Steve Kanellakos – Managing Expectations

We spend the morning with Vaughan’s new city manager, Steve Kanellakos

It’s a brisk, windy morning in May as I make my way to the fourth floor of Vaughan’s City Hall to meet Steve Kanellakos, the new city manager. While it’s only been a week since he’s taken on the demanding position, Kanellakos, who wears a navy blue suit, walks me down a hallway and into his spacious office with a commanding, confident gait.

As I glance around, I notice a seating area with grey leather sofas, a flat-screen computer monitor propped up on a walnut-coloured desk and a plasma TV perched on top of a credenza. While observing, I say, “This is a really nice office, sir.” With a smile, Kanellakos shakes his head. “Please, don’t call me sir. Call me Steve. And you should have seen my office back in Ottawa,” he says, using his index finger to outline a space that is about a quarter of the size of his current workplace. “When I got here I couldn’t believe it. This is bigger than the condo I’ve rented.”

When your duties as city manager entail making sure that council’s decisions and policies be effectively implemented in a strategic and cost-effective manner, it’s no wonder why one needs the room to address the plethora of issues facing the growing city of Vaughan. Facilitating business, service and infrastructure development, as well as budgeting and providing strategic financial planning for projects within the city are just a few of the many responsibilities Kanellakos has after taking over the reins from interim city manager Barbara Cribbett.

On top of Kanellakos’s to-do list is familiarizing himself with his new working environment and staff, attending council meetings, sitting down with key individuals and getting up to speed on a city deemed the No. 1 municipality for investment in Ontario by Canadian Real Estate Wealth Magazine in 2014. A prescient individual, Kanellakos anticipated the flurry of information awaiting him at 2141 Major Mackenzie Dr. when he first accepted the position back in early February. “Lots of information was coming at me, it was like drinking from a fire hose,” he says. “But I’ve kind of thrown myself into it because I knew that I would have to.”

While the 30-year veteran in the municipal sector admits to the adjustment stage that comes with every job’s preliminary phase, Kanellakos, 56, isn’t fazed by the challenge of getting accustomed to a new city and the many issues associated with it. In fact, during his tenure as the deputy city manager of Ottawa from 2004 to early 2015, he earned a reputation for being able to handle more than one significant issue with superior problem-solving skills. Former coworkers corroborate his impact, describing him as a proficient multitasker. “He was everyone’s go-to guy,” said Ottawa mayor Jim Watson in a 2015 Ottawa Sun article. “If you had a problem, you sent Steve K. an email or a pin and the problem got solved.”

Optimistic about his new endeavour, Kanellakos describes how he is driven by the principle of teamwork to reach success. “Running a city is a team sport. It’s not about individuals. The one thing that attracted me to the job is that they [City of Vaughan] have great vision in terms of where they want to take the city. I believe that they have incredible plans and strategies.”

These plans include the completion of the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre, which Kanellakos admits is a “top priority,” and the construction of Mackenzie Vaughan hospital, to name a few. “I think what I’m going to bring to support the team is to put some prioritization around what we can actually achieve during this term of council with the resources that we have.”

During his tenure as deputy city manager of Ottawa, Kanellakos had many responsibilities, which primarily included overseeing community, social, emergency, protective, parks, recreation, culture, public works and transit services. A major initiative that Kanellakos was a part of was the “Housing First Model,” a funding decision with the goal to increase affordable housing options and end homelessness in Ottawa. Kanellakos says that the city’s strategy is proving hopeful as the number of people living on the street over the last few years has decreased from roughly 140-160 to 15-25 people per night. “You know what the key to that is? It’s that the city staff didn’t do that on their own — they had an incredible network of community agencies who they managed to facilitate and everybody saw the same vision of what we were trying to do.”

Kanellakos also feels that transportation has a significant effect on the economy. “If you don’t have a transportation network that allows people to get here easily and commute throughout the city and into other hubs that we need to draw labour from, you’re cutting yourself off from critical resources,” he explains. But the most important philosophy that Kanellakos has and one he keeps in mind in everything he does is fostering a culture of excellence. This principle is rooted in research within a 2012 political case study, published by the Queen’s Industrial Relations Centre, that Kanellakos was a part of. “I believe in a simple principle — that staff engagement drives citizen satisfaction which drives confidence and trust in your local government. I fundamentally believe that that can’t happen unless your employees are engaged and satisfied in the job that they’re doing and their organization.”

This strategy proved effective when Kanellakos was in Ottawa, as he cultivated many positive relationships there. Nancy Schepers, a former deputy city manager of Ottawa herself, worked with Kanellakos for over eight years. “He had a staff that was very loyal to him and had a lot of respect for him,” she says. “I saw, while working with him as a colleague, that he was very, very confident and very able to deliver, working well with staff and council.”

This commitment to fostering a culture of excellence dates back to the days when Kanellakos was working at his family’s diner. “I enjoyed the serving. I enjoyed people coming in and making them happy, you know, the social part of it.”

Even Kanellakos’s father and uncle expressed a desire to provide a good customer experience when they opened Mary’s Drive-In Restaurant in Ottawa’s south end in 1959. For the first couple of years, the diner was essentially open 24-7, Kanellakos’s father and his uncle taking turns sleeping on a cot in the back of the diner. “They never left the restaurant because they didn’t want to take a chance,” Kanellakos says. “They had to always be open, because they were so determined. My parents worked like dogs and never spent a penny to make sure we had everything.”

Kanellakos learned the value of money and hard work from his immigrant parents, who ensured that he and his sisters would have a good life. And throughout his professional career, Kanellakos remembers to apply these lessons to his profession. “Once someone does that for you, how can you not live your life being a person who wants to give back and help others? It’s instilled in you.”

Whether it was giving bacon and eggs to loyal patrons at his father’s restaurant, or implementing social and transit services in Ottawa, one thing is for certain: Kanellakos has devoted his life to serving others.

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Daniel Calabretta

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