated, while also remarking, that ,"all of a sudden, we've entered a different world. This is the highest amount of complexity that most of us will have dealt with in our lifetime, and we are also seeing how information we had yesterday, can completely change on a dime."

Based in the Atlantic region, Filbee has experience working virtually and mentioned that now others are having to adapt. "At Service Canada, we've been trying to focus on getting people together more often, so that we can start to develop trust levels and relationships -- so virtual work will be more effective", she said. "The nature of the crisis has literally meant that everyone has had to learn to work this way (virtually), and it has levelled things out a bit, but it's all based on a mutual respect and the knowledge that everyone is pushing as hard as they can." Serving Canadians well means doing so with a well workforce, and Filbee stressed the importance of prioritizing the health and wellbeing of her team, so that they can focus on the delivery of service to Canadians. For Filbee, providing support to her team meant being open enough to share her own challenges. "Every once in a while, I'll have a sad day, and that's normal and natural. We are humans and our emotions and feelings are part of the richness and the intricacies and intelligence that we bring to our roles", said Filbee. "The same thing is going on for staff -- I need to share my humanity and the fact that I'm going through the same things, but I have to remind them that I'm ok, we are going to be ok, and that we are all there for each other."


In addition to its many critical workers, ESDC has had to find ways for non-critical workers to be engaged in crisis support. Filbee mentioned that "a great way to do this was to train them quickly to work in the new call centre that was created to support CERB." For others, she stressed the importance of continuing with constant communication and respect. "We must tell (non-critical workers) to focus on keeping healthy, keeping connected, and helping their communities safely. They are still necessary, and they are going to be needed."

Broadening this view to what might come in the future as far as transitioning back to work after the crisis subsides, she posed some key thoughts and questions. "Most people are in the public service because they want to make a difference, and all of us are dealing with grief of the loss of the world as we knew it, because frankly, we are not going back to the same world."

"The reality is, we need to start having those conversations -- we have already started talking in the department about: when do we start to integrate what has been non-critical, and how do we start thinking about where it is that we might be after this? I have no doubt that there will be a lot of policy discussions. The key thing is, how do we transition back gradually?"


Filbee then shared leadership lessons learned from her career, and from this crisis thus far. First, she acknowledged the privilege of her team and recognized them for their hard work. "Our folks are used to being unsung heroes -- they are working hard and pulling out all the stops to provide the support that we need to provide to Canadians. We're very lucky because we are employed, and because we get paid to try to make a difference to make Canada better -- and for many of us, that's what keeps us going."

In leading a team in times of high stress, she focused on patience, trust, and providing a safe, supportive environment. "Patience is important -- we must be patient with ourselves and others. Trust is highly fragile and reciprocal -- this crisis reawakens in me an understanding of the importance of trust and respect in how we work together."

She stressed the importance of engaging workers and trusting them, especially in times of stress or crisis."This is really a time when you can't micromanage -- I don't think you can in the best of times -- we have to know as leaders when to get out of the way and perhaps understand that folks have enough on their plates. People need to feel safe to ask questions. Innovation and creativity, which we need desperately, and which we're seeing in abundance at the moment, only comes from engagement with difference."


In closing, she shared that managing her team during this time, "has been in many ways, perhaps the most terrifying and perhaps the most fulfilling part of my career."

Thank you to Sara Filbee for joining us on the Leading Through COVID-19 Webcast. Join us for our next webcast, Thursday, April 16 at 12:30 PM EST where IOG President Toby Fyfe will be speaking with Senator Tony Dean, who will be sharing best practices and lessons learned from his myriad of experiences including leading the Ontario Public Service during the SARS epidemic of 2003. You can learn more about the series here.

About the author

Institute on Governance

Institute on Governance

Founded in 1990, the Institute on Governance (IOG) is an independent, Canada-based, not-for-profit public interest institution with its head office in Ottawa and an office in Toronto. Our mission is ‘advancing better governance in the public interest,’ which we accomplish by exploring, developing and promoting the principles, standards and practices which underlie good governance in the public sphere, both in Canada and abroad.

(613) 562-0090 or 0092