CAO eyes a new way of doing business

Chief administrative officer has only been on the job two months, but already change is in the offing

Teresa Sullivan isn’t afraid to take on change.

Not only has the new chief administrative officer for the District of Sooke undertaken a major leadership and departmental shake-up, Sullivan says she will break down entrenched departmental silos, streamline development approvals and prioritize capital projects.

And, oh yeah, she also plans to change the culture at municipal hall.

Not bad for someone who has been on the job for nine weeks.

“We [district council] wanted good leadership with a good understanding of moving our community forward – so the community benefits,” said acting mayor Kerrie Reay on the hiring of Sullivan last December.

The District of Sooke has gone through five chief administrative officers, either in a full-time or acting capacity since the 2011 election, and more stability was wanted at the position along with a new direction.

When district council went in search of a new CAO it had a must-list it wanted to see in its new CAO, among those wishes was to develop a vision that aligned with council’s strategic plan, advancing economic growth and community development through strong partnerships with both community and business stakeholders.

The transition didn’t start off smoothly.

Sullivan had barely taken her coat off in early January when finance director Michael Dillabaugh announced he was leaving for a similar job in View Royal, municipal engineer Elisabeth Nelson left for personal reasons and long-time corporate officer Bonnie Sprinkling and the district parted company.

The departures came right after Sullivan began one-on-one interviews with the entire district staff.

Those interviews were never intended to weed out staff, Sullivan insisted, but to change a culture of accountability and transparency.

For too long, the community has heard many complaints that it takes too long to get something done, and often the answer in the end has been no, Reay said.

Now Sullivan said: “It’s about getting to yes.”

Sullivan began to look at the corporate structure of municipal hall immediately and opened her door to the public. She has personally talked to more than 300 residents, business people and groups on what the issues are and how the district can do better.

She found out quickly from the public that she was surrounded by what she paraphrased as “superstars” at municipal hall.

“We have some gems on staff who understand how to get to yes. They understand they are here to serve the public, and they do everything in their power to make sure they are treated appropriately and with a great attitude and focus on customer service,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan is confident of the district staff and in the recent staff changes either promoted or gave added responsibilities to three senior managers: changed the roles of four existing staff members: Rob Howat (director of development services); Brent Blackhall (director of finance); and Tina Hansen (acting corporate officer).

Sullivan in turn eliminated deputy directors’ position, citing they were unnecessary in a small municipality.

In a move that proved to be controversial, she hired longtime business associate Gabryel Joseph in the newly created position of director of corporate services.

The reason? Joseph will fill a role that is lacking in the district for human resources management, communications and workplace culture.

“The focus is taking an organization from an unhealthy or weak culture into a very strong, engaged, respectful and professional culture,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan comes to Sooke after extensive executive management experience with the B.C. provincial government, has worked as a consultant in both the public and private sector, providing consulting services in government relations, leadership, and media relations. She holds a master in business administration from Royal Roads University, and served one term on Colwood council.

Now that Sullivan has found her senior management team, she now wants to get down to business in moving the municipality and council’s vision forward.

“It’s time to let the organization settle and let the leadership team come up with some plans on how to implement them,” she said.

“I’m really excited about the opportunities in Sooke, and that excitement is trickling down from the community and [district] staff. There’s a real buzz that’s happening here.”

editor@sookenewsmirror.com