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From Receptionist to Chief Information Officer

The inspirational story of Tammy Labelle

“I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I would today be the Chief Information Officer for one of the largest Canadian federal departments”, exclaims Tammy Labelle. She started working as a receptionist for the Canadian federal public service about 35 years ago. Her journey consisted of continually re-inventing and challenging herself. Now, she looks back, a bit amazed. She learned important lessons along the way that she loves to share with women starting their careers.

On the patio at Pancho Villa’s in Ottawa’s downtown, Tammy joins me after another busy day as Chief Information Officer for Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC). Running an Information Technology organization of 1500 people providing government-wide solutions is one challenge. She also routinely provides advice to the Deputy Minister as well as the Chief Information Officer for the Government of Canada. One can easily deduce that she is one of the most powerful technology influences in the government landscape.

I’ve been friends with Tammy for a few years. We hug, exchange pleasantries, and order drinks. I invited her to share her story with me– for it is inspirational. Knowing her early beginnings to where she is now, I felt compelled to interview her – not just because of the extra-ordinary rise of a woman to such influence – but also because of her personal transformation to get there.

Tammy starts, “I joined the public service at age 18, right out of high school, answering the phones for Revenue Canada’s Data Centre. This is one of the lowest entry-level positions one could get at that time. In 1984, you had phones with push button lighted lines and I would need to page through an intercom the person for whom the call was.” Tammy recalls with a laugh seeing later a historical display of the Centre with her little intercom on stage. At that point, in her life, her ambition was to get married, have children and a job to help the family.

The year 1986 was a big year. She was married and promoted to receptionist in the Minister’s Office. There she worked with Perrin Beaty and Elmer McKay, Ministers of National Revenue, including Canada Border Services and Canada Post. “It was a busy time and there were no happy calls,” recalls Tammy.

Tammy won a competition to be a secretary in the Information Technology Branch around 1988. At the time, type writers began to be computerized – the first with a one line display. Soon thereafter, the onset of today’s desktop computers were introduced. She showed aptitude for the configuration of these word processors and its technology and her boss suggested she go to school to learn programming. Off she went to Algonquin College, taking night classes to learn COBOL programming. Meanwhile, she gave birth to her son, John.

It was in 1990 that she won a job in Application Development as a first level Computer Science (CS-01) classification. She quickly moved to the next level two years later and had her daughter, Michelle.

Then life threw a curve ball. In 1993, she found herself as a single mum, needing to solely provide for her kids. “There were times when my kids would come home needing something for school… and I did not have the car or money to get it for them. These moments were devastating. There never seemed to be a relief from the pressures of raising two young children alone, while working full time,” she remembers.

In the film, Gone with the Wind, Scarlet O’Hara declares in her garden, “As God is my witness, as God is my witness they’re not going to lick me. I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again.” This is often referred to as the Turnip Speech.

Tammy developed her own Turnip Speech. “I wanted my children to grow up in a good neighbourhood, without want, and with opportunities.” She admits that is when she developed career aspirations. She took Project Management so she could progress to high CS levels. Then realizing that she needed some university background to get into the executive cadre, completed a Master in Business Administration in 2003… and married the love of her life, George. She won an Executive (EX-01) competition in 2004 with PSPC.

Tammy says, “I found that I had a finesse for management during those early years as an executive.” Tammy achieved her dream job of Director General of Enterprise Architecture at the CRA in 2010, enabling her to blend her technical skills with her leadership capacity. “I am is always surprised how each job offered interesting opportunities and challenges, not to mention the wonderful people I had the pleasure to work with along the way.” I met and worked closely with Tammy when she was Assistant Deputy Minister of Integrated Services Branch for PSPC. I admire her sharp analytical mind, results orientation, yet being able to handle people with a truly warm human touch.

Obtaining the Chief Information Officer position was a really big thing; more than she could ever imagine. “I am exhausted every day – but I love it. It is really the culmination of everything I learned and experienced.”

Reflecting on her journey, Tammy states that “the public service allows you to re-invent yourself. The world is your oyster. It is what you make of it.” She adds that “it is a calling, not just a career, an opportunity to make a difference for all Canadians and to contribute to making Canada the best country in the world, with the best public service.”

I asked her for her advice to young women today starting their careers.

“Don’t underestimate the value of being a woman in a leadership role. Chase your dreams and go after the jobs you want. Talk to other women for support because you can balance family and career. Just be honest with your capabilities and limitations based on your stage of life.”

Finally, some sage advice for managers, “Treat people with respect and compassion. Don’t judge too quickly and always, always find a way for people to save face.”

The sun is setting, and our meal is done. I really liked Tammy before this. Now I am more awed. We see George coming to pick her up. We say our goodbyes.

We are always the product of our circumstances and our actions to them. We never can tell where our situations in life will lead us. Tammy’s journey from being a receptionist and poor single mum to now proud mum and one of the most powerful leaders in the federal public service is a testament to resilience, determination, positive thought, and never ever giving up. A shinning inspiration to us all.

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