Leadership Spotlight: Corporate Secretary enables decision making at Defence


Larry Surtees, Defence’s Corporate Secretary, recently spoke about how his team operates in the background to ensure that the decision-making process at Defence is equipped with the information required to make the right decisions, at the right time.


Q: Please explain your role as Corporate Secretary.

A: As the Corporate Secretary at National Defence, I support the Deputy Minister (DM) and the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) in a number of activities.

The Corporate Secretary is an organization of about 135 people, and we provide a number of corporate support roles within the department.

From an organizational perspective, we look after the access to information and privacy framework, so that we can respond to the legislation. We have a number of people who provide advice to Level 1s and do the final cut on what we give out under accessed information and privacy.

We also have a group supporting the Minister and the Associate Minister. We are responsible for ministerial correspondence, the administrative support for them, and we act as the interface between the department and the Minister’s office.

I have another group that looks after Corporate and Shared Services at a strategic level. They coordinate our departmental Defence Administrative Orders and Directives (DAODs) and Queen’s Regulations & Orders (QR&Os).

Finally, I have a group that deals with governance, which is the primary part of my role. Governance at Defence is the decision-making process and making sure that it works well at the most senior levels.

The Corporate Secretary, if you were to boil it down, operates in the background to make sure that the decision process at Defence – the decisions that are made by the DM and the CDS – are made with the information that they require to make the appropriate decision at the right time.


Q: How does the Corporate Secretary support senior management?

A: Within the NDHQ structure, I report to the DM, and I support the DM and the CDS by coordinating their most senior-level meetings of their advisors. We schedule them, we set up the rooms, we do the agendas for them, and we just sort of make those things happen. We also do a lot of meetings outside of the department. For example, if the Departmental Management Committee, the most senior level committee of all the Level 1s, wants to have an offsite meeting, we’ll make all the arrangements for that and we’ll set them up. We also work closely with the Vice Chief of Defence Staff in setting the correct agenda for these meetings.

We support the Minister with a whole team of people who provide corporate support and administrative support to his office, that’s one of our major roles. We will help them coordinate their travel, we’ll help them coordinate the expenditure of funds, and setting up their meetings, and making sure they get the briefings that they need in a timely manner.  We also act as the interface between the Minister’s office, the Department, and the CAF.

Finally, we support all of the Level 1s, the Deputy Minister, and the Minister in creating a framework under which we can respond to accessed information and privacy requests.


Q: How does this role benefit the Defence Team?

A: That’s an interesting question because most of the time it’s behind the scenes and we enable things. First, we coordinate the DAOD collection and the QR&O’s, which are used by all members of the Defence Team in the various jobs that they do. We also arrange for the timely decisions that are made by the DM and the CDS, and timely decisions are important to us all so that we can get on and do the work that we do.

Usually, in the headquarters environment, we aren’t directly involved in the work that is done at the base and stations. By making things at headquarters work smoothly and efficiently for the DM and the CDS and the other Level 1s, we economize the time that they’re in meetings so they can focus on what is needed to allow our large and diverse organization to get the job done and obtain results.


Q: What are the key challenges and successes?   

A: The key challenge, as in any job, is understanding the priorities. In our job, the priorities shift on a regular basis. Can you imagine setting up a meeting of 27 executives all at the same time, and trying to work that into their schedule? That’s one of the challenges that my team has.

We also do most of our work by working with others. We work with the whole Defence Team to respond to access to information and privacy requests. We work with the whole Team in creating the DAOD collection and the QR&O’s.  We work with other people to achieve results, and that’s always a challenge because you are having to coordinate meetings and bring people along at the pace that you need them brought along. But it works very well in the Corporate Secretary because of the excellent people that we have and the hard work that they put into doing this job.


Q: How does Defence Renewal benefit the organization?

A: Defence Renewal, from a Corporate Secretary perspective, has been a benefit because we’ve been able to get three initiatives under the organizational practice component of Defence Renewal, that are allowing us to put forward some of the activities that we need to do.

One initiative is a Governance Review, which means revising the Organization and Accountability Document. This describes how we are organized in the headquarters, the accountabilities of all the Level 1s, and how we do our business at the headquarters level. We are then following that up with a review of whether we have the committee structure to support decision-making right.

Another initiative is trying to identify a core number of strategic documents that will help everybody understand what we’re trying to do at Defence; what we call the ‘Strategic Intent’. Right now we’ve identified about 60 documents that have strategic intent in them, and if anybody can figure out what we’re trying to do from those, they deserve a bonus. What we’re trying to do is come up with a handful of very key documents that will simply explain to people what we do and what our strategic intent is.

The third Defence Renewal initiative relates to the DAODs, revising them and bringing them up-to-date, while getting rid the Canadian Forces Administration Orders (CFAOs). CFAOs have been around for a long time and were supposed to be cancelled in the 90s; we still have a number of them around. We need to retire them and move forward with just our DAODs.  By working with Defence Renewal, we’re able to get the effort from everybody to help us make this happen.


Q: What’s the most rewarding part of your job?

A: The favourite part of my job is working with employees. What’s fantastic about that is that you get to work with employees, and if you create the environment that allows them to do the best they can, that’s where I get my most enjoyment. That’s what our leadership is about in the Corporate Secretary. We create the environment, we give people the tools, and then we basically sit back and watch what our staff does, and they amaze us every time. That’s what I like about my job.

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