Planning and investing to the end – and beyond (Guest Commentary)

An inside look at how the Canadian Wheat Board prepared staff, and the organization, for the end of its nearly 80-year monopoly on the selling of Prairie wheat
By Diane Wiesenthal
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/09/2012

Over the course of the Canadian Wheat Board’s (CWB) iconic history, there were two things you could always count on: Accolades and criticism.

Love it or hate it, the CWB — established by Parliament in 1935 — had deep roots of support and equally deep roots of controversy. The federal government stripped the board of its monopoly over Prairie wheat and barley sales in December 2011 when Bill C-18 received royal assent.

As with any company or organization, there is no certainty to the board’s future or clarity on what the future will bring. Therefore, planning for flexibility is critical in every business scenario that might befall any organization — from birth and growth to mergers and acquisitions to company closure which, unfortunately, is a harsh reality in the global economy.

Political controversy for the CWB began at the inception of its creation, more than 75 years ago. As political issues of the day peaked on and off over the years, they also spiked periodic anxiety for CWB employees. In more recent years, political relations between the federal government and the CWB worsened, and this resulted in significant organizational and employee stress.

Having said that, working relationships are now stable between Ottawa and the CWB, with both parties working collaboratively to support the changes in the grain marketing system.

However, before the dust settled, it became apparent the CWB needed to equip its people with a more proactive strategy to cope with political instability.

Regulatory change

The sheer magnitude of change to the Canadian grain industry will likely not be understood in its entirety or realized for the next several years, as the entire grain industry works to re-engineer itself.

In May 2011, at the time of the Conservative majority government election, the CWB was in the final stage of implementing its five-year “People Vision and Strategy.” The strategy overhauled the HR function, as well as started the transformation of its workforce, assisting the organization with business modernization.

However, with the Conservative majority in power, it was clear the federal government intended to fulfil its promise of removing the monopoly on wheat and barley held by the CWB in trust for the farmers of Western Canada.

As a result, final implementation on the last component of the people vision and strategy was halted and the impact of uncertain and unknown legislative changes quickly needed to be gauged. Prior to the election, the CWB employed about 430 staff and annual revenues of $6 billion to $8 billion were returned to farmers, less administrative costs.


Over the course of its history, the CWB won and survived more than 12 trade cases at the World Trade Organization (WTO), as well as numerous other historical challenges — such as the removal of oats from the monopoly in 1989. However, Bill C-18 was the final death sentence to the monopoly.

Consequently, the CWB was required to switch to windup preparations, seemingly overnight. At the same time, assessing how to build a new company with no physical assets (other than an office building) and how it was going to operate in a completely new marketing environment were on the agenda.

Certainly this was a challenge for management and staff alike, having spent considerable time building and transforming the organization to a “farmer-first”-centric organization and an award-winning top employer.

The CWB was consistently recognized as a leader in innovative HR programs where traditional HR programs were redesigned, re-engineered or reinvented. Necessity of rapid change meant the reluctance and denial felt by employees needed to be converted, as soon as possible, to acceptance and action.

Employees rallied around the only viable concept — “We started with excellence, we will end the old organization with excellence and we will build a new company with excellence.”

Our partner consulting firms, which have considerable bench-strength expertise, and other government institutions said the CWB windup and startup is the most complex and unique they had ever witnessed. Planning to end and planning to regrow a new company though a maze of thorny issues in uncharted territory have become part of the DNA at the CWB.

The plan

Long before legislative change was on the horizon, CWB’s goal was to leverage talent within the organization and build a fluid, flexible workforce to assist the organization with changing business requirements.

The people development strategy was focused on equipping employees with the skill and knowledge to take ownership of their own careers and chart their career paths — all while assisting the CWB in building a new business model. The CWB implemented a shared responsibility model whereby employees were required to invest some “sweat equity” — or personal time — and the CWB would support them in that goal.

With the assistance of our long-time consulting partners KWA Partners, the Career Compass program was launched. It’s a career development process that fosters the principle of career self-management. Instead of “sitting and waiting” for growth or development, participants are taught to take the initiative.

Under the program, the responsibility for career development shifts from the manager to the employee — the manager is a resource, not a problem solver. It encourages continual growth and development in any number of forms and downplays the notion development only means moving up.

A key component of Career Compass is to work with the leaders first so they understand and gain confidence in engaging in career conversations and supporting their employees’ career development.

The process for employees involves six steps:

self-assessment — identify skills, interests, personality and work preferences

• reality testing obtain feedback to validate strengths and weaknesses

• targeting — identify career opportunities within the organization

• researching — investigate options using a variety of resources

• action planning — set personalized objectives/actions to achieve career goals

• sustaining the plan — overcome roadblocks to reach career goals.

The one-to-one coaching sessions with consultants from KWA Partners were seen by participants as a valuable means to personalize the experience. As with any successful people initiative, the understanding and commitment at the most senior levels needs to be there — and the CWB embraced that concept to the core.

Senior management took turns with opening remarks to support the program, and they shared personal career development stories that both inspired and engaged participants. Word of mouth spread quickly on the value of the program and the waiting list of employees quickly exceeded capacity.

The reward for the CWB was witnessing and benefitting from people transformation, that occurred even at professional and managerial levels at the organization. This process fostered a significant shift in thinking for managers and employees. People performed at a higher level, became more interested in their work and expanded their knowledge of the business. Career Compass became a key transition strategy for the organization.

At the same time, the CWB began building jobs around people’s strengths and eliminating traditional job descriptions. The new model was one where annual goals and objectives assigned to employees were the new annual job requirements, and these were directly aligned to the corporate strategic plan and linked to pay for performance.

“Talent Tracks” — a new compensation model — was born. It aligned employee scope of accountability and responsibility to market pay benchmarks.

Back in the fall of 2011, there was a growing sense the organization would not survive in its current state and the leadership team determined it wanted to assist employees in gaining a sense of control of their future and to start thinking of their careers beyond the CWB. This was an interesting challenge as people didn’t really know if or when their employment would be impacted — and it was months before that could be known.

A unique solution was developed with the support of KWA Partners. It offered programs that moved people along the career transition path, while still allowing them to be fully engaged in their work at the CWB. As the board’s future came into focus, KWA Partners taught employees about current job search techniques and provided practical advice on interviewing skills and how to prepare resumés.

During this time of transition, we saw employees’ confidence about their future grow — and their commitment to service excellence for the farmers and for the CWB never wavered.

By the time the legislation changed in late December 2011, the development work that had been completed — along with the creation of a comprehensive transition plan — was in place. The only thing left to do was to “flip the switch” to implement a comprehensive employee and manager transitional change management support program. Of course, there is also the matter of the massive windup and transition of employees, pensions and retirement benefit plans — but that is another story altogether.

Diane Wiesenthal is vice-president of people and organizational services at the Canadian Wheat Board in Winnipeg. Eileen Kirton, a vice-president at KWA Partners (in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, a division of People First HR), also contributed to this article.

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