PROMOTING THE VALUES OF LEADERSHIP
March 11, 2013 By Olivia Schneider
1156 words – MR
Promoting the values of leadership
Halifax chief works to keep police above the political curve
by Olivia Schneider
Jean-Michel Blais laughs when asked about his approach in his first six months as chief of the Halifax Regional Police (HRP). “I’ve heard some people say I’ve been communicating too much,” he says, “and yet when I first became chief, there were concerns by the media that I’d be bringing the ‘RCMP model’ of communications.”
It’s a model that has been criticized as less than open but for Blais, strong leadership is all about good communication.
It’s also about being accessible – to the community and to his subordinates. The high visibility job gives Blais a chance to lead by example. “People come up to me and say I’m the second most recognizable public figure behind the mayor,” he says. “It means there’s a heightened sense for me when I’m out in public… everyone will be listening to everything I say and watching everything I do.”
He’s okay with that. Blais is no stranger to being in the public eye over his 25-year career. He’s been in high profile positions as a senior RCMP officer and United Nations peacekeeper but this is the first time he’s served on a municipal force. He got the job after 13 months as a Halifax-based chief superintendent with the RCMP and wanted it, in part, because he and his family had fallen in love with Halifax.
Halifax operates under a partially integrated policing model. HRP is responsible for Halifax, Dartmouth and Bedford, while the RCMP has jurisdiction over Halifax County, which is mainly rural. The division of jurisdiction predates Halifax Regional Municipality, formed in 1996 as part of regional amalgamations that took place across Canada. According to Blais, Halifax County covers 85 per cent of the 5,500-square kilometre territory, but 85 per cent of the population lives in the three cities policed by the HRP. While area residents still don’t like many components of amalgamation – rural residents, for example, often complain about higher taxes without comparable urban services – the policing model is not an issue.
“What we’ve seen is that the overall policing has very high survey scores,” says Blais, “and that’s one of the reasons why there hasn’t been much of a change in that policing model for some time.” Any change, Blais says, will stem from politicians rather than either police agency. “One of the things that I’ve been doing with my people is getting them to realize that there’s nothing we can do today to effect that change… we can’t fall into the trap of being worried about what a future political decision will be.”
Blais is used to negotiating changing political environments. He has lived in four different provinces and worked in almost all the Canadian provinces over the course of his career. He’s fluent in French and English and has a working knowledge of Spanish and Creole. “The experience of what I brought, from working at four other police services and being embedded in the United Nations, has been invaluable when dealing with diversity, adversity and dealing with people who have different views and different takes on different things.”
Blais’ appreciation for dealing with different views extends to his off-duty hours. As a Hockey Canada level three referee, he’s amused when people suddenly recognize the ref as the police chief in an unexpected uniform. “You see a bit of reaction,” he says, “and I’m like ‘I’m not the police chief – at least right now.'”
True to his focus on communication, he wants to change people’s ideas about the city he’s come to love. His first priority for that is challenging the perception that Halifax is a dangerous place. “It’s something that city managers – including myself – are just trying to grapple with, to figure out why this is,” he says. He refers to statistics released in 2012 that ranked Halifax as the second highest Canadian city for firearm use. “We’re talking about two years ago.” Since then, he says, “our numbers have been spiraling downward.”
His passion for Halifax comes through as he talks about his hopes for the city and his plans for the police. “My goal and my legacy – among other things – to this department will be to ensure we have a chief from within,” he says. “When I have a group of four or five senior managers who are ready to assume the position of chief of police, then that will be time for me to leave.”
This active stance on promotion from within reflects Blais’ leadership goals in practice. “The biggest thing I saw, that I needed to develop here, was a learning culture and a mentoring culture for my senior officers, for them to be able to go to the next step.” In his mind, promoting the values of leadership in individual officers will help bring the whole agency to the next level. Blais wants to achieve this excellence at every stage, from the brand new constable all the way to the chief’s office.
“We have some challenges in policing – not just here in Halifax – but in the entire country, when it comes to the approaches that we take: groupthink, lack of robust discussion and getting over the cognitive biases that we have.” Blais says these problems breed assumptions which lead to confusing truth and fiction and says internal communication is absolutely critical to combatting this.
“If I can make a dent in the organization by having people look at the facts and say ‘Ah, is this the truth? Or is this based on a supposition?’ then I think I will have achieved something positive for the organization.”
In order to implement more effective internal communications, Blais gives stakeholders a voice – and he doesn’t just pay lip service to consultation, but makes sure he gives others a say that counts. The police union president sits at the senior management table as the chief’s equal partner. The department’s strategic planning group, as well as the chief’s round table, have a cross-section of constables, non-commissioned officers and civilian employees who “work on issues that are not union issues and that are not management issues, but the softer issues, so to speak. A lot of them need better communication. I want us to look at developing different approaches to doing things, not for the sake of being different, but being more effective.”
Blais says this lack of communication and leadership isn’t just a problem in policing but reflects a larger societal problem. However, for jobs like his, there’s more at stake.
“Policing is a risky profession and we have to show good leadership to be able to go out on a limb and take chances and do things differently – and improve on things that have worked well in the past,” Blais says. “That means we need to influence our stakeholders, influence ourselves and be the leaders we want to see in years to come.”
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