Former head of HR at CPS says dictatorship-style leadership led to her resignation

Sheila Ball says despite her qualifications, experience and enthusiasm, she was not prepared to deal with the antiquated, command-style leadership within the Calgary Police Service.

Sheila Ball says lack of support at top is quashing members' hopes for cultural change

Former chief human resources officer with the Calgary Police Service, Sheila Ball, shares the rocky road she travelled trying to implement HR reforms before resigning this fall. (Colleen Underwood/CBC)

Sheila Ball was planning to retire from her 25-year human resources career, spent mostly in oil and gas, when she got a call last December from a headhunter urging her to apply for the role of chief human resources officer with the Calgary Police Service.

She was told the service was looking for a disrupter, an agent of change, to tackle claims of bullying, harassment and gender discrimination. 

Ball has a master's degree in human resources and labour relations. She has overseen several mergers and acquisitions, which can be difficult and painful transformations for employees.

But despite her qualifications, experience and enthusiasm, she admits she wasn't prepared for what she encountered. 

"I quickly realized when I went in there that they were about 20 to 30 years behind in terms of what industry HR was doing in terms of talent management, modern leadership and those types of things," Ball said from the quiet of her kitchen, at her home in southeast Calgary.

"It's what I would call — maybe this is HR speak — a command-and-control, a dominant command-and-control leadership style there, which in all honesty I only read about in text books."

She says it was far from the collaborative and consultative style of leadership she was used to, and at first, she thought this self-acknowledged, antiquated style was a joke.

"Even the word dictatorship was used."

This would be the first time a civilian headed up the HR department within CPS. Prior to Ball, the position had always been held by a sworn officer.

Ball says that during her job interview a desire for outside expertise to lead HR reforms in the service was emphasized.

"It was a role that intrigued me," said Ball. "[I was] hoping that I would be that change agent they were looking for."

Ball started the job in February.

Culture of Pain

In order to make sweeping changes, she says she first had to understand what the underlying issues were within the service and the complexities of the institution. 

So at first she spent a lot of time with front-line workers. She went on patrols, visited the districts and learned as much as she could about the job.

She says she opened her door both figuratively and literally. 

"What I heard was that 'we keep saying what is wrong,' 'we don't feel valued,' 'we don't trust the executive to have our backs.' So I wanted to know more about that."

Sheila Ball, right, pictured with Calgary police member and former Olympian Cindy Klassen. Ball said she'll miss working with CPS members. (Supplied by Sheila Ball)

Ball says staff referred to the employee surveys they had filled out, only to find nothing changed. She says another one is set to be released soon.

She says it is clear the officers love their jobs, their co-workers and serving Calgarians. But the physical, emotional and psychological demands of the job is taking its toll. And the problem is they don't believe they are being heard or supported.

"I diagnosed it as a culture of pain."

Uphill battle

She says HR reforms are not easy. They can be volatile, and take a long time to implement. 

She says the first few months were great, people were passionate about explaining policing.

But when she started to dig into HR issues around career development, succession planning, diversity, inclusion and culture change, she started to get pushback from above. 

"I kept saying, 'are you sure you want me,' and 'do you realize what you are going to get,' and they kept saying, 'well, the folks around me said yes.'"

Yet she says when she questioned her superiors about different decisions, she was laughed at or met with silence, because she was told, you just don't ask those types of questions. She was told, that's the way it is. 

But she says her darkest hour was when she was dragged in front of her peers to defend her request to start reporting to the chief, rather than to a deputy chief. She says she had always reported to a CEO or the president of a company in the past because they were the ones who carried the vision. She felt the same was needed within the Calgary Police Service.

She says her request was brought up at a meeting where each person attending was asked if Ball should be allowed to jump ranks and report directly to the chief. 

"I have to tell you, I have never felt so humiliated in my life, in my professional life, to have to defend myself."

Lost all hope

Ball says eventually she was allowed to report directly to the police chief. But she believes that led to resentment and subsequently she was excluded from HR-related meetings.

Shortly after that, Chief Roger Chaffin announced his resignation. 

"After I started to report to the chief, I began to really feel that I wasn't being set up for success. In a variety of ways I was told either explicitly or indirectly that the support wasn't there and I wasn't going to be successful."

The language that they used was, 'they broke you, we knew they were going to break you,'- Sheila Ball, on saying goodbye to CPS members

That's when she realized she was not up for this kind of fight. She lost hope and so did those she was trying to help.

"I came to the decision I could not be part of that leadership team because I felt I could not make the changes that I felt were needed."

She says her last day was tough saying goodbye to members.

"The language that they used was, 'they broke you, we knew they were going to break you,'" said Ball.

Now she feels like she failed those she was trying to help.

Since leaving, though, she says she's been overwhelmed with warm messages from officers concerned by her departure.

Some delivered to her home a carved, wooden plaque that says "Thank you for your contribution to the Calgary Police Service."

Members of the Calgary Police Service gave a wooden plaque to Sheila Ball to let her know they appreciated her work after she abruptly resigned this fall. (Colleen Underwood/CBC)

She says she hasn't had an exit interview. The service contacted her about a month after she left to offer her one. She says she will provide similar information, in writing, which will be delivered to the interim chief.

It's up to him whether it is passed on to the police commission.

Sweep at the top

Looking back, she says she doesn't think the obstacles she faced were out of malice, just an unawareness.

"In that lack of understanding around culture change and around modern leadership style and probably the various leadership styles that there can be, [such as] the one that is likely to be needed right now given the current state of the service and the way the members are feeling."

Ball believes the new chief should come from outside the CPS.

Calgary police Chief Roger Chaffin announced in July his last day would be Jan. 6, 2019 (CBC)

"The fracture or the gap between the membership and the leadership is enormous," said Ball, who adds she doesn't understand the history but says trust is one of the things the new chief will have to rebuild.

She also says that based on her experience in oil and gas, when there is a major culture change, it's not just the CEO who needs to leave, but the entire top layer or two of management, in order for a true fresh start.

 She believes the same should happen at CPS.

"In this case, it may be that there is certain individuals that will be demonstrating a particular leadership style like command-and-control. But if others go along with it or they don't stand up to it, then they will condone that leadership style, and that's the hallmark of the current leadership, as a group."

She calls herself an experiment. In fact, she says, she never put up pictures, or photos or "nested" her office, because she feared her role would be short-lived.

She now hopes the next head of human resources is able to move further ahead with these reforms.

"If you want to heal a relationship you have to listen to how people are feeling and then do the best that you can to try to find some way to repair that relationship, so I only wish my replacement the absolute best."

"It's not an easy role, but the potential is enormous to make such a difference."

Ball says she will continue to try to support members outside the CPS in whatever way she can, whether it's one-on-one peer support or as a volunteer with CPS. 


Colleen Underwood has been a reporter/editor with CBC news for more than 10 years filing stories from across southern Alberta for radio, television and online. Follow her on Twitter @cbccolleen.


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