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Q & A: Vaughan's newly minted city manager says city on verge of major transformation
May 28, 2015
By Adam Martin-Robbins

Vaughan’s new top bureaucrat set a big goal for his first few months in office. City manager Steve Kanellakos plans to meet every employee who works for the municipality by the end of summer.

The 56-year-old married father of three made the pledge during a welcoming ceremony his first day on the job.

The son of Greek immigrants, Kanellakos was born and raised in Ottawa.

He holds an undergraduate degree and a master’s degree in public administration from Carleton University then went on to work for 15 years as a civilian staffer with the Gloucester Police Service, where he started as a file clerk/typist, and then the Ottawa-Carleton Regional Police.

From there, Kanellakos held numerous positions at the City of Ottawa. He ended his career there as deputy city manager of operations overseeing 15,000 employees and was responsible for a $2.1-billion budget.

The Vaughan Citizen sat down with Kanellakos in his office at city hall for a wide-ranging interview.

Below are excerpts from that interview. (Answers have been edited for length.)

Question: What do you consider your greatest achievement in your time in Ottawa?

Answer: We started about five years ago driving the notion of service excellence into the organization.

In 2008, the city manager did a retreat and we started talking about this and I was asked to champion this drive of the organization to transform the culture. And I took that on because I believe in it.

I spent a good six years supporting it with technology, that we can do better and that you need to have a complete positive experience with the city.

It just can’t be that you call in and someone is nice on the phone then your actual service request is screwed up and you’re upset by the time you’re finished with the process. It has to be good from the time you enter the system to the time you actually get your outcome.

There’s still a long way to go because it’s a huge organization, but I know one thing: what I’m proudest of is that I can’t go anywhere in the city now where the staff don’t talk about the notion of service excellence; where they don’t talk about employee engagement; where they don’t talk about client experience and what their survey scores are and where they aren’t focused on ways to try to improve how they deliver their services.

Question: You’re a lifelong Ottawa guy, so what brought you here?

Answer: Kent Kirkpatrick, he’s the city manager (in Ottawa), he was a great supporter of mine and a mentor and he gave me an incredible opportunity, right up to my last job, but he was staying. .... And so I made the decision that I want to lead an organization, I want to do it while I’m still feeling good and I have energy.

Next thing you know, like almost fate, I get this call from a recruiting firm, and it happened to be for Vaughan.

I went online and started reading what Vaughan is doing and I found that I had an instant connection with what they’re trying to do and trying to achieve.

I found that the mayor’s vision and the statements he’s made and the principles and beliefs he’s putting out there around good governance; around the future vision of the city; the notion that this city is at a point where it needs to transform because there’s so much growth, I really hooked into that stuff.

I didn’t want to come to a city where it was maintain the status quo. I wanted to come to a city that’s on the verge of some major transformation and, as I’m here, I’m seeing that.

This place is busting at the seams, I think that’s what makes it exciting. And with that comes issues and challenges and the excitement of the work that I like to do.

Question: What’s going to be the biggest challenge for you?

Answer: I think the biggest challenge for a city that’s been growing as rapidly as Vaughan is to balance the expectations of residents for the services they want and the service standards that they want, yet do it within a fiscal framework that is responsible.

Question: Tell us something that’s not in your official bio that people might find interesting.

Answer: I’ve always wanted to own a restaurant. My father had a restaurant and I started working there when I was 12.

I started falling in love with everything about that business. I know it’s a crazy business, but I just enjoyed the social aspect, taking care of people, making people happy, I really enjoyed that.

I kept working there until I was 25, even when I was going through school. I had many other jobs, but I’d always fill in.

Question: If one of your peers from Ottawa or someone you’re close to was going to describe you in three words, what three words do you think they would choose?

Answer: I think people would say I’m passionate about what I do. I’m trustworthy. My word is solid. If I say something, I actually deliver on it. And the other thing I think they’d say is I get it done.

Question: After a tough day on the job what do you do to unwind?

Answer: I know this sounds crazy, but in the summer, in particular, I love going for a drive.

I had a convertible for a while, I ended up selling it, but I love just getting in my car and going for a long drive. Put my tunes on and just tune everybody out. It’s the only place where no one can get you.

You don’t have to answer your phone because you can’t and you just control your destiny for that hour you’re out.

I do my best thinking when I’m in my car, away from everybody and I’m moving and no one knows who I am.